Is DC Statehood a Partisan Power Grab?
American democracy is dangerously unstable. The only way to fix it is by adding Democratic states
It ought to be startlingly clear that Trump turned the GOP into an aggressively anti-democratic party overtly hostile to equal freedom, free and fair elections, and even rough proportionality in political representation.
In 43 states across the country, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 250 laws that would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting with such constraints as stricter ID requirements, limited hours or narrower eligibility to vote absentee, according to data compiled as of Feb. 19 by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Even more proposals have been introduced since then.
The tally is surely well beyond 250 anti-voting bills by now.
This voter-suppression frenzy is going on while Congress debates HR1, the big Democratic voting rights and electoral reform bill. At the same time, the Senate is throwing down over the future of the filibuster. But that’s not all! The contentious prospect of DC statehood — and two new Democratic senators — is in the air. These are all obviously related. I think it’s fair to say that the future of American democracy hangs in the balance.
This whole package is profoundly important because the political/legal/procedural status quo lends an enormous advantage to the Republican Party. This substantial, systemic pro-GOP bias makes it possible for a shrinking minority of mainly older, white, Christian, suburban and rural voters to politically dominate the vastly larger multicultural urban majority. But even when the Democratic Party manages to mobilize its immense numerical advantage to achieve control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the filibuster combined with entrenched knock-on effects of Republican over-representation in the Senate and Electoral College — such as the GOP’s secure, partisan stranglehold on the Supreme Court — make it exceedingly difficult for Democrats to pass legislation, even when it has overwhelming public support.
Democrats have a very tenuous window of opportunity to patch our fractured democracy. The stakes are so high because, if they fail, it’s not obvious that they’ll get another crack at it. Lee Drutman, a political scientist at New America, puts it in bracing terms:
First, we need to understand the urgency of the problem. By international standards, the current Republican Party is an illiberal anti-democratic nativist global outlier, with positions more extreme than France’s National Rally, and in line with the Germany’s AfD, Hungary’s Fidesz, Turkey’s AKP and Poland’s PiS, according to the widely respected V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute.
This is not a new problem. The GOP has been sliding into authoritarianism over two decades, using increasingly demonizing rhetoric against its opponents. But it got worse under Trump’s leadership, and the failure of center-right factions to push back. We are running out of time. What happens in a hyper-polarized party system when a major party turns against the entire system of legitimate elections? Historically, democracy dies.
Despite the fact that this is so profoundly important, I’ve found it a bit of a struggle to enter this fray. There’s next to nothing interesting to say in response to Republican arguments. Mostly, they’re just a swarm of lies. Here’s Mitch lying about the filibuster:
Here’s Mitch lying about HR1’s provisions to protect the right to vote:
Again, there are 250-plus Republican bills to impose new barriers to voting in 34 states under consideration right now. How do you respond to this? Scream “Lies! LIES!! LIES!!!” at increasing volume until people who are never going to believe you do? It’s just exhausting trying to keep up with this sort of brazen mendacity. And it’s so transparent it can be hard to gin up the will. As Georgia’s newly-minted senator Raphael Warnock incredulously put it, “Folks in his party aren’t even trying to pretend that that’s not what they’re up to.”
Moreover, the probability of changing any Republican minds seems so remote, trying seems futile. So why try?
Snap out it, Will! This is stinkin thinkin! Sack up and roll the goddamn rock up goddamn hill, again. American liberty is in peril and you’re… tired? That’s how they get ya’, ain’t it?
Apologies for the digression, but I really have been dithering about writing on this urgent and vital subject due to a weary sense of futility. I need to remind myself why I need to shake it off and step up. Maybe you need reminding, too.
The success of authoritarian parties depends on unrelenting dishonesty and hyperbolic propaganda to delegitimize their political rivals, discredit reliable sources of information, and deceive their own followers. The main strategic advantage of consistent contempt for truth is that it allows authoritarian parties to bootstrap its supporters’ ordinary, initial partisan trust into a state of crippled judgment and epistemic dependency. This not only ensures that their supporters will not accept the truth about the party but will regard it as confirmation that those telling the truth are the real authoritarian purveyors of unrelentingly dishonest, hyperbolic propaganda. The more successful authoritarians are in cultivating this sort of contemptuous distrust in their followers, the more futile it will seem to try to get through to them. Eventually a bunch of honest people tire of banging their heads against the wall and stop trying to get through, which only makes it easier for authoritarians to recruit off now less-contested margins.
Okay, back to business…
Of all the Republican arguments against democratic equality and fair proportionality, those that feel least like plain lies are opposed to DC statehood. The position of Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota is representative:
Of course, the Founding Fathers never intended for Congress to grant statehood to one underpopulated Dakota, much less two. Republicans saddled us with double Dakotas to offset the mass disenfranchisement of Republican voters by conniving Democratic Southern slavers and corrupt urban Democratic political machines. Let’s come back to the balancing role that the admission of new states has historically played in the de facto, unwritten constitution. First, I think it’s worth conceding that the crazy partisan imbalance of DC’s population does make Rounds’ second claim — that DC statehood is really about adding Democrats to the Senate — pretty plausible. Indeed, that’s the best reason to make DC a state.
Republicans aren’t wrong that Democrats want to create a new Democratic-majority state. But they are wrong that it is a raw partisan “power grab.” Last night, Windsor Mann, one of my Twitter DM buddies, asked me a couple of questions that helped clarify this point for me.
“Would you still be for DC statehood if 90% of DC residents were hardcore Trumpists?” Windsor slides into my DMs to inquire.
“Yes,” I over-hastily reply. “Citizens should have legislative representation, period.”
Now, I’m adamant that everyone should be represented — and more or less equally. But that doesn’t actually imply a “Yes,” to Windsor’s question, as his follow-up made me see.
“Say the residents aren’t Trumpists,” he clarifies, “but, for whatever reason, the two Senate seats would go to Republicans. In other words, are you for enfranchisement if it means giving power to people who will disenfranchise others?”
I saw my mistake right away. I do not actually support new Republican-majority states. I’m very much against them! But that’s because I’m a democrat, not because I’m a Democrat. This info-packed table from Daily Kos elections vividly illustrates one of the most serious problems besetting American democracy: an indefensible surfeit of Republican senators!
In our current 50/50 Senate, Democrats represent states containing 56.5 percent of the population while Republicans Represent states containing 43.5 percent of the population. That’s a difference in the neighborhood of 42 million people! (For scale: the population of Canada is about 37 million.) Senate Democrats have represented more than half of the population for all but two of the last 30 years but have had a majority in the Senate less than half of that time.
The deal with the “three-cycle aggregate vote” thing is that Senators serve staggered six-year terms, which makes it tricky to estimate partisan vote share for the Senate in any given Congress. This method finds Democrats winning more Senate votes in all but one three-cycle aggregate over the last three decades. Let me pound the table and repeat that. Except for a short spell in the mid/late 1990s, Republicans never won more votes than Democrats. Nevertheless, they had a Senate majority more than half that time. That’s fucked up.
Still, the fact that the system’s rigged to the Republicans’ advantage isn’t the most important problem. The most pressing issue is that 700,000 American citizens residing in Washington, DC currently have no representation in Congress. There is no remotely plausible reason that this should be the case. However, fixing it doesn’t entail making DC a state. If DC becomes a state, the federal district will shrink drastically to encompass little more than a bunch of buildings within a few blocks of the Mall and the rest of the city will become a tiny, dense, city-state. But you could also shrink the federal district the same way and have the rest of the city join Maryland instead. That’s what I’d want to do if DC were Republican-majority.
Whatever party folks belong to, they are absolutely entitled to representation. (Listen up, Republicans.) However, the partisan lean of a prospective state does matter to the case for its admission to the union. The Senate and the Electoral College are currently unbalanced in a way that leaves residents of highly urbanized states systematically underrepresented. As a consequence, the rights and interests of tens of millions of our country’s most vulnerable people are dangerously under protected. This isn’t an abstract or philosophical consideration. It’s literally a matter of life and death.
Here’s how I put it in a Times column on the density divide and the human costs of urban under-representation:
Representative democracy is more than a means for determining public policy. It is more fundamentally an instrument of collective self-defense, a channel through which individuals can combine to peacefully resist domination and press for the equal protection of their rights and vital interests. In the absence of fair political representation, democracy inevitably fails in this defensive function.
Families are being torn apart, thousands are packed into squalid prisons, and millions of city-dwelling Americans have been made to suffer under a regime of “institutionalized cruelty” because country people are anxious and city votes count less. Fixing this is far more important than whose team wins when we fix it, because the basic framework of democratic self-defense is far more important than any ephemeral policy. As Judith Shklar sagely said, “without enough equality of power to protect and assert one’s rights, freedom is but a hope.”
I wrote this nearly two years before Covid hit our shores. The point ought to be even clearer now. The Trump administration’s fatal non-response to the pandemic was driven in no small measure by the fact that the early hotspots were big, diverse Democratic cities. Our vindictive sociopath-in-chief felt no responsibility for them. After all, if they wanted to live, shouldn’t they have voted for him? However, thanks to the fundamentally nonpartisan nature of contagious virulence, hundreds of thousands of Republicans eventually died, too, and at even greater rates.
The structurally biased Senate effectively entails a structurally biased Electoral College. Had the Senate and EC been more balanced, there’s a good chance Trump never would have been elected, hundreds of thousands of Americans would still be alive, the Capitol never would have been assaulted by a seditious Republican mob, and the GOP would not be trying to destroy American democracy.
There’s no principled way to justify the status quo imbalance of the Senate. However, the case that it needs to be rebalanced is urgent and compelling.
Many of the Constitution’s greatest defects lie in the Founders’ failure to grasp that the structure they created makes political parties and a two-party equilibrium more or less inevitable. Our Constitution is a negotiated settlement between slave states and free states, large states and small states. It embodies one attempt to balance their various concerns, but it could easily have come out differently. No one intended or wanted many of Constitution’s provisions. It’s full of compromises many of the framers actively disliked. For example, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton both pretty much thought that giving every state two Senators, regardless of population, was stupid. And they were right! Still, they signed the thing because the Articles of Confederation sucked, everybody wanted to go home, and nobody thought of a better way to get to yes.
Of course, it took about six seconds after ratification for political parties to emerge. However, because they weren’t planning on this, there’s no mechanism in the Constitution to keep coalitions of states controlled by one party from dominating states controlled by others. But there is a mechanism for adding new states. So admission to the union became the de facto mechanism for balancing partisan power in the Senate and Electoral College. There would be no South Dakota for Mike Rounds to represent in the Senate if this hadn’t been the case. Which is to say, Rounds’ state exists because the Founders fucked up and created a structure that tends to generate heated two-party competition but can’t really accommodate it. Much of the Constitution of the Founders survives inside the Constitution we actually live under because we hacked together a bunch of workarounds to keep their not-entirely-seaworthy vessel afloat.
South Dakota is a kludge. DC statehood is a kludge, too. But it would be a good idea, just like double Dakota was a good idea. If Rounds is glad that his state exists, he should honor the precedent of its creation and acknowledge that the partisan balancing function of new states is a part of our de facto, only partially written constitutional system. Constitutions don’t survive because they define a perpetually stable equilibrium. That’s impossible. Politics under conditions of unceasing and unpredictable technological, economic, cultural, and demographic change sooner or later start to devolve into a fucking mess. It’s a political principle of entropy. Constitutions survive because we fight the entropy and shore up the system. They survive because citizens notice when the system they’re embedded in starts to spin out of equilibrium and manage to creatively deploy the resources that the law does provide to set the system back into a stable groove.
Given the current relationship between population density and party vote share, the only way to move toward stable, balanced partisan representation is to admit Democratic states. This is obviously good for Democrats. But it’s not a “partisan power grab.” Partially rectifying the massively unequal representation of Democratic-majority states in the Senate is only incidentally partisan. Defending this indefensible inequality is unprincipled, partisan power hoarding. After all, the principle that parties shouldn’t split the Senate 50/50 when one of them represents 41,549,808 more people than the other is pretty hard to dispute in democratic terms.
Of course, that’s not going to stop Republicans from disputing it. Once you’ve come to feel entitled to unpopular sovereignty, democracy seems awfully unfair.