The Democrats' dangerous post-Obama world: Why its demographic "advantage" doesn't actually mean much

Many take it for granted that things will get better for the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, it's not that simple

Published November 6, 2015 12:58PM (EST)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

There are many reasons to be optimistic for the future of American politics if you are a Democrat or a left-leaning person. As I have previously noted, the country's demographics are quickly changing, and the Republican Party, which made a conscious decision to become the white man’s party about 50 years ago with the Southern Strategy, is seemingly falling apart. The alliance between business elites and white working-class Southerners that ushered in the Reagan revolution is collapsing, and Donald Trump has led a populist mutiny of sorts against the party establishment -- which Tea Party types may despise even more than the Democratic Party. While the country at large is becoming more socially liberal, particularly because of young people, the GOP is still held back by white Southerners who refuse to let go of old prejudices. As young America continues to become more progressive, the GOP is seemingly doubling down on its intolerance -- as seen with Trump’s xenophobia and nationalism -- and the establishment, which has historically been able to keep its populist factions in line, is losing control.

In a country with roughly 54 million Hispanics (a number that will only grow in the future), it may seem like a terrible strategy to call Hispanic cultures “peasant cultures,” and accuse an entire nationality of being “criminals” and “rapists.” And for the long term, it is. However, there is a window period -- say the next 20 or so years -- where Republicans could do insurmountable damage to the political system and American democracy.

As Tuesday’s elections revealed, Republicans are not going to fade away easily. In Kentucky, Matt Bevin -- who makes Trump look moderate -- was elected governor in a major upset, while in Virginia, Democrats failed to capture the state Senate. (They needed a net gain of one Senate seat.) Overall, it was another good election year for Republicans, and as Matthew Yglesias pointed out in a Vox piece last month, the Democratic Party is in a much worse position at the state and local levels than it is nationally. “The presidency is extremely important, of course,” writes Yglesias, “but there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority — 70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state — are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress.”

What is particularly troubling about this is that state legislators draw district lines, and, of course, much of the GOP control of today is because of gerrymandering. In 2012, for example, Republicans won a majority of House seats, even though they only won 48 percent of the vote, while in 2014, they won about 52 percent of the vote and 57 percent of the seats. The rigged electoral system is clearly in favor of Republicans, and even as the population becomes more diverse and progressive, Republicans could still hold on to majority control if districting continues to favor them and if nothing is done about voter suppression, which is becoming increasingly common in GOP controlled states.

Besides banning gerrymandering and voter suppression, a panacea of sorts for this undemocratic imbalance would be to create proportional representation in the states, replacing the many small districts we currently have in each state with one to three large districts, depending on the state's population, with multiple representatives from each district. Not only would this eliminate gerrymandering, but it would create a system where minorities are represented as well (for example, in one large district with four representatives, if 25 percent of the population voted Democrat, 50 percent voted Republican, and 25 percent voted Green, there would be two Republican representatives, one Democratic representative, and one Green Party representative).

Obviously the Democratic Party must focus on how to recapture state and local offices, but winning the presidency in 2016 is even more crucial. As Yglesias points out, if a Republican wins in 2016, the GOP will have a “level of dominance not achieved since the Democrats during the Great Depression.” Not only this, but there is a very good chance that the next president will be nominating multiple Supreme Court justices. Ian Millhiser wrote a good piece in Think Progress on just how much influence the Supreme Court has had on our electoral system over the past decade and a half, and how disastrous an even larger conservative majority would be for the Democratic Party and democracy in the United States.

Take 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which repealed section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had required federal review of proposals for new voting rules in 15 states with a history of discrimination (mostly in the South). In a report by Mother Jones, it was found that one year after it had been repealed, eight of the 15 states had passed “voter restrictions” (e.g., voter ID law, cutting voting hours, purging voter rolls, or ending same-day registration). Just last month, one of these states, (sweet home) Alabama, shut down 31 DMV offices around the state -- chiefly in predominately black counties -- after a voter ID law had gone into effect in 2014.

As for gerrymandering, the Supreme Court can also be thanked for its continuing presence. “If you don’t like gerrymandering, you should blame the Supreme Court,” writes Millhiser. “In the 2004 case Vieth v. Jubelirer, four conservative justices said that they would forbid federal courts from hearing challenges to partisan gerrymanders, and Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion was only slightly less dismissive of these lawsuits. The result is that state lawmakers have been free to draw maps that entrench their party and lock out the other party, even though such maps violate voters’ First Amendment rights.”

The Supreme Court has done more than any branch of government to rig the electoral system -- not to mention Citizens United v. FEC, which unlocked the unlimited super PAC spending that we see today. If a Republican is elected president in 2016 and ends up electing two or three justices, these regressive and anti-democratic rulings will continue for some time, and will obviously help the GOP. Even as the demographics shift and the country becomes more progressive, it won’t matter as long as elections are rigged through gerrymandering and voter suppression (and as long as there is a winner-take-all system).

This makes the 2016 presidential election all the more important. Whether Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or Hillary Clinton, a Democrat will be needed to restore fair democracy in the United States. Republicans understand that democracy would be disastrous for their party, especially as the country continues to become younger and more diverse, and they will do everything they can to prevent minorities or poor Americans from voting and to rig elections along district lines. It is well known that low voter turnout is a gift for Republicans and a curse for Democrats -- as we saw in 2014 -- and this is just another example of why Republicans don’t want everyone to vote and feel it necessary to rig elections. Whoever does get the Democratic nomination, it will be crucial for progressives and moderates to come together and keep the undemocratic extremists that Republicans have become out of the highest office in America.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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