A peculiar thing happened in November of 2012. Eclipsed by headlines of President Obama’s reelection, Democrats were unable to wrest back the House of Representatives, which has been controlled by Republicans since their impressive gains in the 2010 midterm elections.
That, in and of itself, is not surprising. What surprises one is the underreported fact about Republicans’ hold of the House. Democratic congressional candidates won 1.4 million more votes nationwide. Indeed, Democrats won more than half of the votes in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, yet they received less than half of the seats in those states. These numbers prick at our notion of civic justice. The party that wins more votes wins more seats, right? The discrepancy can be explained by returning to that Republican wave in 2010, what president Obama memorably dubbed his party’s “shellacking.”
Republicans did not just dominate federal elections that year. They made enormous gains at the sate-level. Republicans flipped nineteen state legislatures (sometimes doing so with a supermajority), and they won six governorships, increasing their control of state capitals to twenty-nine. These neglected factoids were much more important than the headlines proclaiming Democrats’ spectacular collapse in the House and Senate. Republicans snagged state legislatures at an auspicious time.
The Census: an unusual political weapon
Civic life in 2010 was not only memorable for Republicans’ surge but also for the census. Census results, which reflect the upticks and compressions of state populations, are employed by sociologists and policymakers for many things. And one of those things is to gauge the level of a state’s congressional representation. Before continuing, let’s explain how federal representation works at all.
Regardless of demographics, every state gets two senators, but a state’s population determines its congressional representation. States with a small population, like Wyoming and Vermont, have one congressional district served by a “representative-at-large,” while states with larger populations, like Texas, have thirty-six congressional districts. What historians refer to as “The Connecticut Compromise,” an agreement reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, devised this bicameral system to balance the interests of smaller and larger states concerning congressional proportionality. Additionally, if a state’s population is increasing, it will gain a congressional district. To balance those gains, states with decreasing populations will lose congressional districts.
Often, states themselves are tasked with redesigning their districts to reflect population change. In 2010, the Republicans rode a political tsunami into power just as the most recent census was concluding. They recognized that these newly elected conservatives had an opportunity to redesign their states’ congressional maps to their advantage. If done craftily by concentrating or fracturing liberal communities into what look like modernist art sculptures, Republicans could dampen Democrats’ electoral sway. Moreover, they could insure an unassailable majority in the House of Representatives, one that would endure well beyond Obama. Indeed, Republicans’ efforts bore fruit.
Despite handily winning the presidential election, turning out legions of liberal foot soldiers and winning almost a million and a half more votes for their congressional candidates, Democrats barely dented Republicans’ House majority in 2012. The lopsided results suggest a systematized manipulation on behalf of one party at the expense of the other, a partisan disenfranchisement.
In political parlance, the neutral manifestation of officials refitting congressional districts is known as “redistricting.” In its more exploitive variant, it will be referred to as “gerrymandering.” The words themselves bespeak their ethos. The term “redistricting” has a whiff of sociological jargon; it conjures up images of bureaucrats examining swaths of data, clinically graphing quadrants. Whereas the carnivalesque word “gerrymander” evokes notions of esotericism, silliness and artificiality; encountering it for the first time, usually while studying for the SATs, one cannot resist giggling and doubting its legitimacy. It is a word that befits shysters and charlatans, opportunists and tinkerers: people who have lost sight of what democracy is all about.
In another underreported story, the chief grievance of liberals during the Obama years is (or, at least, should be) the demolition of the Democratic party’s infrastructure at the state-level. What’s more, Republicans have only added insult to injury by exploiting liberals’ dematerialization to engineer a seemingly perpetual majority. Obama may have won the battle, but, in doing so, has forced state Democrats to lost the war.