(Salon/Flora Thevoux)

Who are the real victims of American democracy? Hint: It's not rural white conservatives

Despite the media's pity party, Democrats in Austin and L.A. have far more cause to complain than rural whites


Paul Rosenberg
July 23, 2017 4:00PM (UTC)

On July 3, the New York Times tweeted out a new story reported from the rural reaches of far northern California, and received some withering responses.

"NYT has a whole-ass genre of sad white people staring pensively out window in darkened room stories," podcaster Shaun Lau tweeted, followed by an invitation, "If you're a sad white person, feel free to tweet a photo of yourself staring out a window and I'll give you a NYT caption," leading, in turn, to a Times Magazine-worthy thread.

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Texas Democrats were particularly incensed.

That was followed by another tweet with an illustrative map of the Austin area's imaginatively constructed congressional districts: "Pretty amazing how our city can somehow hold only slivers of deep red rural expanses and be 5 districts in one."

The Times story itself absurdly conflated the global reality of rural economic distress — a genuine problem neglected decades too long — with the most grandiose persecution fantasies of the particular Northern California locale. A prime source of the distress is the same as that seen by the prairie populists in 1880s — a global capitalist system in which rural raw producers, as well as workers, are always precarious, regardless of how hardworking they are.

It's also broadly true that cities grow more efficient as they grow larger, which underscores the need for dedicated government programs to mitigate the resulting stress this inevitably causes for more stagnant regions. America already has a baseline model for this sort of thing — the plethora of rural and agriculturally-oriented projects and programs that were part of the New Deal. Yes, the big bad government these Trump voters love to hate.

The grandiose fantasies get more notice, however, as reflected in the Times headline, “California’s Far North Deplores ‘Tyranny’ of the Urban Majority.” It's a bizarre rip-off of Lani Guinier's 1994 book, "The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy," whose inclusive spirit and depth of insight and scholarship could not be more opposite to the views of the Trump supporters in California's far north. Many of them want to secede from the state, in which they actually wield disproportionately more power than those they feel oppressed by, due to supermajority rules that if anything foster a tyranny of the minority. Failing that, they want to grab even more power for themselves — five times the power of Los Angeles voters in one scheme, and 100 times the power in another.

“People up here for a very long time have felt a sense that we don’t matter,” the Times quotes State Assemblyman James Gallagher. “We run this state like it’s one size fits all. You can’t do that.”

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Gallagher's answer?  Drastically quash the representation of the state's majority of voters with a new scheme based on geography, rather than population: “one acre, one vote” rather than “one person, one vote.”

As the Sacramento Bee noted in early June, Gallagher's proposal would create “eight proposed regional districts – which range in size from 923,000 registered voters in Northern California to more than 5.2 million in Los Angeles County,” meaning that Angelenos would have less than one-fifth of the vote, compared to his constituents.

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The Times gave it a more benevolent spin, quoting Gallagher uncritically: “I am asking the people with power to give up some of their power in order to allow all the voices in the state to have a little bit more strength than they do right now.”

Another measure mentioned in the story superficially appears to point in the opposite direction. A lawsuit to expand the size of the legislature might appear to improve democratic responsiveness overall, but would do nothing to alter the fact that these rural northerners are a tiny minority of the state's population. Again, the Sacramento Bee clarified what's actually going on in an early May story, observing that the plaintiffs seek to return to a pre-1966 legislative structure in which each California county had one state senator, "and to add more members to the Assembly so that districts encompass far fewer residents."

The filing itself notes that Siskiyou County had a population of “about 45,000 people as of July 1, 2015,” meaning that under this scheme its residents would have more than 100 times the voting power of Los Angeles County residents — a breathtakingly anti-democratic outcome.

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Many states used to have such unfair systems, giving rural minorities the power to rule over urban majorities, until the Supreme Court's landmark cases Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims in the 1960s. Since then, the notion of “one person, one vote” they upheld has become synonymous with democracy around the world — except among some American conservatives, that is.

In short, nothing actually happening in Northern California is remotely comparable to what has happened in Texas. As noted in the Austin Chronicle  last March, "Parts of five congressional districts are located in Travis County – yet not one of those districts is 'anchored' (i.e., has a majority of its residents or voters) in Travis. Austin, the 11th largest U.S. city, is also the largest without an anchoring district or a congressman whose primary responsibility is representing the city."

Four of those five districts are represented by Republicans. “Only peripatetic Democrat [Rep. Lloyd] Doggett has deep Austin ties and a progressive agenda," the Chronicle noted, "and indeed a secondary but thus far futile purpose of the GOP map has been to eject Doggett from Congress. He is trenchant on the larger effects of the GOP divide-and-conquer strategy: 'Crooked congressional districts, attaching distant communities across Texas to fragments of Travis County, continues to harm communities far beyond Austin.'”

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Elongating districts and fragmenting communities is one of many ways in which gerrymandering harms democracy at the most basic level of impairing effective representation, as former Salon editor David Daley described in "Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy."

The big-picture impact of Daley's story was the GOP's success in holding the House of Representatives. As I've pointed out before, that success was concentrated in seven key states identified by Mother Jones just after the 2012 election: Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, all states Barack Obama won in 2008 but that sent more than a 2-1 Republican majority to the House in 2012, a year when Democrats narrowly carried the House across the rest of the nation.

Holding the House in 2012 allowed Republicans to gridlock the government, and win back control of the Senate in 2014 as a result. Even with that, the 52-seat GOP Senate majority today represents only around 50 million voters, compared to the 84 million voters represented by the 48-seat Democratic/independent minority.  On top of that, there's news of a new Koch-supported effort to repeal the 17th Amendment, getting rid of all those pesky popular voters entirely and putting Senate elections back in the hands of gerrymandered state legislatures. So the Austin microcosm of deliberate disenfranchisement is an accurate reflection of the systematic subversion of American democracy pushed by Republicans nationwide, which keeps getting worse.

California has nothing even close to that. Both state and federal district lines are drawn by a citizen commission, established by initiative, and a 2013 League of Women Voters report noted that the end results "earned majority votes for its final maps from all three required groups of commissioners: Democrats, Republicans, and those not aligned with either major party."

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That doesn't mean democracy works perfectly in California — not by a long shot. But the most egregious problems with democracy in California are in fact 180 degrees away from the romantic rural concerns highlighted by the Times article.

First there's the supermajority problem. As noted in early 2015 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, California is one of just seven states in which “the constitution requires a supermajority vote of each house, plus the governor’s signature, to enact any bill that includes a tax increase.” The argument that this is needed to keep state taxes lower doesn't stand up to scrutiny, however; supermajority states levy taxes at nearly the same level as other states, on average, over a three-decade period. States usually pass tax increases in response to recessions, paired with spending cuts, and then cut taxes again when times are good. In addition to being unnecessary, CBPP said, supermajority rules can be economically counterproductive for states:

  • They protect outdated and wasteful tax breaks, since getting rid of them counts as a tax increase.
  • They shift costs from some residents to others, by raising  targeted fees, for example, instead of broad-based taxes. “Such actions shift the cost of government from some taxpayers to others — students, Medicaid recipients, and homeowners, for example.”
  • They limit lawmakers’ options during recessions, by making it harder to balance spending cuts and tax increases — the most effective way to deal with recession-induced budget gaps.
  • They expand the power of special interests, by giving more power to legislative hostage-takers, who in turn get rewarded by special interests. In recent California news, this has shown up in the dilution of climate change action and the stalling of a single-payer health care plan.

Every year in California there are dozens of stories about budgetary political problems at different levels of government that trace back to these supermajority requirements. The worst part of  this, as the last point above highlights, the power denied to a simple majority isn't wielded by any sort of coherent or principled minority instead. It's often not much better than a simple bribe.

A second major problem with democracy in California is the skewed and limited nature of the electorate, which is far more conservative ideologically than the population as a whole. In 2006, the Public Policy Institute of California produced a report, “California's Exclusive Electorate,” which I wrote about at the time. It found that “the difference between voters and nonvoters is especially stark in attitudes toward government’s role; elected officials; and many social issues, policies, and programs.” Nonvoters, for instance, were found to prefer higher taxes and more services to lower taxes and fewer services by an enormous margin, 66 to 26 percent. Among actual voters, the split was nearly even: 49 to 44 percent.

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Ten years later, PPIC produced another edition of that report. The press release cited some key distinctions, including the following:

  • Views on the role of government: Likely voters are divided on whether the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, with a slim majority in favor of the government doing more (51 to 44 percent). A much larger 70 percent of nonvoters say the government should do more. When Californians are asked if they have a generally favorable or unfavorable view of the federal Affordable Care Act, likely voters are divided (49 percent favorable to 46 unfavorable). Nonvoters are much more likely to view the law favorably (56 to 35 percent).
  • Spending preferences:  Likely voters are strongly in favor of paying down the debt rather than restoring funds to social services (59 to 38 percent). Nonvoters lean toward restoring funds to social services (50 to 44 percent).
  • Ballot initiatives: The economic divide between the haves and have-nots was also reflected in issues California voters have confronted recently. Just under half of likely voters (49 percent) said increasing the state’s minimum wage was very important to them, while a large majority of nonvoters (69 percent) expressed that view. Nonvoters are more likely than frequent voters to have children living at home and to benefit directly from increased school funding. They were also more likely to say that issuing state bonds for schools was very important to them (68 to 55 percent).

Nonvoters don't vote for a wide range of reasons, but one obvious one is that politicians seeking donor support speak to a very different set of concerns. If you (accurately) don't think that anyone's speaking to you, why would you pay any attention? And if you don't pay attention, why vote?  This is how a democracy in name only works. And it's designed to work that way.

So how do the complaints of secessionists in remote Northern California hold up?

They're right that California's legislature is too small, and less responsive than it should be. The state's population was around 7 million in 1940, and is almost 40 million today. Making the legislature five times larger would bring it back in line with pre-World War II levels. But the smart way to do that would be to keep district lines as they are, and elect five representatives per district using proportional representation.

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The Illinois House used a similar system for almost a century, which allowed Chicago Republicans and downstate Democrats both to have representation, despite their minority status. This helped keep both parties more diverse at higher levels, and thus more able to craft sensible legislation. The same could be achieved in California today. Perhaps most importantly, it could help mix things up ideologically.

An underlying theme in the Times story is the supposed evils of regulation that have stifled capitalism..“They’ve devastated ag jobs, timber jobs, mining jobs with their environmental regulations, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican who represents the northeastern quadrant of the state, told the Times. "So, yes, we have a harder time sustaining the economy, and therefore there’s more people that are in a poorer situation.”

But historically, free market capitalism has devastated such communities. A classic example in the region is recounted in "The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street Over California's Ancient Redwoods."  Generations of sustainable forestry practice were wiped out in less than a decade, destroying forests, jobs, pensions and lives. Fighting back against such destructive forces can best be done lead by those living there, a theme articulated potently by Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb in a recent In These Times interview.

It’s important that we talk about climate change in different ways, right? In rural and small towns we may not use the word "climate change" in the first five sentences, but everything we’re doing is talking about protecting the land and water and stopping these risky projects, which ultimately, obviously, impact climate change. ...

You know, small towns hate big corporations. Right, they hate big anything. They think Tyson is the devil, trying to consolidate markets and put chicken farmers under these really bad contracts. And so, there are lots of threads that Democrats should be talking to rural and small town voters on. And Bernie [Sanders] was obviously one of the best messengers for that.

The threads are there, and the people are, too. James Gallagher, the state assemblyman interviewed by the Times, won his most recent re-election by 63 to 37 percent. In a five-member district elected by proportional representation, there would be enough Democratic voters to elect two members. Their daily presence in the state capitol would educate and inform the Democratic Party in ways that just don't happen as things stand now. Their presence as local elected officials would also help invigorate the politics of the communities they represent. It wouldn't be anything like the secession fantasy that Trump voters in places like that claim to want. But it might actually help address the reality-based aspects of their anguish. We would all come away winners as a result.

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Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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