Election seasons come and go; the political pendulum swings back and forth; one year a Clinton wins the White House, another year a George Bush. Somewhere back in time Tip O’Neill was the Speaker of the House. And there was that Newt Gingrich putsch in the 1990s. We had teary-eyed John Boehner in the Speaker’s chair, and now the peter-principled Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Good years and bad years for Democrats and Republicans. We mark political time by the memorable presidential election years: in 2000 Florida and the Supreme Court gave us Bush over Gore; in 2008 Barack Obama promised hope and change. The off-year cycles blur together. Does it even matter who wins a few extra seats in Congress when the government is hopelessly gridlocked?
For journalist David Daley there’s one recent “off-year” that deserves to be called momentous—even epochal. In a book published this summer, Daley makes the case that if you don’t understand what happened in 2010, you don’t understand something fundamental about why American politics is the way it is today. His title is meant to wake you up to it: Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.
In the Nixon years leading up to Watergate, “ratfucking” was a term of art that meant, more or less, political dirty tricks. Daley uses it to describe something broader—a concerted effort by the Republican party and its funders to win enough key elections in key places around the country in 2010 to take control of legislatures and governorships just when it mattered most. Because legislatures redraw their own district lines every ten years based on new census data—as well as the lines used for the U.S. House of Representatives—the stakes were high in 2010. While the Democratic party was caught off-guard, the Republicans used the election, and the redistricting process that followed, to build legislative majorities that gave them more seats even when they received fewer overall votes than the opposition party.
Is that “ratfucking”? Or is it just politics as usual? Daley contends that the practice of “gerrymandering,” which is as old as the republic, was transformed in 2010 into something radically different—because of the aggressive partisanship that was combined with ultra-sophisticated mapmaking techniques. It’s the reason Republicans now hold a sixty-seat majority in the U.S. House. In 2012, he notes, Republicans took a thirty-three-seat advantage in the House, even though nationwide 1.4 million more Americans voted for Democratic House candidates than for Republicans. That pattern was repeated in legislatures around the country.
Daley is a former editor in chief of Salon.com. This summer he became CEO and publisher of the Connecticut News Project, which is devoted to reporting on state and local government. I spoke with Daley by phone earlier this week, after digesting (or indigesting) his book. What follows is a transcript of our chat, edited for length.
Dave Denison: You have been on the left wing of the political spectrum, but it occurred to me when reading this book that you do agree with Donald Trump on at least one thing.
David Daley: That the system is rigged.
Denison: That our elections can be rigged!
Daley: Well, I think we both may share that belief, but we come to it in meaningfully different ways. We are thirty-five days out from a presidential election. And there is zero question about which party will control the House of Representatives in November. And that, to me, is outrageous. Not as a Democrat, not as a Republican, but as an American. Our elections need to have consequences. The House of Representatives is set up to be the most responsive instrument of the federal government to the will of the people, and it’s been insulated from the voters by a calculated and complicated plan to redraw district lines in such a way as to be able to govern either from the majority or [at least] to retain a branch of Congress for ten years. It’s as if the only Congressional election that will have any consequences in this decade is the one in 2010. And that strikes me as not only wrong, but deeply dangerous, and antithetical to the idea of democracy.
Denison: And I’m guessing that you are telling us that even in the event that the Trump campaign continues to flounder and Hillary Clinton is elected president, perhaps even in a landslide—Democrats probably think that means she’ll carry a lot of other people into office, and maybe she wins Congress.
The only Congressional election that will have any consequences in this decade is the one in 2010.
Daley: Take a look at the state of North Carolina right now. You have Hillary Clinton in the lead in North Carolina, all the recent polls show, by several points. You have a Democratic challenger leading a two-term Republican incumbent senator. And you have a Democratic challenger up about eight points on an incumbent Republican governor. So it’s looking like a pretty good year for Democrats in the state of North Carolina. And there is a not a single competitive Congressional race. North Carolina will return, once again, a Congressional delegation of ten Republicans and three Democrats. So that suggests that there is something about the way these districts are crafted that is at the heart of this. When all of the statewide races go one way and the state [legislature] and Congressional districts go another, you need to step back and take a look at the mapmaking.
Denison: So to be fair to you, you may also agree with something Bernie Sanders was saying: that this country needs some kind of political revolution.
Daley: Yes, I think that we have a system right now that is not reflecting popular will; and that when our democratic institutions cease to be responsive to the voters they cease to be effective or democratic. And you can look at this in state after state. Pennsylvania has not gone red for a presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988. You have a big lead for Hillary Clinton right now, you have a Republican incumbent senator who is playing catch-up; you have a Congressional delegation in the state of Pennsylvania, however, that is thirteen to five, Republican. There is one competitive seat in Pennsylvania this year. Look at Ohio, which is twelve-four Republican, even though it’s a fifty-fifty state. Look at Michigan, which is nine-five Republican, even though in 2012 Democratic candidates got 240,000 more votes. The institutions are not responsive to the voters. And this is because of a Republican plan called REDMAP that they launched in 2010, a very effective plan to flip state legislative chambers, coast to coast, with an eye toward redrawing Congressional districts the following year.
This is not simply a question of which party controls Congress. What the Republicans did was far more strategic than that. They set out to be sure that when the new maps were drawn in 2011, they had the only seat at the table in all of these states. In North Carolina, in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, in Florida, in many other states across the country, what the results of the 2010 election meant was that when the district lines were drawn, Republicans had the only voice in the room, they kept the Democrats out. And the other piece of this that is so important is the way the technology has changed. How much better and more comprehensive and advanced the computer programs are that draw these lines. Gerrymandering—you can trace it back to Patrick Henry in 1788, to Elbridge Gerry in Massachusetts in 1790—it goes back to the founding of the Republic. But from 1788 to 2000, for that entire period, gerrymandering is really in its infancy. What the Republicans do in 2010 is gerrymandering on steroids. They figure out the loophole in the system that allows them to leverage control of state legislative chambers, into owning the only voice at the table, and then they combine that with newly available, very sophisticated technological mapmaking tools that give a determined partisan mapmaker access to volumes of census data, voting records, and reams of consumer preferences, and powerful programs like Maptitude that can instantly calculate the likely result of moving a line a block in any direction.
Denison: Was it ever a part of the Sanders critique to explain how important the Republican takeover of the mapmaking process was?
I watched just about every minute of the Clinton and Sanders debates, and there was not a single question about gerrymandering.
Daley: I don’t want to say that Bernie Sanders never made this point. Let me answer carefully. I was surprised that Sanders did not put real emphasis on this point. It amazes me that Democratic politicians in general have failed to make this case. Because I think people understand in their gut that the system is fixed, and that something is wrong when the side with the most votes doesn’t win. Because we all want our votes to count and we all want the system to be fair. Politicians seem to only make this point when they’re on their way out of office. Ronald Reagan complained about gerrymandering in one of his last televised interviews as president. Barack Obama didn’t bring it up for eight years until he raised it in his final State of the Union address. I watched just about every minute of the Clinton and Sanders debates, and there was not a single question about gerrymandering. Nor did I see them bring it up. There was an entire point in this campaign, when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were arguing about how effective each one would be able to be, and Hillary’s argument was that she was a progressive who could get results, that she could work with the Congress. And that seemed to me to be the perfect opening for Sanders to say, well, no, this is going to be the exact same Congress that since 2010 has obstructed President Obama, unless we have real change. And that there is a connection between the lack of action on issues that people care about—whether this is guns or immigration or the minimum wage or Planned Parenthood funding or simply keeping the government open—there’s a connection between this, and the way the districts are drawn. And the kind of people who get sent to Washington as a result, and the tone and tenor of our politics that follows.
Denison: You say that people understand it in their gut, and I think that’s true, but it also struck me in your book that you’re getting at something basic that has to do with a general disenchantment out there about American politics: I think people who don’t pay that much attention get stuck in this point of view where they think, “Oh, Obama came in and he had promised hope and change and then he got nothing done.” And if they don’t understand how Congress was hijacked, they don’t understand what happened.
Daley: This is why Obama got nothing done. Obama lost a midterm election in 2010 in the middle of his first term. And it essentially ended any chance he had of enacting a domestic agenda after that. It was because of the way Republicans drew the lines immediately after that. They drew themselves a firewall in the House of Representatives that guaranteed themselves control. You see this in 2012, the first election run on those maps, in which Democrats get 1.4 million votes [and] Republicans keep control of the chamber. I mean, 2012 was a big year for Democrats. Obama won a big reelection. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because of the way the lines were drawn for the House.
Denison: And then [House Speaker] John Boehner stood up and pointed to the large Republican majority in the House, and claimed that they had the mandate.
Daley: He claimed a mandate to govern in partnership. And that is a gutsy play, when you get 1.4 million fewer votes, to claim a mandate for anything. You also see this at the state level. There have been a lot of stories written about how Barack Obama has been a failure for Democrats at the state level because they’ve lost hundreds of state legislative seats under his tenure. Which is true, because of 2010. They lost a huge election in 2010 and that was locked in for every successive election. The gerrymander that has happened in Congress is just as severe in these states. And it has affected policy in these states. You have states like Ohio and North Carolina, where there are Republican supermajorities in the lower house that they’ve attained despite fewer overall votes for their party’s candidates. That’s why Barack Obama appears to have lost as many statehouse seats on his watch as he has.
Denison: In terms of how this works, you shoot down the theory that is associated with, among others, journalist Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, that the deeper explanation of what’s happened is that Americans have clustered into areas where they are surrounded with like-minded people.
Daley: Yeah, I think that political science is turning on this, finally. Bishop’s theory may well have been true when it was published last decade, as far as it relates to gerrymandering. But it continues to hold, I think, too much sway amongst journalists and political professionals who fail to understand the way 2010 was different from any other gerrymander in the past. And the example I like to use for this is Pennsylvania. In 2008, Barack Obama wins by about a hundred thousand votes, Democratic Congressional candidates in Pennsylvania top Republican candidates in the aggregate by about a hundred thousand votes, the exact same thing happens in Pennsylvania in 2012. The margins are very similar. In 2008, those margins gave Pennsylvania a twelve-seven Democratic delegation. In 2012, those same margins elected a thirteen-five Republican Congressional delegation. So what happened in the meantime? Well, in 2011 all of the Congressional lines changed. You would have to believe that tens of thousand of Pennsylvanians sorted themselves into these districts, or moved to Philadelphia, in order to think that something different hasn’t happened here.
Denison: And part of that story, which was new to me, is about a young, courtly South Carolina lawyer named Chris Jankowski, who emerges as almost a more important architect of Republican success in recent years than Karl Rove.
Daley: Chris Jankowski is a brilliant strategist and probably the person who is the single most responsible for Republican dominance of the House of Representatives this decade, and he pulled it off at the bargain basement discount price of $30 million. It’s not only the biggest political heist in modern times, it’s the biggest political bargain. Jankowski is a state government guy. He’s the executive director of something called the Republican State Leadership Conference, he had been active in leading the Republican attorney generals association. And he knew that your money goes a whole lot further in these state races. It’s not very sexy when you call a donor and you tell them you’re looking to drop their money into North Carolina’s eleventh senate district. That is not something that makes a billionaire pick up the phone and write a check, necessarily. But it means more. It’s more effective and it’s a better bargain. Jankowski found what might be the last great political bargain.
Denison: One of your chapters, as well, presents one of the most admiring portraits of the state of Iowa I think I’ve ever seen.
When you’re writing about something that perhaps put people to sleep in eighth-grade civics class, you have to grab their attention.
Daley: I think that if we’re going to have change in how we draw these lines, voters need to understand how important it is, and take it very seriously. And in Iowa it is a point of civic pride that they have these fair elections, and that they have a nonpartisan board—that is genuinely nonpartisan—drawing these lines. They take it very seriously. The politicians on both sides in that state both fear the idea of changing that system in a way that would raise the ire of voters. And I like that. I think it works when the voters of a state appreciate good policy on something like redistricting; you get a different kind of politics in a state. And Iowa goes back and forth. All of those chambers go back and forth. Terry Branstad has been governor a long, long time and I think he said something along the lines of how in all of those years he’s only had complete control of the government there for a couple of years, and there’s always been a different permutation of the senate and the house, and who’s got it. And when that is the case, our elections matter more. You have more dialogue, you have more discussion, you have more attempts at persuasion.
Denison: Now, Iowa is also where you had a conversation with former Congressman Jim Leach who advised you whatever you do with your [book] title, don’t put the word “redistricting” in it. Which was good advice.
Daley: He’s a smart man. I will say that he did not tell me to put the word “ratfucked” in the title.
Denison: And, in fact, I was thinking that the Jesuits at Boston College, where you studied political science, would probably not approve of your book title.
Daley: Um, they may not. They may not. However, I think that when you’re writing about something that perhaps put people to sleep in eighth-grade civics class, you have to grab their attention. And the story that I have to tell is not boring. It’s not about political trivia. It has to do with the theft of our democracy, in plain sight, by determined partisan strategists working behind the scenes, state by state, in really interesting and determined ways. We’re trying to make the case that this deeply matters. These district lines are the building blocks of our democracy, and when they get twisted and perverted, we end up with the results we have been getting.
Denison: On the title, you mentioned in the introduction that that expression can be traced back to Edmund Wilson, but you didn’t say how that esteemed literary critic used that term.
Daley: Have you got it in front of you?
Daley: He touches on it very briefly. And then it becomes more of a military-history term in World War II, and then it kind of finds its way back into politics with Watergate in the 1970s.
Denison: Wilson used it in his book about the twenties?
Denison: Well, we can maybe leave it to our readers to refer back to Edmund Wilson and find that expression.
Daley: As well they should.