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Chait: GOP Assault on Majority Rule Has Long History

In his New York Magazine article, "Who Needs to Win to Win? Can a party rule by capturing most of the country but less than half of the people? We might be about to find out," Jonathan Chait sheds light on the history, motivation and the crippling power of gerrymandering and rigging the electoral college as Republican strategies.

The Republicans faced what appeared to be just two choices as a result of the November 2012 elections, says Chait: "Change or continue to lose." However,

Since the New Year, though, a third possibility has emerged. What if Republicans don't compromise with public opinion, but also don't lose?

A glimpse of such a future came slowly into view in the weeks following the election, when Republican legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio floated, with varying levels of commitment, a plan to rig the Electoral College. Each of those states voted for Obama, yet Republicans controlled each of their state governments. The plan would entail allocating the electoral vote in each state not in a lump sum to the candidate who gets more votes, but piecemeal, to the winner of each congressional district.

As it happens, Republicans in those states had already stacked the congressional districts in their party's favor, so that roughly two thirds of the districts supported Mitt Romney in the last election even though all the states went for Obama. Allocating blue-state electors by congressional district would hand the GOP a massive advantage in the presidential election. Had those states allocated electors this way in 2012, Wisconsin, where Obama won by 7 percent, would have split its electoral votes 5-5. Michigan, which Obama carried with 54 percent of the vote, would have given Romney nine of its sixteen electoral votes. Romney would have needed only to flip his razor-thin loss in Florida to win the presidency despite losing the national vote by four percentage points.

Chait quotes RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder commenting favorable on the scheme. Chait adds "That a party would even contemplate such a blatant scheme to rig the rules so that it might win elections, when any remotely fair standard dictates it ought to lose, boggles the mind."

He acknowledges that electoral manipulations have a long and sordid history in the U.S. -- "a durable American political tradition of skepticism of democracy," and adds,

The Constitution itself was a compromise between advocates of majority rule and interests like slave-owners and small-state residents who demanded disproportionate representation. When we consider the dire position of the Republican Party--which, since November, has sunk even lower in opinion polls--we automatically equate political power with majority approval. The two things are not the same, and the discrepancy helps explain why the party, even in its reviled standing and without additional vote-rigging schemes, is in a better position than you might think.

...One oddity of the current moment, though, is that even as Democrats steadily built a natural majority, the geographic scope of their appeal has sharply constricted. In his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton won 1,524 counties nationwide. Obama's reelection managed to win just 690--fewer than even Jimmy Carter (900) and Michael Dukakis (819) managed in their landslide defeats. Democrats have won the loyalties of a larger share of the voters, but their voters occupy a progressively smaller share of the land. And in our political system, occupying land matters.

Normally, explains Chait, the U.S. Senate is the bastion for for protecting the privilege of the few against the many and the interests of rural voters against those of "urban" voters. But things have gotten skewed by tea party lunacy in recent years:

...Republicans have thrown away easily winnable races in states like Delaware, Nevada, Indiana, and Missouri by nominating oddballs or cranks when perfectly loyal, more palatable Republicans were available. Democrats, meanwhile, have managed to hold seats in deep-red states only by carefully husbanding the political capital of their members. If liberals attempted to impose anything close to the sort of partisan discipline on their Senate candidates that tea-party activists deploy against Republicans, the GOP might have a filibuster-proof majority.

Chait notes the daunting uphill struggle facing Dems in 2014 Senate races, "defending seats in deep-red states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, South Dakota, and several others." As for the House,

...Democrats waste many more votes, because many of their voters are packed into urban districts with huge Democratic majorities. In the 2012 elections, the Republicans comfortably held the House even though Democratic House candidates collected more than a million more votes than Republican House candidates. And since Republicans control so many statehouses, they've been able to rig the districts to further solidify their advantage. Democrats have the voters, but Republicans have the geography.

As a result, "...even Democratic-­leaning ones [states] like Pennsylvania and Michigan sent staunchly Republican delegations to the House this year (13-5 and 9-5, respectively." Ans prospects for change in the House are not encouraging at the moment:

...Republicans have a mortal lock on the House. Surely losing the House would not be impossible. But the current standard of behavior--holding the economy hostage, screaming at the president during an address to Congress, voting for the Paul Ryan budget--did not come close to doing the trick last fall, and it's hard to imagine what would...

Electoral college rigging, gerrymandering and voter suppression reforms and practices and filibuster abuse are all part of the same Republican grand strategy, argues Chait. But he adds, of all the GOP strategies, "the most potent may ultimately be the concerted operation by legal conservatives to turn the courts into a machine for judicial activism." With respect to the Affordable Care Act, for example, "The Supreme Court barely upheld Obamacare while opening the door to strike down sundry taxes, spending, and regulations that conservatives can't stop in Congress."

Chait reviews the history of the high court as a force for obstructing the expansion of democracy, as well as supporting it, and notes, "The tradition of expanding the scope of American democracy commands all the retrospective historical glory. But the counter-democratic tradition--a concerted advocacy not of dictatorship but of restraints to prevent the majority of citizens from exercising political power--runs just as long and deep."

He concludes with this observation about the irony of the current political moment: "It seems peculiar, though perhaps not bewildering, that the pendulum should swing back, not forward, during--of all times!--the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama."

It adds up to a grim picture of current political reality. It appears that the Democrats' best hope for thwarting the Republican assault on democracy are upset wins in 2014 in the contests for control of the House and Senate, driven by deployment of the tools for voter turnout that were so successful in 2012.