I wrote the lions’ share of this piece for the Times shortly after the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms. I absolutely shattered the word limit and the opinion page had just published something in the same neighborhood, so this didn’t go anywhere — though I did recycle a few passages for the final section of “The Density Divide.” The foofaraw around the filibuster brought this to mind and it still felt relevant when I looked it over. It’s been a pretty challenging week and it’s probably going to take at least one more to get everything squared away and settle into a consistent, keyboard-shredding high-output groove. So, in the interest of closing out Model Citizen’s first week having delivered something close to the level of content I’ve promised, I’ve dusted off this piece and cosmetically updated it so that it more or less makes sense now. I don’t think I’d make the argument in quite the same way today, but I reckon it’s still pretty sound. Anyway, I’d love to hear what you think about it. Enjoy! And thanks a gazillion for being here.
Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress — barely. It’s nice, but it won’t last long if they fail to unify and exploit their window of power to revitalize voters’ rights, mandate fairer elections, and make our system more representative of the American people and less prone to truculent, self-reinforcing minority rule.
Weary of repeatedly seizing defeat from the jaws of victory, many Democrats demand that their party take a page from the GOP’s “Fuck you, I win” playbook and play retaliatory hardball. David Faris, author of It’s Time to Play Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, implores his comrades to “stop bringing pistols to the nuclear war” and prepare “to mimic their tormentors by … unleashing [a] dizzying array of electoral and institutional reforms when [we] recapture total power.”
This may sound exciting to outraged Democrats, but their best-case outcome from smashmouth electoral tit-for-tat isn’t a golden age of enduring Democratic rule; it’s a more moderate and inclusive Republican Party. But that’s what makes it worth doing—and doing right. Democratic electoral hardball could de-Trumpify the GOP and set America’s collapsing, polarized democracy on a steadier, more equitable footing.
The tantalizing array of reforms set out by Democrats like Mr. Faris includes (in rising order of subjective “dirtiness”) automatic voter registration, holiday voting, indexing the size of House districts to the population of the least populous state, statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, packing the Supreme Court with new liberal justices, and splitting California into seven states.
Even if this entire list were improbably conjured into reality, the odds are slim that it would lock in the “lasting majority” Democrats crave. The full dirty fury of a “nuclear” reform agenda can blast Democratic majorities into the commanding heights for an election cycle or two, but Republicans won’t simply retire from the field. If the GOP can’t win under fair rules, and doesn’t therefore become the political arm of a violent rebel insurgency animated by entitled rage, they’ll eventually regroup under the banner of a more multicultural, ideologically temperate GOP capable of winning elections without a disenfranchising firewall.
That’s the compelling non-partisan argument for Democrat-led electoral reform: extreme measures to bring the electoral playing field closer to plumb would force Republicans to vie for votes inside the outer suburbs—to win the allegiance of lettered urban professionals and city-dwelling conservative voters of color—which would depolarize our politics and fortify the republic. That it is currently impossible to imagine the GOP tacking toward moderation is exactly why it’s so urgently necessary to obliterate its ability to maintain power with a shrinking, embittered ethnoculturally homogenous minority.
Success will be elusive, however, if the forbidding nature of the challenge isn’t perfectly clear. America’s two-party system is now split relatively cleanly along the lines of population density and diversity. Republicans draw support primarily from white voters in outer suburbs and small towns, while Democrats mainly rely on America’s diverse, city-dwelling majority. In these conditions, the constitutionally baked-in overrepresentation of sparsely populated states lends Republicans an enormous structural advantage. The GOP doesn’t need to rig the rules to win with a national minority, because the “city on a hill” isn’t exactly on the level.
America’s federal system has a strong small-state bias. Every state, no matter its population, gets two senators and a minimum of three Electoral College votes and at least one member of the House. As America’s population continues to concentrate in highly urbanized states, this bias grows worse.
Across the 31 states in which voters register by party, there are 12 million fewer Republicans than Democrats, and Republicans outnumber them in only 12 of those states. Looking at the American voting-age public more broadly, a Pew Research Center study estimates that 50% of registered voters identify or lean Democratic, while 42% self-identity or tilt Republican. This gap suggests a Democratic advantage on the order of 18 million registered voters—enough to populate five states the size of Iowa. Nevertheless, the Republican Party has managed to hold power nationally with a shrinking minority of the voting-age public.
This is possible because, atop their formidable structural advantage, the GOP has erected an imposing fortification—a great anti-majoritarian firewall built from aggressively gerrymandered legislative districts, voter-ID laws, voter-roll purges, felon disenfranchisement, opportunistic Census apportionment rules, packed state supreme courts, last-minute ballot rewrites, and more—which combine to keep Democrats from reliably cashing in on their superior numbers. The addition of three new zealously conservative Supreme Court justices threatens to line the firewall with razor-wire.
As radical as some of the proposals for Democratic electoral hardball may strike many of us, their combined effect would only partially offset the effects of the constitution’s deep anti-urban bias. Indeed, it’s not even possible for Democrats to faithfully “mimic their tormentors,” because there is no feasible path to the disproportionate electoral leverage Republicans use to exact their torment.
Packing the Supreme Court and adding a half-dozen initially Democratic-majority states can’t stack the deck for Democrats in the way it’s currently stacked for Republicans. No politically viable reform proposal goes beyond PG-13 levels of “dirty,” because anything legally do-able must work its way through the legal status quo, which is, from the standpoint of basic democratic equality, pornographically dirty.
Democrats have, at best, a fighting chance that their surplus of voters, many of whom have been impoverished and demoralized by the depredations of under-representation, will rise up in self-defense and mount a charge, uphill, through the obstacle course, over the razor wire, and into power. Unified control of government and a flurry of reforms that favor Democrats in the short run can make our electoral institutions more proportional and more representative, but it can’t get us all the way to fair.
Achieving even this much is a daunting task. Adding a handful of heavily urbanized, majority-minority states feels dirty. Adding justices to the Supreme Court to better reflect what it’s composition would be in a less thoroughly rigged system feels nuclear. But why should it when our system is so demonstrably unfair?
In addition to placing a pro-Republican thumb on the official scales, the anti-urban bias of our revered founding document underwrites the widespread, deep-seated cultural myth that “real Americans” dwell on the fruited plain, constitute the backbone of American economic and civic life, and therefore deserve the disproportionate representation they receive in our federal scheme.
Republicans don’t need their firewall to win, but they do need it to win as the party of pastoral supremacy in a city-powered republic James Madison could never have foreseen. But this Republican Party, defined by seething hostility to the urban multicultural majority—contemporary America’s true economic and civic spine—is tearing our nation apart.
By creating a buffer that frees the GOP to ignore the interests of urban voters and cater exclusively to its shrinking, white, suburban and rural base, the Republican firewall has intensified the geographic segregation of the electorate, eliminating both literal and figurative common ground. As the ethnic and cultural contrasts of partisan identity have sharpened, the political payoff to moderation, conciliation, and compromise has weakened, breeding the conditions for government dysfunction and mutual contempt that enabled Donald Trump’s ethno-nationalist populism to capture the Republican Party and conquer the White House.
In a fair fight, it’s smart strategy to meet aggression with aggression. When hawks attack, doves get eaten. But this isn’t a fair fight. In our rigged system, the Republican hawk amounts to a fire-breathing dragon, and hawkish partisan retaliation will just get Democrats torched. Therefore, Democrats should play neither hawk nor dove, but eagle in a star-spangled offensive for democracy; for the republican equality of citizens; for the depolarization of our politics, the reunification of the American people, and the restoration of healthy civic life.
Fairer elections will help Democrats and hurt Republicans in the short term, and it’s important to be completely transparent about that. But the fight to make America safe for democracy is a fight for the moderation, not the lasting rout of the GOP. That should be emphasized, too. Firewall-defending Republicans cannot so easily cast a campaign for basic political equality and desegregating partisan realignment under more equitable electoral rules as an infamous bid for narrow partisan advantage without revealing themselves as fake patriots—a dragon in eagle drag—waging war on the America idea.
Trump did us the favor of clarifying once and for all that the myth of pastoral supremacy is little more than a soft-focus version of the populist demagogue’s poisonous division of the citizenry into a native “us” and invasive “them.” He made the firewall vulnerable by exposing the wicked seed of division and domination in the myth that props it up.
Pressing this advantage means taking the high ground, standing on principle, and making a full-throated, patriotic case for reform, all while judiciously picking the fights least easily drawn into the partisan muck. This doesn’t mean avoiding proposals that would clearly benefit Democrats. It means joining the battles that highlight the human costs of rigged elections and systemic underrepresentation, and that weaken the moral position of minority-rule Republicans with every fight.
Consider the proposal to add Democratic-majority states to the union. Puerto Ricans, lacking the representation conferred by statehood, could not lay claim to urgently needed public resources after Hurricane Maria, leading directly to the needless death of thousands of American citizens. That’s monstrous, and Republicans will make themselves look like monsters if they try to justify it on partisan grounds. If Puerto Ricans want statehood, Democrats should fight for it, tooth and nail. However, encroaching on the partisan neutrality of the District of Columbia, the federal seat of government, is a trickier business better delayed until Democrats have already strengthened their hand.
Likewise, a hardball agenda including a proposal to partition California, while both legally kosher and eminently defensible, would smack of partisan opportunism and invite fierce resistance to affiliated measures easier to defend in non-partisan terms. Similar reasoning applies to the proposal to stock the Supreme Court to neutralize Trump’s arguably illicit picks, which would immediately—and counterproductively—embroil the nation in acrimonious relitigation of the 2016 election.
However, a big democracy restoration bill ought to be a slam dunk. Legislatively establishing robust voter rights that require state-run elections to secure our constitutional right to “equal protection of the laws” by meeting strict standards for voter registration, ballot access, and fair proportionality in representation cannot be dismissed by Republicans as a sinister partisan power play without forcing pointed questions about their loyalty to a nation founded on the ideals liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty.
Expanding the House by adopting the “Wyoming rule” for the apportionment of seats, limiting gerrymandering, prohibiting felon disenfranchisement and other racially discriminatory state voting rules are likewise pure expressions of basic democratic principles, and would go a long way to dismantling the GOP’s anti-majoritarian firewall. Democrats should get cracking on practical, detailed legislative proposals. Moreover, Democrat-majority states should seek to establish new public norms of fair representation by experimenting with multi-member house districts and ranked-choice-voting, and should ramp up efforts to explore legal options for aligning Electoral College outcomes with the popular vote in presidential elections.
The idea that the ultimate payoff to democratic reform would be healing partisan realignment and a competitive Republican Party less reliant on disenfranchisement and more responsive to the interests of the broader American public may not be thrilling to Democratic diehards.
But they should keep in mind that a two-party democracy is a dynamic game of partisan turn-taking, and success in the long-run doesn’t mean winning every election. It means pulling the other party in your direction. With a geographically polarized electorate and a constitution biased toward less urbanized states, that requires literally pulling Republicans in the direction of the city with electoral rules that force them to compete for the votes of Hispanics, African-Americans, suburban women, and skilled urban professionals.
Patriots put country over party. In our current dispensation, Democrats pursuing their short-term partisan interests happens to coincide with the commonweal—and not because success guarantees that they will win forever, but because it raises the odds that, when they inevitably lose, Republicans will rule wisely and well. That’s not playing dirty. That’s playing the hero.