Tonight, Republican primary voters in West Virginia may send convicted criminal Don Blankenship, a man held responsible for the deaths of 29 mineworkers, to challenge moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in the general election. Apart from presumably jeopardizing the GOP’s chance of seizing that seat and holding onto the Senate majority, Blankenship’s rise in the party is another worrisome sign that Republicans are no longer committed to the basic norms and rules of American politics.
If Democrats don’t start playing hardball, however, they may very well find themselves watching from the sidelines as Republicans continue to use the political order’s most anti-majoritarian features to entrench conservative power for another generation.
An unapologetic racist, Blankenship recently ran an ad that refers derisively to the “China family” of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — “Cocaine Mitch” according to Blankenship’s childish, Trumpian ad. (McConnell is married to Transportation Secretary and Taiwanese-American Elaine Chao.) Blankenship has also accused President Barack Obama’s administration of orchestrating an elaborate and absurd conspiracy to put him in prison. In short, he is a dangerously out-of-control man who has no business being within 20 points of any party’s nomination. But Blankenship’s zealotry increasingly feels like the future of the Republican Party.
If Democrats don’t start playing hardball, they may find themselves watching from the sidelines as Republicans continue to use anti-majoritarian features to entrench conservative power.
The West Virginia race remains a must-win for Democrats if they hope to recapture the Senate in 2018 against all odds. And that should raise an important question: Why is a Senate seat in a state Trump won by 41 points so important to the future of Team Blue? The answer is that both the formal rules and informal expectations of American democracy have become hopelessly tilted against the Democratic Party. Thus, the next time the Democrats do regain power, they must work within the Constitutional framework to correct the balance.
Get the think newsletter.
Why? When Obama was re-elected in 2012, Democrats were able to control the Senate but lost the House. Indeed, Republicans emerged from that election with a 33-seat majority in the House even though Democrats scored 1.4 million more votes nationally in House races. In other words, the majority of people voted for unified Democratic governance, and what they got instead was two more years of obstructionism and national policy paralysis, brought to you by the GOP’s darkly ingenious post-2010 gerrymander and the clustering of Democratic Representatives together in urban districts.
In national elections, Constitutional structures like equal representation in the Senate, as well as existing electoral procedures like the shape of House districts, are systematically biased against Democrats, favoring rural voters and rural states and thus the contemporary Republican coalition. It’s like liberals are playing a football game in which the other team is spotted two touchdowns in the first quarter. When the electoral winds are at their backs, Democrats can still earn victories. But unless they move aggressively to alter their underlying deficits, they will lose more often than they will win moving forward.
In national elections, Constitutional structures like equal representation in the Senate, as well as existing electoral procedures like the shape of House districts, are biased against Democrats.
The Senate that Blankenship may join next year is the first problem. The Constitution mandates that the 38 million people of California and the 1.8 million citizens of West Virginia are both apportioned two senators. There are probably 31 Republican-leaning and 19 Democratic-leaning states, because most smaller and rural states are dominated by Republicans. In a neutral partisan environment — one without America’s febrile president and his unhinged tweets — Democrats will lose control of the Senate much more often than they win. They are also unlikely to ever hold it again with more than a bare majority, even though by my calculations Democrats have scored about 30 million more votes for the Senate than Republicans since 1992.
And that’s why if Democrats do capture unified power in Washington in 2018 and 2020, Democrats should immediately grant statehood to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, for starters. And an even more radical albeit justified move would be to begin the process of breaking their big, blue behemoth of California into seven or more Democratic-leaning states.
Nothing in the Constitution prevents Democrats from doing any of this. Not only are these hardball maneuvers justifiable based on democratic theory, they would also give parity to Democrats in the Senate and make the underlying Electoral College math friendlier. However to doany of this, Democrats will first have to move immediately to eliminate the anti-democratic filibuster, which requires 60 votes in the Senate to get almost anything done. Without such a change, a recalcitrant GOP will simply obstruct everything.
Making the Senate more fair is just the beginning. Instead of performing a reverse gerrymander of the House, which won’t be enough to eliminate the Democrats’ structural deficit, Democrats should instead simply eliminate its winner-take-all electoral architecture. Last year, Rep. Don Beyers (D-VA) introduced the Fair Representation Act in the House, which would create larger, “multi-members” districts that would send three or five representatives to Washington instead of just one. This process would work using a procedure known as “ranked choice voting.” Instead of casting a single vote for one candidate, voters can rank their preferred candidates. If their preferred winner is eliminated, ballots are redistributed according to second, third or even fourth choices.
Not only would this give non-mainstream parties a real shot at seats in Congress, but it would make gerrymandering more or less impossible. Districts that are larger in size would be impervious to the kind of boundary-drawing mischief that built in an enormous advantage for the GOP after 2010. The reform would also encourage more moderation by giving candidates a real reason to appeal to voters on the other side of the partisan divide. Never again would a party that loses the national House vote win a towering majority in the chamber. And as with the creation of new states, changing the electoral system for the House is perfectly constitutional. All it would require is a law passed by Congress and signed by the president.
Instead of performing a reverse gerrymander of the House, Democrats should instead simply eliminate its winner-take-all electoral architecture.
It is still three long years until the 2020 elections, and there is no guarantee that Democrats will emerge from 2018 and 2020 with control of any branch of government, let alone of all three. But the unpopularity and venality of the Trump administration, along with the generally dim public appraisal of the GOP’s Congressional performance and policies, may present Democrats with an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restructure the political order. This may be the only way to produce a genuinely fair and balanced electoral system in which parties win or lose based on their policies and performance in office.
The Founding Fathers got a lot correct back in 1787, but 231 years later we need to admit that they weren’t perfect. Worse, these mistakes are now threatening the very democracy the Constitutional architects fought so hard to create.
David Faris' new book is "It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build A Lasting Majority in American Politics," He is a regular contributor to The Week and associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University in Chicago.