When the definitive political history of this decade is published, Barack Obama will be the central figure, mobbed by an array of allies, adversaries, accomplishments, and failures. But it won’t be the definitive history if it doesn’t give nearly equal treatment to the 2010 midterm elections.
The Republican victory that year was decisive enough to place nearly all of Obama’s legislative ambitions out of reach, and lock the country into an austerity cycle that acted as a choke collar around the neck of the economic recovery.
At the federal level, it carried immense significance. But as MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin explains in this excellent primer, the consequences were if anything more severe at the state level. By sheer coincidence, the first Republican wave in nearly two decades coincided with the decennial Census, allowing the victors not just to enact conservative policies in states they wouldn’t normally have dreamed of controlling, but, through redistricting, to lock those majorities into place for many election cycles into the future. They made the Republican House majority invulnerable to an Obama re-election juggernaut in which the public at large expressed its desire for a Democratic majority by a million-vote margin. And they clustered in-state Dems into districts so lopsided that, absent a Democratic wave or a different, unlikely forcing mechanism, they can safely retain control of key state legislatures in perpetuity.
Under the circumstances, you can’t blame Democrats for plotting revenge.
The fantasy scenario for Democrats, if all goes right, might look something like this: President Hillary Clinton, capitalizing on a solid first term, a still-divided GOP, and the usual advantages of incumbency, leads her party to a decisive victory in 2020. Riding her performance, Democrats down the ticket take over a number of key state legislatures and governor’s seats. Now with far greater control over the redistricting process, they put the House back into play.
I’ve spoken to a handful of Democratic operatives about this, too, and, as Sarlin suggests, they all understand that the point of thinking ahead so far is to be prepared, not to convince themselves that the alternating political dynamic that has defined the past six years will necessarily hold for six more.
But as tempting as most Democrats will find it to impose maximal punishment should they sweep statewide elections in 2020—as much as they may feel that turnabout is their divine right—there’s something else, arguably something better, they should consider doing with all that power.
It’s wise for Democrats to be prepared, and on the same page across states and advocacy groups, should the fantasy scenario play out perfectly. But on a parallel track, if the wave materializes, they should be prepared to use the threat of aggressive, opportunistic redistricting as a source of leverage, to entice Republicans into supporting some kind of non-partisan redistricting system, ideally in every state.
The details would be complex, but the basic offer would be simple: Either agree to mutual, permanent disarmament, and make one of the country’s many undemocratic processes more democratic, or enjoy the wilderness for a decade.
Partisan redistricting isn’t the biggest problem in the world. But as Democrats in Michigan and Pennsylvania will attest, it can create perverse and lasting outcomes, against the interests of statewide voting majorities. Republicans in North Carolina should ask themselves if they’re prepared to be whipsawed and antagonized the same way residents of Detroit and Philadelphia have been.
I have no idea if Republicans would be interested in cutting a deal along these lines.
It's a safer bet that partisan rancor will remain pitched in 2020 than that Democrats will crush Republicans in conservative states. And as Lafayette College political scientist Nick Goedert explained to me by email, "there are a lot of state legislators (especially Republicans) who, even if they were amenable to giving up their own power if it made sense in their own state, would see such an interstate agreement as contrary to their own sense of federalism."
But Democrats should be prepared to offer it anyhow. It wouldn't be a huge sacrifice—the entire scenario presumes huge Democratic gains six years from now, which means Dems would still have a full election cycle to enact liberal policies, or reverse damage done by past Republican governments, in states across the country. From that point forward, though, neither party would be allowed to draw districts that structurally favor one party over the other, for the sole purpose of partisan gain. Alternatively, Dems could affix a non-partisan redistricting scheme to a fuse that would only ignite after a critical number of states signed on to it.
And if Republicans were to decline, with an eye toward 2030, they’d get to experience, for many years, exactly what they’ve recently inflicted on millions of Democrats.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.