Back in 2010 the Republicans realized that demographic trends were stacked against them: the number of black and brown citizens, who typically voted Democratic, was growing, and the proportion of GOP-leaning whites was dropping. Further, the younger generation seemed to be more aligned with the values of the Democratic Party. If Republicans were to remain relevant,they had to find a way to counter the demographic trends.
Through the sophisticated use of technology, Republican Party leaders realized that by winning just a couple of hundred state legislative seats, they could control the redrawing of the boundary maps for 193 of 435 congressional districts.
That plan resulted in a wave of gerrymandering that led to a polarization of legislative districts and state governments across the country, and this one-sided process has all but prevented transparency in the electoral process.
That is the scenario David Daley lays out in his book — Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy. Daley talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about why we should be very afraid of what this legislative strategy has wrought and what it means for the future of democracy.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.
I talked to a Democratic member of Congress this morning who told me how both Democrats and Republicans were still surprised by the outcome of the recent election. Really? It seems as if Republicans shouldn’t have been that surprised. The predicate of the election, the drawing of congressional districts, the resulting increase in polarization, the control of state houses, state legislatures, and secretaries of state that control the election process and conduct are all areas the GOP has been trying to control and manipulate for years. They’ve taken the practice of gerrymandering to levels never before seen. As a result, the insulin nature of certain districts not only makes for secured GOP majority in Congress, but it also closes off some of those districts from any kind of real transparency or scrutiny. My guest, Salon editor-in-chief, David Daley, saw this coming. He wrote about it in his recent book, Ratf*cked. But perhaps even he didn’t see it playing out in quite this way. It is my pleasure to welcome David Daley back to Radio WhoWhatWhy. David, thanks so much for joining us.
David Daley: A pleasure to be here, Jeff. Thank you for having me back.
Jeff: Do you see a nexus between all this gerrymandering that went on and all this effort by the Republican Party for so many years to control congressional districts, to control state legislatures, and the outcome of this election?
David: I do. I mean I think that there are so many reasons why Donald Trump emerged, and that it’s dangerous to say any one is necessarily more important than the others. But you can draw a clear line between the way that the Republicans gerrymandered Congress after the 2010 Census, the way they gerrymandered state legislatures at the same time, and the way that put the crazy base of the party in charge, the way that that set loose a specific kind of anger that leads in the 2016 primary seasons of the rejection of all of the establishment Republican-types. The final two candidates are Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, two people from way outside the system who are either saying, no, to it, or drown it in the bathtub. And this is what you get. This is what happens when you devalue expertise and politics.
Jeff: Rightly or wrongly, we’re engaged in this recount effort right now in a number of states and we’re looking at a framework as a result of this redistricting that you talked about, where 45 out of 50 state legislatures are now controlled by Republicans. In terms of of understanding the vote, in terms of the integrity of the vote, what impact is there, there?
David: I think it’s extraordinarily dangerous. What you have, if you have a 50-50 country that is so equally divided, that 80,000 votes in a handful of states is what this election rests on. And that’s keeping in mind the fact that as of the time we talk, the Democratic candidate got 2.5 million more votes. But in the Electoral College, states that matter, we’re talking about 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, that could have flipped this in the other way. We are a closely divided country and yet the Democrats are shut out of power completely at all levels, and this is not an accident. This has been the Republican strategy heading into 2010. They knew it was a census year. They came up with the most audacious gerrymandering strategy that they could come up with in order to govern from the minority, knowing the way that the country was headed, knowing the demographic realities that were staring them in the face, and they came up with a plan to take over state legislatures, to redraw Congress, and also to – as you said in your opening – 29 now of 50 attorneys general, 31 of 50 secretaries of state, all of these down ballot offices, they have focused on. All they needed was the presidency to take control of the entire governing apparatus. And the fact that the Democrats are shut out of power in a 50-50 country ought to be the stuff of outrage.
Jeff: You touched on an important subject a few moments ago when you talked about the demographics of the country, and how this is all designed to really counter that demographic trend. If we go back and look at Ruy Texeira’s book, for example, from many years ago, about The Emerging Democratic Majority, it was clear where this was going, and it was also clear how the Republican effort has been to counter the realities of demographics.
David: The Republicans have had two responses to their electoral defeats in recent years. The first comes after the 2008 election which is: they doubled down on redistricting with a plan called REDMAP, in which they come up with a national strategy to take over state legislative chambers and to control the redistricting process. Republicans focused on a couple of hundred of legislative seats that made all the difference to be able to draw. After the 2010 Census, they could draw 193 of the 435 districts without a Democrat in the room. It had complete control of that process. They now control 69 of 99 chambers. It worked brilliantly. The other piece of this is, after the 2012 defeat, they do the famous autopsy of the party. [?] conducts an autopsy to try to figure out what went wrong. And the results of that autopsy are pretty clear, they say, “We’re not speaking to millennials. We’re not speaking to minorities. We’re not speaking to the working-class voters. We ought to have a plan for all of these people.” They did not do that. It was too late for them to go down the road of talking to all of these other groups and other constituencies, and to actually be involved in the art of political persuasion, because the plan that they put into play in 2010 essentially resegregates America. They drew districts with the help of computing technology so powerful that even in a country that is becoming more diverse, the districts that they drew for these Freedom Caucus, Tea Party Republicans, who essentially take over the Republican caucus, and drive out John Boehner, were whiter, more Republican, and less educated than the rest of the country. And they drew it up in such a way that they put the crazy base of the party in charge and there was nowhere else to go.
Jeff: Given all of that, you’ve written about this extensively as we discussed, and this has been out there for people to see, why he has it been ignored to a certain extent, and as it relates to the recent election, why did everybody get it so wrong in terms of understanding its influence?
David: It’s a great question. I mean the book is called Ratf*cked for a reason. Gerrymandering is the thing that put us all to sleep in tenth grade civics class. So in some ways, what the Republicans did was technical and it is hard to talk about. People don’t always understand it. The media is especially bad at explaining this because the media thinks that both sides do it, and that it’s just the way that politics works. A lot of the press is still involved with the big sort theory. They think that it’s geography and that unnatural clustering of Democrats that has caused this problem, and not necessarily how the lines are drawn. It may have been that way prior to 2010, but everything changed in 2010. And the way that the public talks about it has not come to match the sophistication with which the Republican party manipulates the process. There needs to be more education, more conversation on this. I think the Democrats don’t want to be involved in that process for whatever reason. Democrats that I have talked to on the Hill, when I say, “Why don’t you go out and draw straight lines between the gerrymandering that goes on, and the policy outcome that people don’t get that they want?” And they say, “Oh, we can’t do that. “It’ll look like we’re whining about the rules. It’ll look like it’s boring to people. It doesn’t work.” I think that they are wrong. Whenever you put redistricting reform on a ballot, it doesn’t matter if it’s a blue state, or a purple state, or a red state, it passes with more than 60% of the vote, people want their votes to count. They want their election to matter. They understand that something is wrong with the system. But nobody on either side – not the Republicans, not the Democrats, and not the press – is conducting a serious conversation about the systemic democratic, small d democratic decay in this country, and what we have to do to make these institutions function properly again. Maybe that will change now that Donald Trump is president-elect.
Jeff: What is it in the Republican mindset that really set them on this path and allowed them to feel comfortable doing it, versus the Democratic mindset which as you’ve talked about feels so uncomfortable doing it?
David: Yeah, it’s a great question. The Republicans who came up with this plan realized that after the 2008 election when Barack Obama was elected. And Obama takes the states that had not gone blue in years. In 2008 Democrats come away from that election with a super majority in the U.S. Senate and they increase their hold in the U.S. House. And Republicans looked at it and said, “What do we do?” They were staring down that kindof demographic time bomb. And the strategists that I write about in the book, come across a New York Times story that say redistricting is coming, and if Republicans want a leg back up they could become more actively involved. And they said, “Hey, that’s a pretty good idea.” “Why don’t we become more actively involved?” And they went state-by-state, very systematically, and came up with this REDMAP plan, and they sort of reinvented gerrymandering in a wholly unique and modern way. And because gerrymandering has always meant something specific, and because it’s been around so long, it was kind of flying under the radar of the media, and also the Democrats. Gerrymandering had been an incumbency protection racket before this. It was something both sides would kind of do together, and the Republicans changed the rules. And they said, “You know, we’re going to use this as more of a partisan weapon. We’re going to use it more as a partisan hammer. It’s gonna be our tool to govern from the minority.” Democrats never saw it coming. Democrats were a little fat and happy after 2008. They were very comfortable with the emerging Democratic majority that they thought was, you know, a coalition of the ascendant. They thought it was inevitable, and they weren’t prepared for the Republicans to kind of reinvent the paradigm.
Jeff: Is part of the mindset for Republicans, the very fact that this process by its very nature has a kind of anti-Federalist states rights appeal, which is natural for Republicans?
David: I think that’s right, too. You know, I think that it certainly fits. Republicans have understood for a long time the value of changing policy on the state level. And one of the really important and under-covered stories of the last few years has also been the way that Republicans are taking over state house across the country, even in blue and purple states, and how they have pushed bright red legislation through all of these bodies. This is how you get the emergency manager bill in Michigan. This is how you get anti-collective bargaining legislation coming out of strong union states like Michigan and Wisconsin. This is how you get the transgender bathroom bills and other things coming out of North Carolina. You have Republican super majorities in the states that they have earned, with many times a minority, of the actual vote cast. You might say they didn’t earn a super majority at all. And they have understood that it is really, really hard to get anything done, big picture, legislatively through Washington. But it’s a whole lot easier to do it in the states, and they came up with this, and nurtured it, and took it seriously, and they got their funders behind it in a way that the Democrats couldn’t. I was in Washington just this week talking with a bunch of Democrats and they said, “We still have to get our funders to understand that there’s more beyond the presidential race, and beyond U.S. Senate races, and that sometimes their money can go farther in unsexy places.” You might not feel like a Koch Brother, or kingmaker, funding a state senate race in Pennsylvania, but you can have a whole lot more impact too.
Jeff: I guess the real question then for Democrats is how to counter it without copying it?
David: I think that is right, and that is the question. How do the Democrats try to undo this? It is knotted up at so many different levels, and if they simply try to copy it, a) it won’t be effective, b) it’s not good for democracy. So what they have to do first is try to get themselves back in the room. They have to win some elections at the state level. They will have big opportunities in 2018. If they can win a governorship in Wisconsin, and Ohio, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, those seats will win them a seat at the table in redistricting after 2020. Those are really, really important races. Democrats have to be scrupulous in their targets, and aggressive in their actions. They are not going to flip back the Ohio house. They are not going to flip back the Michigan house. They’re not going to take back the Wisconsin assembly. But they could win the governorship in those states. I mean right now if you look at those states, if you look at Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, these states, the delegations are right now in the aggregate, 44 Republicans and 17 Democrats. If the Democrats want to get their way back to fairer maps, they have to have a seat at the table in these states. The best chance for them to have a seat at the table is to win the governor’s office and have a chance to at least veto really, really bad and unfair maps. The other chance is in the courts, and there is a terrific case now coming out of Wisconsin, which really is the first time in a long time, that the courts have said partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, and have sent it up to the Supreme Court with the standard to show what a partisan gerrymandering looks like – something called the Efficiency Gap, and it’s a very statistical, but very smart and effective political science measurement for when a gerrymandering has gone too far. It’s aimed squarely at Justice Kennedy, who in a couple of cases back in the 2000s, said he was open to looking at a standard for partisan gerrymandering. That he hadn’t seen one yet but he would like to. This might show it to him. And even if Donald Trump appoints the ninth justice to the court to replace Scalia, if this measure impresses Justice Kennedy, we might get change on that. I think that might be our best hope right now.
Jeff: David Daley, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
David: A real pleasure. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate