The repudiation of the party in power in midterm elections is nothing new in post-World War II America. It happened to Truman in 1946, Eisenhower in 1954, Johnson in 1966, Reagan in 1984, and Clinton in 1994, as well as to George Bush and Barack Obama in the new century. Only half as many people go to the polls in non-presidential years, and the base of the party out of power is more motivated to go vote. So in some respects, what happened in 2014 is as much the norm as the exception.
Far more troubling is the way in which the election reproduced an essentially unrepresentative system of government. We like to say we live in a representative democracy, but our recent election (like most before it) did not produce representative results. Consider North Carolina: while Democratic candidates for the General Assembly received 44 percent of the vote in 2014, they account for only 23 percent of the seats in the Assembly. At the federal level, NC voters actually managed to contribute to what looks like minority rule: in 2012, Democratic candidates received a majority of votes for North Carolina's U.S. House seats, but won only four of the 13 seats in contention. This kind of outcome has cut against Republicans in the past as well, but the question remains: is this a pattern we want to continue? How might we restore – or create – an actually representative government? You don't have to be a Democrat to want answers.
At the root of the current conservative turn is the gerrymandering of Congressional and state legislative districts, which happens every ten years, after the decennial census, when the party in power in state legislatures draws new electoral districts. Named after Elbridge Gerry (vice-president under James Madison), “gerrymandering” is now two centuries old and has become an instrument for parties to advance their electoral chances. Since each party has benefited from the system, there is little likelihood that a majority would opt for a scientific, non-partisan means of drawing district lines, even if such methods existed. The most recent gerrymandering in North Carolina occurred in 2010 when the Republican legislature redrew the state's electoral districts to create these wildly lopsided outcomes. But this is a trend that has proceeded on a national level, so that the representation of the GOP in the U.S. House is vastly out of proportion to the number of votes its candidates received.
The GOP will be content to hold this advantage as long as it can. So if we are going to see a change – a move toward of real representative government – it will almost certainly have to come through the Democratic Party. There has been a lot of talk about the 2020 election and whether it presents an opportunity for Democrats to reverse the devastation of this redistricting. But prospects remain dim: there is no reason to believe that a Democratic presidential victory will translate into a landslide Democratic victory in existing state legislatures – especially since the “old” district lines will apply in the 2020 election. Even if Democrats win the presidency in 2020, Republicans will stand a good chance of retaining control of the North Carolina state legislature, and other state legislatures as well.
Instead, Democrats must recognize that their fundamental problem is systemic as well as political. Unless and until they can alert (and persuade) the electorate that the “system” by which we elect people must be changed to eliminate gerrymandering, the likelihood of true majority rule is slim. Given the complexity of the issue and the obstacles the GOP has erected, changing the system is like climbing a steep hill on one leg.
In light of this structural reality, Democrats must focus on building a multi-racial coalition capable of reaching across current district lines. Democrats must not only pay attention to ethnic politics, but also zero in on class issues that will appeal to labor and working-class Whites and White liberals.
Demographically speaking, the nation’s future looks bright for Democrats. In 2012, for the first time, a majority of children born in the United States were non-White. By 2050, a majority of voters will also be non-White, presuming they are allowed to register.
Protecting equal access to the ballot box is thus of vital importance. It is by no means clear that the courts or state legislatures will allow fair access to the voting booth. The concerted efforts that Republicans made after 2012 to reduce the number of Black and Latino voters have begun to take a toll. In states like Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, Republican state legislatures shortened “early voting” opportunities – especially on Sundays, when Black congregations often went to the polls en masse after church. Many of the same states also adopted voter ID laws. In North Carolina, up to 600,000 Blacks and Latinos do not have driver’s licenses to use as “state-certified” identification. When the Supreme Court ruled that the major provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – renewed with unanimous support from the U.S. Senate – was unconstitutional in 2013, the justices made it easier for states to neglect minority voting rights and allowed electoral practices that effectively blocked some voters from registering and casting ballots. Racism was over in America, the court argued, just a year before the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. Unless the Supreme Court changes its tack in the coming years and works to shore up federal voting protections, this attrition of voting opportunities is likely to continue.
Ultimately, the 2014 election demonstrated that we must be prepared for a long, drawn-out, difficult battle. It is a battle that everyone who claims to support the principle of representative democracy should join. Only by focusing our energy on overturning these electoral schemes that privilege the few and ignore the many do we stand a chance of achieving representative governance in our states and nation.