In 2012, Democrats held the White House and added to their Senate majority but failed to wrest control of the House of Representatives from the GOP, despite winning a greater share of the popular vote in Congressional elections. As the lower chamber declined to cooperate with President Obama for the next two years, many liberal pundits and politicians grumbled about this seemingly-anti-democratic outcome: How could Republicans convert a one-and-a-half-million vote deficit into a recalcitrant House majority? The conventional wisdom was that post-2010 GOP state legislatures used gerrymandering to lock in an unfair advantage for their party’s candidates.
The 2016 election also looks likely to deliver the same split outcome, and we can expect similar grumbling over the next two years when a Republican-controlled House resists elements of Hillary Clinton’s agenda through 2018—especially if (as again looks likely) more voters cast their ballots for Democratic Congressional candidates than for Republicans.
In the New York Times, Alec MacGillis offers a pre-emptive corrective to such liberal protestations. The primary cause of the Democrats’ structural disadvantage in House contests is not nefarious redistricting; it’s that the Democratic platform appeals most strongly to voters clustered in major metropolitan centers, so no matter how districts are drawn, Democratic votes tend to be “wasted” building supermajorities in deep-blue urban areas rather than pushing competitive races over the edge:
Democrats today are sorting themselves into geographic clusters where many of their votes have been rendered all but superfluous, especially in elections for the Senate, House and state government.
This has long been a problem for the party, but it has grown worse in recent years. The clustering has economic and demographic roots, but also a basic cultural element: Democrats just don’t want to live where they’d need to live to turn more of the map blue.
“It would be awfully difficult to construct a map that wasn’t leaning Republican,” said the University of Michigan political scientist Jowei Chen. “Geography is just very unfortunate from the perspective of the Democrats.”
Since 2010, gerrymandering has played a role in tilting the Congressional playing field in the GOP’s direction. But its role has been wildly exaggerated by Democrats seeking to raise doubts on the legitimacy of Republican political power in the House and state legislatures. So while it’s almost certainly a good idea, as Larry Diamond has argued in these pages, for non-partisan commissions rather than state legislatures to draw House districts, there should be no expectation that this will substantially strengthen the Democratic position.
There are two ways Democratic elites might look at this dilemma. First, they could conclude that, even if gerrymandering isn’t the cause, the deck is unfairly stacked against their party—that territorial representation is a constitutional anachronism, an anti-democratic stumbling block for liberalism not worthy of deference from other institutions. It might not be possible to switch to a proportional system for electing the legislature (the type in place in many non-Anglo democracies), but Democrats could get around their geographic handicap in other ways: For example, a Democratic president could wield executive power more aggressively when the House resists her (this might seem especially appealing if she won a majority of votes but House Republicans did not) and liberal judges could defer less to the will of a GOP-controlled House when evaluating legislation or policing the separation of powers. The point would be for the Democrats to use their existing presidential majority coalition to impose their agenda, even if that majority, because of the way it is geographically distributed, struggles to deliver 218 representatives to the House.
Alternatively, Democratic elites could regard their lower-house handicap as evidence of a deficiency in their electoral strategy that the party should try to solve rather than circumvent. Instead of saying, “our voters are inefficiently distributed,” Democrats might say, “we should try to appeal to a different coalition of voters.” Alert to the possibility of factionalism, the framers deliberately designed the constitution to force compromise not only between numerical majorities and minorities, but also between discrete territorial units. One way of viewing the Democrats’ seemingly “built-in” Congressional disadvantage is that the constitutional system is punishing the party for building a hyper-concentrated political coalition and rewarding the GOP for drawing on a broader geographic base.
How might Democrats tweak their coalition to ameliorate this problem? Put simply, they would probably need to selectively taper their drive toward more expansive social liberalism and cultural cosmopolitanism. The liberal causes that have aroused particular passion on the left during the Obama years—immigration liberalization, gun control, expanded abortion rights—are increasingly popular in the dense metropolitan areas that Democrats already win but still viewed with skepticism outside them. A Democratic Party espousing (Bill) Clinton-style centrism on select culture war questions could fare marginally better in House races outside of populous coastal urban enclaves.
America’s territory-based representative institutions were devised in a very different time, but it’s still possible to see wisdom in the idea that government works better if ruling majorities have stakeholders distributed across the country. Many scholars have pointed out that one reason our political conflicts are so vituperative is that the parties have built coalitions that are increasingly geographically segregated from one another, so partisans are less likely to live alongside and interact with people who disagree with them.
In a healthier polity, the structure of the House would act as a check against the trend toward extreme partisan sorting by nudging the Democratic Party to court voters outside of cities more aggressively to create a more “efficiently distributed” coalition. The reality is that thanks to demographic forces, interest group lobbying, and elite pressure, the Democrats are likely to be pushed further down the path of cosmopolitan gentry liberalism for the foreseeable future, leading to even greater levels of blue hyper-concentration around metropolitan areas. The increasing power of the president and the judges and administrative officers she appoints also encourage this trend. If Democrats can increasingly sideline the Congress, then winning the White House becomes a higher priority than reaching 218 in the lower house. And in presidential elections, it’s not necessarily harmful to run up huge majorities in urban centers at the expense of rural or suburban districts: For the purposes of the Electoral College, a vote in Cincinnati counts just as much as a vote in Middletown.
Francis Fukuyama concluded his searching examination of political sclerosis in America noting dryly, “We have a problem.” And we do indeed. After 2016, many in Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party will likely identify the Constitution’s counter-majoritarian institutions as the root of that problem, and seek to double down on their agenda and impose it over the will of an uncooperative House. The worry is that the decay runs far deeper than that, and that efforts to circumvent constitutional commands could make things far, far worse.