A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that congressional races are so heavily rigged in favor of Republicans that the United States can barely be described as a democratic republic. The upshot of their analysis is that, to win a bare majority of the seats in the U.S. House, Democrats “would likely have to win the national popular vote by nearly 11 points.”
To put that number in perspective, neither party achieved an 11-point popular vote win in the last several decades. The last time this happened, according to the Brennan Center, was 1982, when a deep recession led the opposition Democrats to a 269 seat majority against President Reagan’s Republicans.
The Brennan Center’s estimate, it should be noted, is unusually pessimistic for Democrats, but consistent with a number of estimates showing that Democrats face an unfair disadvantage at the polls.
After the 2012 election — when Democratic House candidates won the popular vote by almost 1.4 million votes, but Republicans won a solid majority in the House — ThinkProgress estimated that Democrats would need to win the popular vote by about 7.25 points in order to take back the House. (Democratic prospects have improved since 2012, in large part due to a court decision striking down Pennsylvania’s aggressively gerrymandered maps.)
Similarly, data journalist Nate Silver estimates that Democrats could need to win by as much as 10 points to take back the House.
It depends on what assumptions one makes — the range of "reasonable" answers spans a pretty wide range from as many as 10 points to as few as 4 points. https://t.co/9pX44p4JAl
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) March 26, 2018
One factor that contributes to the Brennan Center’s pessimism is its analysis of congressional maps in red states. In Alabama, for example, Democratic House candidates could win as much as 47 percent of the statewide popular vote, and still only win one of the state’s seven House seats. In Georgia, Democrats could win 54 percent of the popular vote, yet only win 5 of the state’s 14 seats.
Nor is the House the only place where American democracy is breaking down. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, yet he still got to be president. The 49 senators in the Democratic caucus represent nearly 40 million more people than the 51 senators in the Republican caucus.
And this last problem is likely to get much worse. According to Baruch College’s David Birdsell, by 2040 “about 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states.” As a result, 70 percent of Americans “will have only 30 senators representing them, while the remaining 30% of Americans will have 70 senators representing them.”
Moreover, if the parties continue to sort into diverse, urban Democrats and homogeneous, more rural Republicans, the GOP won’t just gain a lock on the Senate. They could potentially ensure that no Democrat is ever confirmed to the federal bench again.
In 2016, when Senate Republicans successfully blocked Chief Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the 46 Democrats in the Senate represented 20 million more people than the 54 Republicans. In 2017, when Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to occupy this seat, the 45 senators who opposed his confirmation represented more than 25 million more people than the senators who supported him.
The United States, in other words, is barreling toward a future where a younger, multicultural, more urbanized majority is ruled by an aging, white, rural minority. That’s a recipe for civil unrest, or even a secession crisis.
At the very least, it casts a very dark cloud of illegitimacy over the entire United States government.