Not unlike Las Vegas, what goes on in your doctor’s office stays in your doctor’s office. Often it is hard enough for a self-sufficient independent people to ask for help in the first place. We hack and cough through weeks of misery anticipating that good health is around the corner. But then if we take the shame walk in to the see Doctor Wellby, we are told to take a few placeboes and all will be fine. We rarely ask for a second opinion.
So it is with our sick democracy. Turnout rates in American elections are low. Incumbency rates in Congress are high despite low approval ratings. Our politics has never been as polarized. Furthermore there appears to be a smattering of acceptable candidates. The doctors of democracy usually respond by saying, “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” It is time for a second opinion.
David Daley, in his new book Rat F**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, provides a second opinion that is worth considering. Daley does not blame the American voter for the ills of democracy; rather he targets the institutions themselves. More specifically, in this book Daley targets the practice of partisan gerrymandering by documenting how Republicans have rigged recent elections through the creative use of a redistricting pen.
Partisan gerrymandering is as old as the republic. Our constitution grants state governments the authority to draw district lines. Throughout our history Congress has given oversight to this process. Minimally Congress and the Courts have charged states to draw district lines that provide for single-member districts, contiguous boundaries and include equal populations.
Daley’s story looks at how the Republican Party devised a plan in 2010, named REDMAP, to manipulate the redistricting process in order to build conservative majorities in national, state and local representative districts across the country. With the help of emerging technologies and new sources of money through unregulated 527 groups, project REDMAP was a resounding success. By 2014, despite clear majorities voting for the Democratic candidate for president Barack Obama, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, 32 of 50 governorships, 33 of 50 state houses and 35 of 50 state senates. Aptly named, the book’s title alludes to a political metaphor meaning “dirty tricks.”
Daley’s book reveals all of the dirt behind America’s congressional elections. Partisan gerrymandering, when looked at, needs little evidence to persuade of its inherent skullduggery. Daley might be accused of piling on. Daley is at his strongest, however, when offering more than a diagnosis. He offers treatment. Politics will never be eliminated from the process of redistricting but finding a court approved standard is possible. This might include multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting.
If we do nothing, our Congress will continue to be “impervious and insulated” from it constitutional imperative to be responsive to the people. As a result of partisan gerrymandering our representative democracy suffers from non-competitive elections, an unaccountable minority and a Congress that shuns issues that clear majorities of Americans favor like sensible gun control and compassionate immigration reform.
Betting on democracy’s ability to heal itself would appear to be a losing gamble. The odds are stacked against those who imagine that a healthy body politic is just an election away. David Daley’s timely book Rat F**ked has provided an important biopsy of what ails us. If “we the people” choose not to heed his words we may be looking at an autopsy instead. We should be grateful for David Daley’s second opinion.