Nothing Else Changes Until We Get Democracy Right

In light of more recent events, it is fascinating to go back and read a piece written by conservative columnist Fred Barnes from 2003 titled, “The Emerging Republican Majority.” He was challenging statements from staff working for George W. Bush—Matthew Dowd and Karl Rove—who claimed that a permanent Republican majority would only be solidified by victories in the 2004 and 2006 elections.

There’s really no reason to wait. Realignment is already here, and well advanced. In 1964, Barry Goldwater cracked the Democratic lock on the South. In 1968 and 1972, Republicans established a permanent advantage in presidential races. In the big bang of realignment, 1994, Republicans took the House and Senate and wiped out Democratic leads in governorships and state legislatures. Now, realignment has reached its entrenchment phase. Republicans are tightening their grip on Washington and erasing their weakness among women and Latinos.

Contrary to current conventional wisdom, Barnes goes into great detail to demonstrate that the loss of Democratic dominance in governorships and state legislatures was well underway by 1994, discounting the notion that it took place during Obama’s presidency.

Documenting the elections that put George W. Bush in the governor’s mansion in Texas and later, his brother Jeb Bush in Florida, Barnes pointed to the fact that independent Hispanics were trending towards the Republican Party. He also notes that, following 9/11, the gender gap with women was being erased.

Even so, Barnes pointed to the role that gerrymandering was playing in the realignment process.

Last year, Republicans shattered the mold of midterm elections for a new president, picking up nine House seats. Most of these came from Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, states where Republicans controlled the legislature and governor’s office in 2001 and exploited the new census to draw House districts for Republican advantage. In 2002, Republicans completed their takeover of Texas by winning the state house of representatives. This allowed them to gerrymander the U.S. House districts earlier this month to target incumbent white Democrats. Unless the redistricting is overturned in court, Democrats may lose five to seven seats in 2004. “Texas means there’s no battle for the House” until after the 2010 census, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Democrats may wind up with fewer than 200 seats for the first time since 1946, says Burnham.

All of that optimism was shattered by the blue wave that engulfed the 2006 midterms, followed by the election of Barack Obama. With their majorities, Republicans had gotten us mired in two wars in the Middle East and ushered in the Great Recession. At the national level, Americans decided that it was time for some hope and change.

In his book, The Great Suppression, Zachary Roth noted that, for Republicans, it wasn’t just that the country elected its first African American president, it was how he won. In 2004, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, in which they used demographic, geographic, economic, and political data to forecast the dawn of a new progressive era. The so-called “Obama coalition” reinforced those claims, with trends that destroyed the idea of a permanent Republican majority.

Roth suggests that at that point, Republicans decided that “being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.” While it is important to remember that, as Barnes pointed out, Republicans were already employing gerrymandering and it was the Bush administration that began voter suppression efforts with a focus on voter fraud, it was at this point that the party went all-in on undoing the kinds of democratic reforms this country had embraced since our founding with attacks on women’s rights, civil rights, and immigrant rights.

As many have suggested, Donald Trump is the culmination of those efforts, rather than their creator. That is why Barack Obama said that, in the 2016 election, democracy was on the ballot. It is also why Rev. William Barber suggests that we are in the midst of the Third Reconstruction and presidential candidate Kamala Harris says we are at an “inflection point” in our history.

It is also why House Democrats prioritized their For the People Act—with its focus on election reform—once they gained a majority, and why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sees it as such a major threat. It is also why people like Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum have launched campaigns to fight voter suppression and support voter registration at the state level.

Finally, it is this battle for democracy that led several presidential candidates to talk about things like abolishing the electoral college, banning gerrymandering, getting rid of the Senate filibuster, and instituting judicial reforms at a “We the People” event on Monday. As Cameron Joseph wrote after the event, “candidates are putting these issues on equal footing as more traditional policies like climate change and healthcare for the first time.”

Some of these ideas have more merit than others. But it is important to keep in mind that what is animating the discussion is the question of whether “we the people” will fight to perfect our union, or if we’ll let Republicans and their benefactors take us back to a time when a minority defined that “we” much more narrowly. Nothing else changes until we get that one right.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.