The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats might lose the House because they didn’t embrace gerrymandering

A faction of the party favors good government even if it costs them politically

Demonstrators protest gerrymandering at a rally at the Supreme Court. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

For several months, a number of prominent Democrats have been complaining about redistricting — not just that Republicans are gerrymandering some states to their advantage, but that Democrats could have done this and declined to do so. Specifically, a few states with Democratic-majority governments recently switched from legislature-run partisan redistricting to nonpartisan citizen-redistricting committees. Had these states not embraced such reforms, they probably would be drawing districts more favorable to Democratic House members this year.

According to Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Report, the combination of five blue states — California, Colorado, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington — moving to such nonpartisan commissions will cost House Democrats 10-15 seats they otherwise would have won. And yes, it’s certainly possible Republicans will take control of the House next year by fewer seats than that.

Many Democrats are kicking themselves and their party over this. “We’re [expletive] idiots,” said one lawmaker in Colorado, where a Democratic-supported nonpartisan redistricting commission recommended a new House seat be carved out of the purple Denver suburbs. The state’s seven House seats are currently held by four Democrats and three Republicans. “This looks like a 4-3-1 map in a state that went for Biden by 13.5 [points],” a Democratic Colorado consultant remarked. “That’s not a good result for Democrats.”

So what happened? Did Democrats just misjudge the political terrain? It’s not quite that simple.

Redistricting reform is best thought of as part of a large package of Progressive tools for good government. Here, I am using the early 20th century concept of Progressivism. This was a movement and a political party devoted to professionalization and dispassionate management of government. It included some reforms such as initiatives, referendums and recalls in many states, as well as making many local elections nonpartisan and requiring voter registration. Term limits were a later adaptation of Progressivism, seen as limiting corruption of long-term incumbents, as was campaign finance reform, seen as reducing the influence of wealthy interests on government.

The Progressive movement left a complex legacy. In some ways, it improved government and made it more professional. Yet it also led to lower voter participation in some cases and limited ways voters could understand their political system.

Importantly, early 20th century Progressivism was, for a time, its own party, but often aligned with Republicans. Many of the first Progressive leaders — including President Teddy Roosevelt, California Gov. Hiram Johnson, and Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette — spent much of their careers as Republicans. Indeed, the early 20th century Republican Party was deeply split between Progressive Republicans, advocating for good-government reforms, and Standpat (or more conservative) Republicans.

With time, however, the Progressive spirit became more associated with the Democratic Party. Franklin D. Roosevelt championed some of its causes, and Progressive-style political reforms of the 1970s, including campaign finance reform and some other good-government initiatives, were largely pushed by Democrats as a response to President Richard Nixon’s lawlessness.

By the beginning of the 21st century, only a handful of Republicans could still be seen as Progressive-style reformers. These included people such as Sen. John McCain, who aligned with Democrats on campaign finance reform and made a lot of enemies within his own party in doing so, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has advocated clean campaigns and redistricting reforms and is hardly in sync with most modern Republicans.

All this is to say that there is a substantial political movement that very much believes in and advocates for “clean” government and campaigns — with limited influence of money and special interests, fair redistricting processes, professional management of government, etc. — and is willing to advocate for it even when it hurts their own party. They believe in good government as a goal in itself, rather than as a means to advancing some range of policies or electing a team.

This movement is overwhelmingly aligned with Democrats today. There simply aren’t many Republicans who make these arguments. Note, for example, the remarks by Colorado Common Cause leader Amanda Gonzalez, who defended the latest redistricting trends: “By taking the process out of the hands of politicians, I’m sure it frustrates some people in power. But I think it’s a process that’s much more trusted by the average Coloradan. I think that’s ultimately a good thing.” And Kelly Ward, former director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said simply that Democrats “don’t have to cheat to win.”

Democrats and Republicans thus go into a redistricting cycle with different sets of goals. For the most part, Republicans seek to obtain more seats for their party. Some Democrats want this for their party as well, but they’re at odds with this Progressive faction that believes in nonpartisan redistricting as a worthy goal.

Did Democrats “unilaterally disarm” on redistricting this year, as some of their distractors suggest? Did they make a massive miscalculation? Well, to some extent, yes — embracing nonpartisan redistricting will cost them some seats and quite possibly control of the House and several state legislatures. But there’s a much longer historical picture in play here; this Progressive spirit is now baked into the Democratic coalition and its belief system, and can’t easily be abandoned.

In their bookHow Democracies Die,” political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt speak of the concept of forbearance. The idea is that, to protect the norms and traditions that keep a democracy running, a party chooses not to do everything within its power to win. This choice is a healthy part of a democracy. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court appointment during Obama’s final year in office is a textbook example of violating forbearance. Arguably, excessive gerrymandering to eke out more seats to take control of the House is a similar violation.

Both parties could find some sort of workable solution if they see themselves locked in a partisan war. But at least on gerrymandering, that’s not what’s going on. This is far more one-sided. Democrats are certainly capable of hardball partisan politics, just as Republicans are, but the Progressive movement that used to constrain those efforts just isn’t much present on the Republican side these days.

This would be one thing if it were limited to redistricting. However, given ongoing threats to American democracy and the blatant coup that President Donald Trump organized in his final days in office, it is especially concerning that the functioning of democratic government is increasingly becoming a partisan issue.