Dave Wasserman of FiveThirtyEight yesterday offered up a striking statistic to illustrate the Democrats’ weakness heading into the 2018 Congressional elections:
Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points — a pretty good midterm by historical standards — they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats.
The root of the Democrats’ woes is that their strength is concentrated in dense House districts and big, urbanized states even as the Constitution deliberately puts a brake on the accumulation of political power by geographically concentrated majorities. (In the House, gerrymandering also plays a role, but leave that aside for now.) Wasserman:
In the last few decades, Democrats have expanded their advantages in California and New York — states with huge urban centers that combined to give Clinton a 6 million vote edge, more than twice her national margin. But those two states elect only 4 percent of the Senate. Meanwhile, Republicans have made huge advances in small rural states — think Arkansas, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and West Virginia — that wield disproportionate power in the upper chamber compared to their populations.
In other words, even if the Democrats manage to carve out a lasting popular vote majority at the national level, that majority might not be reflected in America’s political institutions.
Democrats see data like this and cry foul. If they come up short in the 2018 midterms even as Democratic candidates win more votes, expect a series of treatises against the injustices of territorial representation. Indeed, Wasserman’s framing—that Congress has a “GOP bias”—seems to implicitly endorse the view that the way our institutions are set up is fundamentally unfair.
It’s worth unpacking the (powerful) assumptions that lead to this conclusion. One way of looking at politics is that parties exist to champion a set of beliefs and present those beliefs to voters. In this view, the Democrats stand for, among other things, social liberalism, environmentalism, and high immigration levels. The Republicans stand for, among other things, social conservatism, the development of home-grown sources of energy, and nationalism. Those are the parties’ values, and they are more or less unchanging. Because the voters who tend to support the Democrats’ worldview tend to be clustered in non-competitive blue districts in major metropolitan areas, their votes are “underrepresented.” This amounts to a systemic bias against the Democratic Party.
But this is not the only way of understanding at political competition. In a more “realist” view of politics and parties, there is no bias here—just a failure on the part of the Democrats to compete effectively. In his 1942 treatise, Party Government, Elmer Schattschneider famously wrote that “a political party is an organized attempt to get control of the government.” For Schattschneider, politics isn’t so much about values and ideals as it is about devising a strategy that can win according to the rules of the game. Parties don’t “stand” for anything so much as they constantly adapt their agenda so that it can reliably deliver them to power.
By doubling down on an agenda that plays well in metropolitan centers but flounders in key states and districts, the Democrats have in a sense ceased to operate as “an organized attempt to gain control of the government,” acting instead as a vehicle for certain ideals—and in so doing, created their own handicap. There is nothing stopping the party from adopting a more Bill Clinton-esque cultural stance that could win more seats in the Midwest. (This might dampen the enthusiasm of donors and some voters in cities—but as we have seen, running up huge majorities with clusters of voters doesn’t have much political payoff).
So yes, the Congressional map is biased against the Democratic Party as it is currently constituted—but that bias is a choice. If the Democrats constructed a different coalition, the effect of the bias would be significantly attenuated or disappear.
Why do the Democrats insist on moving culturally to the Left even if this imposes an electoral penalty under U.S. Constitutional structures? Part of the answer, I would argue, is a self-defeating sense of certainty on the part of Democratic elites that they are in the right. This leads to a view that certain universalist liberal ideals—immigration, feminism, climate politics—are simply too fundamental to be subordinated to the harsh realities of the competition for political power in America. This is what they stand for, no matter what that means for their electoral prospects. There need not be any compromise, because liberal ideals will prevail.
And, one day, they may well. But until the Democrats can figure out how to actually seize back power, those ideals will keep losing.