The Supreme Court this week refused to hear Republican lawmakers’ attempt to block a new map of congressional districts in Pennsylvania. That means that Republicans’ extremely partisan gerrymander of the state is out. A new, less partisan map is in.
Many news outlets, including Reuters, framed the Supreme Court decision as a “win for Democrats.” It is that; Democrats are likely to pick up around three U.S. House seats, and perhaps more. But it’s also a victory for small-d democracy.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court earlier struck down the Republican gerrymander because it unconstitutionally “diluted” the votes of one party to benefit another. “This is the antithesis of a healthy representative democracy,” Justice Debra McCloskey wrote for the majority. “Indeed, for our form of government to operate as intended, each and every Pennsylvania voter must have the same free and equal opportunity to select his or her representatives.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that, according to McCloskey, the Republicans had robbed the people of Pennsylvania of adequate representation. Over the last two decades at least, it’s been clear that Republicans benefit from restricting the electorate, while Democrats benefit when it is expanded.
Democracy hurts Republicans.
Republicans have worked to institute voter identification laws that discourage poor people and people of color from voting. This is supposedly intended to prevent (non-existent) voter fraud, but many GOP officials have admitted that the real motivation is partisan advantage. Similarly, Republicans (unsucessfully) fought Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s plan to enfranchise former felons. They have blocked efforts to give the District of Columbia statehood and representation in the Senate and the House. Just last month, Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, refused to call special elections for vacant legislative seats because he believes that Democrats will win those elections. Voters in those districts will not have representation in the state Legislature.
The conclusion is straightforward and inescapable: Democracy hurts Republicans. It’s no coincidence that the GOP has only won one popular vote for president in the last 30 years. Republicans have made themselves the party of rich white men, and there simply aren’t enough rich white men to make a majority. Therefore, the fewer people who vote, and consequently the fewer people who have representation, the better off Republicans are. Or, to put it another way, Republicans stand to benefit as the United States becomes more and more authoritarian.
From this perspective, Donald Trump’s strong-man posturing is not an aberrant deviation from GOP traditions. It is, instead, in line with a growing Republican commitment to disenfranchisement. When Trump tweeted following the election that he would have won the popular vote if it weren’t for voting by undocumented immigrants, he was simply retooling GOP talking points used to justify preventing some people from voting. Trump’s disturbing praise for rulers like the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Dutarte is extreme. But it points to common ground between the GOP and undemocratic leaders. Both want to rule without the consent of the governed.
The GOP isn’t doomed to be authoritarian. Generally, in representative government, when a party’s positions are so unpopular that it can’t win elections, it’s supposed to adjust those positions. Back in the 1990s, when it became clear that the GOP was starting to be outnumbered, Republicans could have course-corrected, embracing policies that would appeal to the poor, to Latinos, to African Americans, to women. George W. Bush and Mitt Romney both gestured in this direction. But they couldn’t figure out how to reach out to these voters without creating an enormous backlash from their base.
And so the GOP has doubled down and doubled down again, turning away from democracy and relying instead on the tactics of voter suppression. Small wonder that such a party has elevated to the presidency a man whose disdain for the Constitution is palpable.
Horse-race accounts of gerrymandering present partisan efforts to gain electoral advantage as a purely strategic issue: The Supreme Court decision in Pennsylvania hurts Republicans and benefits Democrats. But such accounts, by their nature, suggest that the two parties are morally equivalent. That’s misleading. The GOP is actively attacking the sanctity of the right to vote. It is the enemy not just of Democrats, but of democracy itself.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of the forthcoming book “Chattering Class War: Punching Pundits from Chait to Chappo and Brooks to Breitbart.”