Pundits struggle to decide whether Trump's rise represents something new in the United States or whether it is a continuation of the growing anti-democratic politics of the Republican Party. As a card-carrying Libra, I'm going to suggest it was both.
If yesterday's letter was about how Trump's turn to authoritarianism is unprecedented among major party political leaders, tonight's is about how the Republican Party prepared the way for this moment in part by rigging the system through gerrymandering so that their politicians no longer need to appeal to voters. Those extreme gerrymanders threaten to skew the 2024 election and are contributing to the Republican Party's inability to perform the most basic functions of government.
Gerrymandering is the process of drawing legislative districts to favor a political party. The practice was named for Elbridge Gerry, an early governor of Massachusetts who signed off on such a scheme (even though he didn't like it). Political parties can gain an advantage in elections by either "packing" or "cracking" their opponents' voters. Packing means stuffing the opposition party's voters into districts so their votes are not distributed more widely; cracking means dividing opponents' voters among multiple districts so there are too few of them in any district to have a chance of winning.
The Constitution requires the government to take a census every ten years to see where people have moved, enabling the government to draw districts that should allow us to elect politicians that represent us. Political operatives have always carved up maps to serve themselves when they could, but today's computers allow them to draw maps with surgical precision.
That created a big change in 2010. Before that midterm election, hoping to hamstring President Barack Obama's ability to accomplish anything by making sure he had a hostile Congress, Republican operatives raised money from corporate donors to swamp state elections with ads and campaign literature to elect Republicans to state legislatures. This Operation REDMAP, which stood for Redistricting Majority Project, was a plan to take control of state houses across the country so that Republicans would control the redistricting maps put in place after the 2010 census.
It worked. After the 2010 election, Republicans controlled the legislatures in the key states of Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as other, smaller states, and they redrew congressional maps using precise computer models. In the 2012 election, Democrats won the White House decisively, the Senate easily, and a majority of 1.4 million votes for House candidates. And yet Republicans came away with a thirty-three-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
The results of that effort are playing out today.
In Wisconsin the electoral districts are so gerrymandered that although the state's population is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans control nearly two thirds of the seats in the legislature and it is virtually impossible for Democrats ever to win control of the state legislature. In April, voters elected Janet Protasiewicz to the state supreme court by an astonishing margin of 11 points, in part thanks to her promise to reject the extreme gerrymandered maps.
Protasiewicz's election shifted the court majority away from the Republicans. Even before she was elected, one Republican senator suggested impeaching her, and now, because she has called the district maps "rigged" and said, "I don't think you could sell to any reasonable person that the maps are fair," Republicans are calling for her impeachment before she has even heard a case. (After saying the maps were rigged, she added: "I can't ever tell you what I'm going to do on a particular case, but I can tell you my values, and common sense tells you that it's wrong.")
Voters are also evenly split in North Carolina—illustrated by the fact that a statewide race elected Democrat Roy Cooper as governor—but there, too, gerrymandering has rigged the maps for the Republicans. After a Democrat switched sides to give the Republicans a veto-proof majority in both houses of the legislature, the House of Representatives last week passed laws taking away the governor's power to make appointments to state and local election boards and removing the tiebreaker seat the governor appointed to the state board.
Instead, the legislature has taken over the right to make those appointments itself, meaning that election rules could become entirely partisan. At the same time, the legislature exempted its legislators from complying with the state open-records law that requires redistricting documents be public.
In Ohio, almost 75% of voters agreed to amend the state constitution in 2018 to prohibit political gerrymanders. Nonetheless, when the Republican-dominated legislature drew district maps in 2021, they gave a strong advantage to Republicans. The state supreme court struck the maps down as unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court permitted them to stay in place for the 2022 election. The court will now revisit the question, but it has moved further to the right since 2022.
In Alabama, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that the maps in place in 2022 were likely unconstitutional and must be redrawn to include a second majority-Black district. But when the state legislature drew a new map the next month, it defied the court. The court was shocked at the refusal to comply, and appointed a special master, who today offered three options. Any of them would offer the Democrats a chance to pick up another seat, and the state is challenging the new maps.
Tennessee shows what gerrymandering does at the state level. There, Republicans tend to get about 60% of the votes but control 76% of the seats in the House and 82% of the seats in the Senate. This supermajority means that the Republicans can legislate as they wish.
Gerrymandered seats mean that politicians do not have to answer to constituents; their purpose is to raise money and fire up true believers. Although more than 70% of Tennessee residents want gun safety legislation, for example, Republican legislators, who are certain to win in their gerrymandered districts, can safely ignore them.
Tennessee shows the effects of gerrymandering at the national level as well. Although Republican congressional candidates in Tennessee get about 65% of the vote, they control 89% of Tennessee's congressional delegation. In the elections of 2022, Florida, Alabama, and Ohio all used maps that courts have thrown out for having rigged the system to favor Republicans. The use of those unfair maps highlights that the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives by only the slimmest of margins and explains why Republicans are determined to keep their gerrymanders.
Because their seats are safe, Republicans do not have to send particularly skilled politicians to Congress; they can send those whose roles are to raise money and push Republican ideology. That likely explains at least a part of why House Republicans are no closer to agreeing on a deal to fund the government than they have been for the past several months, even as the deadline is racing toward us, and why they are instead going to hold an impeachment hearing concerning President Joe Biden on Thursday.
Michigan was one of the Operation REDMAP states, redistricted after the 2010 election into an extreme gerrymander designed by Republicans who bragged about stuffing "Dem garbage" into four districts so that Republicans would, as one said, stay in power for years. In 2016 a Michigan woman, Katie Fahey, started a movement to get rid of the partisan maps. In 2018, despite a Republican lawsuit to stop them, they successfully placed an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission on the ballot. It passed overwhelmingly.
After the 2020 census the commission's new maps still slightly favored Republicans because of the state's demographic distribution—Democrats are concentrated in cities—but the parties were competitive. In 2022, Democrats took control of the state government, winning the House for the first time since 2008.
On Operation REDMAP, see David Daley, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy (New York: Liveright, 2016).
Q. What is the difference between a law-abiding gun owner and a criminal?
A. The .2 of a second that it takes to pull a trigger.