Why Democrats may be out of power for a decade after 2016's election

The Democrats face an almost impossible task to reclaim Congress in the coming years

America, Capitol Hill, Congress,

Image: An American flag flies over Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The shock of Donald Trump’s win in the US election has not yet subsided, as the work continues into how the polls and pundits got their predictions so wrong.

While that is likely to go on for some time before the media fully turns its attention to keeping an eye on the President-elect and what he plans to do in office, the Democrats are now looking down the barrel of a barren period where they will be totally shut out of power.

Without Barack Obama in the White House, they have finally lost control of the executive branch of power, having already lost the legislative in the House of Representatives and the Senate. President-elect Trump will also appoint at least one Supreme Court judge, returning the balance of power across all government branches to the Grand Old Party.

The feeling of despair and helplessness that has gripped those who backed  Hillary Clinton in the wake of the vote is the very same one which Republicans themselves felt when Obama was first voted into the White House. Then, Democrats up and down the ticket surfed on the waves of his popularity and demand for change, giving them control of Congress. However, even at their lowest ebb during that loss, the GOP was already working away in the background to make sure that they would not face a similar problem again for the foreseeable future.

Two crucial things happened in 2010 that lead to politics in the United States becoming more partisan than it ever has: the Citizens United ruling, and the census.

Firstly, the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (to give the case its full title) ruled that “prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech,” meaning that spending limits imposed to keep corporate funds out of politics were, in fact, unconstitutional.

Image: Members of Arkansas Democracy Coalition rally at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, May, 2015, calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Secondly, using the census data, the Republican State Leadership Committee launched the Redistricting Majority Project, known as REDMAP. The goal of the project was to formulate “a strategy to keep or win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on congressional redistricting as a result of reapportionment.”

In other words, the GOP looked at state races where they would be redrawing the electoral map, and did their best to make sure they won a seat there so they could influence how the districts would change.

The effect of that change yielded results quickly, and saw Obama struggle to achieve many of the things that he had campaigned for re-election on as a result of efforts from GOP members who did their best to block and obstruct every move the Democrats tried to make.

Speaking to Newstalk, editor of Salon.com and author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America's Democracy, David Daley, outlined how the money spent on Operation REDMAP at grassroots level has fundamentally changed the way in which politics in the United States has worked.

“When they redraw the 435 House of Representatives districts in 2011, they managed to draw them whiter, more conservative and less-educated than they had been. At a time when the demographics of the country are changing, it’s really hard to draw districts in that way.”

“We don’t know entirely who has bought and sold this democracy,” Daley said, “but the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) pulls this play off with $30 million that they raised from their big donors throughout the end of 2009 and 2010.”

As a comparison, spending in November’s race for the Senate seat in New Hampshire topped $90 million, according to OpenSecrets.org, the Center for Responsive Politics’ website which tracks spending in US Politics. 

Tracing where the money comes from is a challenge, however, and while there are many of the usual suspects that donate to Republican Super PACs, Daley added that: “there’s a lot of money being funneled up through state parties and various state apparatuses that goes into the RSLC and then it goes back out, and somewhere in there, because of Citizens United, the trail starts to grow cold and bit becomes really hard to track.

“It’s a multi-headed, multi-tentacled beast, and it is allowed to operate in the shadows.”

“It’s the political heist of all time, and it happened right under our noses, perfectly legally simply by manipulating the process,” Daley said.

Not only does the redistricting tactic mean that the GOP controls Congress, they are likely to enjoy that power for at least a decade. However, the other effect has been to change the way in which politics is done in Washington, with politicians now less likely than ever before to reach across the aisle and try to negotiate.

“It is no coincidence that these are the congressmen elected from these new districts, they form things like the House Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party caucus [...] these people came to Washington with one purpose: to say no, to obstruct and not get anything done.

"They come from districts that are so lacking in competition that the only thing they have to fear is a primary challenge from someone more conservative than they are," Daley adds, "so they have even less incentive to ever talk to or acknowledge the other side or engage in a dialogue or get to Washington and govern, because that’s the one thing that can beat them.

“Redistricting changed the tone and tenor of our politics in such a way that it created the conditions in which Trump could walk in and take control of the Republican Party."

Those conditions were documented by Theda Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientist from Harvard, whose work showed that between 2010-2016, Congress has taken a lunge to the right. History has told us that parties looking to reclaim votes tend to move to the center in an effort to boost dwindling support, but it seems that the GOP have taken that tact, and it’s working.

In a paper published this year with Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Skocpol wrote: “On one economic issue after another, virtually all Republican politicians – including contenders for the presidency and candidates for the Senate in large, diverse states – have moved toward 1 unpopular far-right positions. Not even conservative populist voters are demanding cut backs or privatization of Social Security or Medicare, yet virtually all nationally prominent Republicans now push these overwhelmingly unpopular ideas.”

As Trump names those who will make up his cabinet and closest advisers, the way in which he intends to work with the more extreme elements of the party will become clearer, but there’s little doubt that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan hopes that Congress will, to some extent, dictate the way things go.

“Paul Ryan’s goal is to enact a radically conservative domestic agenda,” explains Daley “and he campaigned on that agenda. The reason Paul Ryan did not want to completely walk away from Trump was because of this. What if Trump won? Ryan thinks he can be president from the Speaker’s office and push through his domestic agenda.”

Ryan is not the only one who thinks in that way either. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2012, Grover Norquist said that the problem for the GOP was not finding a conservative visionary to dream up the perfect policy, rather someone who could enact what Congress wanted. Norquist stated that what they needed in the White House was a president  with “enough working digits to handle a pen.”

With a “brutal map” facing the Democrats in the 2018 House and Senate races, Daley argues that the concentration will need to be on the local elections for the party, as they need to flip the state houses that could see them have a say when the next redistricting is done.

However, this may mean that the partisan politics of non-compromise become even entrenched to a greater degree as both sides move further apart.  

“The Democrats don’t have any choice,” argues Daley. “If they don’t push back in that way, they will be on the outside looking in for another decade. The hope that I had was that the Supreme Court would weigh in on partisan gerrymandering in the next four years and find a standard to say when it has gone too far. That hope has now gone out the window, and because there will probably be no judicial remedy to this, we have to look for a political one.

“That makes politics more expensive, more negative, and more nasty all the way down to the local level. It nationalises every little election. It means that normal folks who are interested in running for the local state house probably can’t afford to do it. It is an arms race, and it’s an arms race to the bottom.”

After 2016, the Democrats now find themselves in a situation where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Al Gore won the popular vote, and their candidates for Congress garnered more votes than their opponents in 2012. Daley argues that the results of this latest election highlights a very worrying trend.

"I think when the system become intentionally designed so that the side with the most votes loses again and again and again, at every level of government, America has a democracy problem that is deep, severe and looks very, very hard to fix."