The essential struggle in America … will be between city men and yokels.
The yokels hang on because the old apportionments give them unfair advantages. …
But that can’t last.
—H.L. Mencken. 23 July 1928.
“It’s as if,” the American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998, “the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time, as if it either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.” Penn State literature professor Michael Bérubé sneered at Rorty at the time, writing that Rorty’s problem is that he “construes leftist thought as a zero-sum game,” as if somehow
the United States would have passed a national health-care plan, implemented a family-leave policy, and abolished ‘right to work’ laws if only … left-liberals in the humanities hadn’t been wasting our time writing books on cultural hybridity and popular music.
Bérubé then essentially asked Rorty, “where’s the evidence?”—knowing, of course, that it is impossible to prove a counterfactual, i.e. what didn’t happen. But even in 1998, there was evidence to think that Rorty was not wrong: that, by focusing on discrimination rather than on inequality, “left-liberals” have, as Rorty accused then, effectively “collaborated with the Right.” Take, for example, what are called “majority-minority districts,” which are designed to increase minority representation, and thus combat “stigma”—but have the effect of harming minorities.
A “majority-minority district,” according to Ballotpedia, “is a district in which a minority group or groups comprise a majority of the district’s total population.” They were created in response to Section Two of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited drawing legislative districts in a fashion that would “improperly dilute minorities’ voting power.” Proponents of their use maintain that they are necessary in order to prohibit what’s sometimes called “cracking,” or diluting a constituency so as to ensure that it is not a majority in any one district. It’s also claimed that “majority-minority” districts are the only way to ensure minority representation in the state legislatures and Congress—and while that may or may not be true, it is certainly true that after drawing such districts there were more minority members of Congress than there were before: according to the Congressional Research Service, prior to 1969 (four years after passage) there were less than ten black members of Congress, a number that then grew until, after the 106th Congress (1999-01), there have consistently been between 39 and 44 African-American members of Congress. Unfortunately, while that may have been good for individual representatives, it may not be all that great for their constituents.
That’s because while “majority-minority” districts may increase the number of black and minority congressmen and women, they may also decrease the total numbers of Democrats in Congress. As The Atlantic put the point in 2013: after the redistricting process following the Census of 1990, the “drawing of majority-minority districts not only elected more minorities, it also had the effect of bleeding minority voters out of all the surrounding districts”—making them virtually impregnably Republican. In 2012, for instance, Barack Obama won 44 Congressional districts by more than 50 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney won only eight districts by such a large percentage. Figures like these could seem overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats, of course—until it is realized that, by winning congressional seats by such huge margins in some districts, Democrats are effectively losing votes in others.
That’s why—despite the fact that he lost the popular vote—in 2012 Romney’s party won 226 of 435 Congressional districts, while Obama’s party won 209. In this past election, as I’ve mention in past posts, Republicans won 55% of the seats (241) despite getting 49.9% of the vote, while Democrats won 44% of the seats despite getting 47.3% of the vote. That might not seem like a large difference, but it is suggestive when these percentages always point in a single direction: going back to 1994, the year of the “Contract With America,” Republicans have consistently outperformed their share of the popular vote, while Democrats have consistently underperformed theirs.
From the perspective of the Republican party, that’s just jake, despite being—according to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP in North Carolina—due to “an intentional and cynical use of race.” Whatever the ethics of the thing, it’s certainly had major results. “In 1949,” as Ari Berman pointed out in The Nation not long ago, “white Democrats controlled 103 of 105 House seats in the former Confederacy,” while the last white Southern congressman not named Steve Cohen exited the House in 2014. Considered all together, then, as “majority-minority districts” have increased, the body of Southern congressmen (and women) has become like an Oreo: a thin surface of brown Democrats on the outside, thickly white and Republican on the inside—and nothing but empty calories.
Nate Silver, to be sure, discounted all this worry as so much ado about nothing in 2013: “most people,” he wrote then, “are putting too much weight on gerrymandering and not enough on geography.” In other words, “minority populations, especially African-Americans, tend to be highly concentrated in certain geographic areas,” so much so that it would a Herculean task “not to create overwhelmingly minority (and Democratic) districts on the South Side of Chicago, in the Bronx or in parts of Los Angeles or South Texas.” Furthermore, even if that could be accomplished such districts would violate “nonpartisan redistricting principles like compactness and contiguity.” But while Silver is right on the narrow ground he contests, it merely begs the question: why should geography have anything to do with voting? Silver’s position essentially ensures that African-American and other minority votes count for less. “Majority minority districts” imply that minority votes do not have as much effect on policy as votes in other kinds of districts: they create, as if the United States were some corporation with common and preferred shares, two kinds of votes.
Like discussions about, for example, the Electoral College—in which a vote in Wyoming is much more valuable than one in California—Silver’s position in other words implies that minority votes will remain less valuable than other votes because a vote in a “majority-minority” district will have less probability of electing a congressperson who is a member of a majority in Congress. What does it matter to African-Americans if one of their number is elected to Congress, if Congress can do nothing for them? To Silver, there isn’t any issue with majority-minority districts because they reflect their underlying proportions of people—but what matters is whether whoever’s elected can get policies that benefit them.
Right here, in other words, we get to the heart of the dispute between the deceased Rorty and his former student Bérubé: the difference between procedural and substantive justice. To some left-liberal types like Michael Bérubé, that might appear just swell: to coders in the Valley (represented by California’s 17th, the only majority-Asian district in the continental United States) or cultural-studies theorists in Boston, what might be important is simply the numbers of minority representatives, not the ability to pass a legislative agenda that’s fair for all Americans. It all might seem like no skin off their nose. (More ominously, it conceivably might even be in their economic interests: the humanities and the arts after all are intellectually well-equipped for a politics of appearances—but much less so for a politics of substance.) But ultimately this also affects them, and for a similar reason: urban professionals are, after all, urban—which means that their votes are, like majority-minority districts, similarly concentrated.
“Urban Democrat House members”—as The Atlantic also noted in 2013—“win with huge majorities, but winning a district with 80 percent doesn’t help the party gain any more seats than winning with 60 percent.” As Silver put the same point, “white voters in cities with high minority populations tend to be quite liberal, yielding more redundancy for Democrats.” Although these percentages might appear heartening to some of those within such districts, they ought to be deeply worrying: individual votes are not translating into actual political power. The more geographically concentrated Democrats are the less and less capable their party becomes of accomplishing its goals. While winning individual races by huge margins might be satisfying to some, no one cares about running up the score in a junior varsity game.
What “left-liberal” types ought to be contesting, in other words, isn’t whether Congress has enough black and other minority people in it, but instead the ridiculous, anachronistic idea that voting power should be tied to geography. “People, not land or trees or pastures vote,” Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren wrote in 1964; in that case, Wesberry v. Sanders, the Supreme Court ruled that, as much as possible, “one man’s vote in a Congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.” By shifting discussion to procedural issues of identity and stigma, “majority-minority districts” obscure that much more substantive question of power. Like some gaggle of left-wing Roy Cohns, people like Michael Bérubé want to talk about who people are. His opponents ought to reply by saying they’re interested in what people could be—and building a real road to get there.