Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University and a Fellow at New America. His most recent book is “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.”
The House of Representatives has been a bulwark for conservatism in the age of Obama. Even though Democrats hoped that the 2008 election marked a new era in progressive politics, the predictions were wrong. Just as Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans in Congress teamed up against Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, since the 2010 midterm elections rightward House Republicans, secure in their seats, have blocked President Obama on almost all of his legislative agenda. The GOP has turned congressional obstructionism into an art form.
During Obama’s presidency, Republicans retook control of the House in 2010 and increased the size of their majority from 242 to 247. Even if Republicans suffer a landslide defeat in 2016 with Donald Trump at the top of their ticket, most experts predict that they will retain control of the House. Whatever national polls say about Obama or the GOP, Republican lawmakers are relatively safe in their seats. And as long as Republicans have a lock on the House, party polarization will continue in the years to come, since House Republicans will have no reason to compromise with a Democratic president or even more moderate voices within their own party.
How do conservative Republicans maintain so much power in the House, even though Americans reelected a liberal president and polls show that the GOP suffers from high disapproval ratings?
Salon editor David Daley’s punchy, though overstated, new book lays the blame for Republican power in the House on partisan gerrymandering, the byzantine process through which state legislatures draw district lines to favor incumbents from one party. Challenging the claim that increased partisan polarization is a result of voters naturally sorting themselves into red and blue states, Daley argues that a group of operatives in the Republican Party did the sorting for them. The GOP poured money into an unprecedented effort to control governorships and state legislative bodies in 2010 and to then redraw congressional districts so that the party could turn the House into a firewall against the Democrats.
While the term “gerrymander” has been around since the early years of the republic, computer technology and big money have allowed governors and legislatures to perfect the process in ways that have never before been imagined, according to Daley. The same technology that allows Amazon to figure out who buys what in any home on a given block now allows party officials to do the same with elections.
Although his argument might not be as sexy as talking about how money corrupts politics or how the 24-hour news media leaves us all screaming, the success of Republican legislatures and governors at redrawing congressional districts is the reason, he says, House Republican incumbents have increased their power and don’t have to worry about any “wave” election that would shift control to the other party. The result is that House Republicans have become more dug into their opposition to every presidential initiative, playing to their very red districts, and there is nothing but gridlock on Capitol Hill. Bipartisan deals are impossible, and the chances for good governance have disappeared. Indeed, Republicans have been so successful that they have created an unanticipated problem: GOP incumbents now have to worry about primary challenges from tea party Republicans who want to move even further to the right.
Daley takes us through the story of how this all happened. Once Obama was in the White House, a group of wily Republicans doubled down on state and local politics. Chris Jankowski, a tactician for the Republican State Leadership Committee, and his allies came up with an audacious plan to target campaign money toward gaining control of state governments, where reapportionment would take place. The operation, called REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project), was never a secret. Karl Rove outlined what they planned to do in the Wall Street Journal.
In a local race in Pennsylvania in 2010, Democrat David Levdansky, a 13-term state representative, found himself under assault. He faced a barrage of advertising, financed by national Republican organizations, claiming in misleading television spots and mailers that he had voted to spend $600 million on a library in honor of Arlen Specter, the controversial U.S. senator who had left the Republicans to join the Democrats. This didn’t sit well with constituents in a recession. He paid the price: Republican Rick Saccone narrowly defeated him. “The f---ing Arlen Specter library,” Levdansky recalled after he lost. Once national Republicans flipped his seat, they gained control of the state’s lower chamber.
The first stage of the plan worked beautifully. Republicans won majorities in 10 out of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts.
With control of many state governments in place, Republicans launched the second phase. Using sophisticated software such as Maptitude, GOP operatives crafted favorable districts filled with conservative white voters, based on the kind of data available to corporations. The book is brimming with fascinating portraits of wunderkinds who integrated micro-targeting, computer mapmaking and gerrymandering. Democrats were clustered into a handful of districts while the rest were packed with conservative voters.
Daley shows how, even when reforms promised to make the redistricting process more public, behind the scenes, crafty operatives did what they wanted.
Titled “Ratf**ked,” a term that came out of the Richard Nixon administration to refer to “a dirty deed done dirt cheap,” Daley’s book provides a blow-by-blow account of how this happened. He draws on investigative reports, interviews and court documents to give readers an eye-opening tour of a process that many Americans never see. Not unlike the legislative process, which is often compared to the ugliness of making sausage, redistricting is an element of democracy that many readers won’t find comforting.
Much of Daley’s book will not come as a surprise. Journalists and scholars have written about this state-based mobilization by the Republican Party since it started.
Nor is Daley the first liberal commentator to point to the political process as the reason conservatism succeeded in a given period. During the 1950s and 1960s, a generation of liberals argued that the seniority-based congressional committee system propped up a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans that prevented liberal Democratic presidents from moving their legislation through Congress. Back then, the problem was gerrymandered districts that privileged rural voters over urban voters, a situation that ended with the Supreme Court’s one-man-one-vote decisions between 1962 and 1964. Liberal Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania blasted his colleagues as the “Sapless Branch” of government.
But was the partisan gerrymandering as powerful as Daley claims?
Sometimes reformers have overestimated the impact that changes in the political process can have. This is a particularly important reminder in the current campaign season, when the demand for reform looms large in the electorate. For example, there is substantial evidence showing that, contrary to conventional wisdom, gerrymandering is not a main source of partisan polarization. This is evident from the fact that the Senate — where districting is irrelevant — has also become more partisan, while in one-district states such as Wyoming and Vermont, we have seen a similar shift to the extremes.
Nor does a focus on how Republicans dominated through gerrymandering explain why Democrats were not able to fight back. This seems to be the pivotal question, especially in recent years when Democrats experienced dramatic victories in the presidential elections. It is not as if Democrats don’t know how to slice and dice the electorate. The most legendary practitioner of the gerrymander in modern times was California Democrat Phillip Burton, who worked with legislators to redraw the districts in his state to solidify the control of his party. “My contribution to modern art,” Burton half-joked.
Daley presents this failure of Democrats to stop the Republican campaign to take control of state legislatures and draw districts that would protect their incumbents as a product of strategic blunders and miscalculations by Democratic leaders. But the problems created by gerrymandering are symptomatic of larger challenges facing the parties. Daley should have looked more deeply into what’s going on with the Democrats as a national organization that caused them to allow Republicans to gain so much power in state politics. Why did Republican ideas gain a stronger hold in the electorates of the states that flipped to the GOP? What did the reconfiguration of campaign finance in the 1970s and 1980s, with business increasingly mobilizing behind the GOP, have to do with the party’s ability to influence races? Why do more voters seem to prefer Republicans in House races, an advantage the GOP has enjoyed since the early 1990s?
History shows that grass-roots partisan mobilization can overcome gerrymandering. In 2006, when gerrymandering was pretty strong, Democrats enjoyed a watershed in the midterm elections. And in 2010, the districts were pretty locked in when Republicans retook control of Congress, as they did in 1994.
Predicting the political impact of reform is also a tricky business. During the 1970s, liberal Democrats blew open the congressional committee system that had been in place for much of the 20th century, only to later see conservative Republicans such as Newt Gingrich thrive.
What Daley makes clear is that ruthless partisan gerrymandering is not good for democracy and makes it that much more difficult to wrestle control of the House away from the GOP.
Democrats should read this book. Political parties still have to build their national power from the bottom up. Without the Democrats investing resources in the nitty-gritty of state politics, if Hillary Clinton is able to win the presidency in November, she will probably face a Republican House that is hell-bent on stopping her and unlikely to give her any significant domestic victories.
By David Daley
Liveright. 257 pp. $26.95