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September 25, 2023 Heather Cox Richardson

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Pundits struggle to decide whether Trump’s rise represents something new in the United States or whether it is a continuation of the growing anti-democratic politics of the Republican Party. As a card-carrying Libra, I’m going to suggest it was both.

If yesterday’s letter was about how Trump’s turn to authoritarianism is unprecedented among major party political leaders, tonight’s is about how the Republican Party prepared the way for this moment in part by rigging the system through gerrymandering so that their politicians no longer need to appeal to voters. Those extreme gerrymanders threaten to skew the 2024 election and are contributing to the Republican Party’s inability to perform the most basic functions of government.

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing legislative districts to favor a political party. The practice was named for Elbridge Gerry, an early governor of Massachusetts who signed off on such a scheme (even though he didn’t like it). Political parties can gain an advantage in elections by either “packing” or “cracking” their opponents’ voters. Packing means stuffing the opposition party’s voters into districts so their votes are not distributed more widely; cracking means dividing opponents’ voters among multiple districts so there are too few of them in any district to have a chance of winning. 

The Constitution requires the government to take a census every ten years to see where people have moved, enabling the government to draw districts that should allow us to elect politicians that represent us. Political operatives have always carved up maps to serve themselves when they could, but today’s computers allow them to draw maps with surgical precision. 

That created a big change in 2010. Before that midterm election, hoping to hamstring President Barack Obama’s ability to accomplish anything by making sure he had a hostile Congress, Republican operatives raised money from corporate donors to swamp state elections with ads and campaign literature to elect Republicans to state legislatures. This Operation REDMAP, which stood for Redistricting Majority Project, was a plan to take control of state houses across the country so that Republicans would control the redistricting maps put in place after the 2010 census. 

It worked. After the 2010 election, Republicans controlled the legislatures in the key states of Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as other, smaller states, and they redrew congressional maps using precise computer models. In the 2012 election, Democrats won the White House decisively, the Senate easily, and a majority of 1.4 million votes for House candidates. And yet Republicans came away with a thirty-three-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

The results of that effort are playing out today.

In Wisconsin the electoral districts are so gerrymandered that although the state’s population is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans control nearly two thirds of the seats in the legislature and it is virtually impossible for Democrats ever to win control of the state legislature. In April, voters elected Janet Protasiewicz to the state supreme court by an astonishing margin of 11 points, in part thanks to her promise to reject the extreme gerrymandered maps. 

Protasiewicz’s election shifted the court majority away from the Republicans. Even before she was elected, one Republican senator suggested impeaching her, and now, because she has called the district maps “rigged” and said, “I don’t think you could sell to any reasonable person that the maps are fair,” Republicans are calling for her impeachment before she has even heard a case. (After saying the maps were rigged, she added: “I can’t ever tell you what I’m going to do on a particular case, but I can tell you my values, and common sense tells you that it’s wrong.”)

Voters are also evenly split in North Carolina—illustrated by the fact that a statewide race elected Democrat Roy Cooper as governor—but there, too, gerrymandering has rigged the maps for the Republicans. After a Democrat switched sides to give the Republicans a veto-proof majority in both houses of the legislature, the House of Representatives last week passed laws taking away the governor’s power to make appointments to state and local election boards and removing the tiebreaker seat the governor appointed to the state board. 

Instead, the legislature has taken over the right to make those appointments itself, meaning that election rules could become entirely partisan. At the same time, the legislature exempted its legislators from complying with the state open-records law that requires redistricting documents be public.

In Ohio, almost 75% of voters agreed to amend the state constitution in 2018 to prohibit political gerrymanders. Nonetheless, when the Republican-dominated legislature drew district maps in 2021, they gave a strong advantage to Republicans. The state supreme court struck the maps down as unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court permitted them to stay in place for the 2022 election. The court will now revisit the question, but it has moved further to the right since 2022.

In Alabama, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that the maps in place in 2022 were likely unconstitutional and must be redrawn to include a second majority-Black district. But when the state legislature drew a new map the next month, it defied the court. The court was shocked at the refusal to comply, and appointed a special master, who today offered three options. Any of them would offer the Democrats a chance to pick up another seat, and the state is challenging the new maps.

Tennessee shows what gerrymandering does at the state level. There, Republicans tend to get about 60% of the votes but control 76% of the seats in the House and 82% of the seats in the Senate. This supermajority means that the Republicans can legislate as they wish. 

Gerrymandered seats mean that politicians do not have to answer to constituents; their purpose is to raise money and fire up true believers. Although more than 70% of Tennessee residents want gun safety legislation, for example, Republican legislators, who are certain to win in their gerrymandered districts, can safely ignore them. 

Tennessee shows the effects of gerrymandering at the national level as well. Although Republican congressional candidates in Tennessee get about 65% of the vote, they control 89% of Tennessee’s congressional delegation. In the elections of 2022, Florida, Alabama, and Ohio all used maps that courts have thrown out for having rigged the system to favor Republicans. The use of those unfair maps highlights that the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives by only the slimmest of margins and explains why Republicans are determined to keep their gerrymanders.

Because their seats are safe, Republicans do not have to send particularly skilled politicians to Congress; they can send those whose roles are to raise money and push Republican ideology. That likely explains at least a part of why House Republicans are no closer to agreeing on a deal to fund the government than they have been for the past several months, even as the deadline is racing toward us, and why they are instead going to hold an impeachment hearing concerning President Joe Biden on Thursday. 

Michigan was one of the Operation REDMAP states, redistricted after the 2010 election into an extreme gerrymander designed by Republicans who bragged about stuffing “Dem garbage” into four districts so that Republicans would, as one said, stay in power for years. In 2016 a Michigan woman, Katie Fahey, started a movement to get rid of the partisan maps. In 2018, despite a Republican lawsuit to stop them, they successfully placed an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission on the ballot. It passed overwhelmingly. 

After the 2020 census the commission’s new maps still slightly favored Republicans because of the state’s demographic distribution—Democrats are concentrated in cities—but the parties were competitive. In 2022, Democrats took control of the state government, winning the House for the first time since 2008.

Notes:

https://gerrymander.princeton.edu/redistricting-report-card/?planId=recxk4vTgReqGhI5h

https://www.vox.com/politics/2023/9/25/23889465/north-carolina-republicans-elections

https://www.propublica.org/article/wisconsin-gop-gerrymander-elections-janet-protasiewicz

https://bolderadvocacy.org/story/redistricting-in-ohio/

https://ballotpedia.org/Ohio_Issue_1,_Congressional_Redistricting_Procedures_Amendment_(May_2018)

https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/ohios-new-voting-maps-violate-its-own-constitution

https://www.democracydocket.com/analysis/ohios-congressional-map-is-back-in-court/

https://www.npr.org/2023/09/02/1197452442/desantis-florida-redistricting-map-gerrymandering-unconstitutional

https://www.alreporter.com/2023/09/16/dark-money-the-backstory-of-alabamas-redistricting-defiance/

https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/25/politics/alabama-redistricting-special-master-map-proposals/index.html

https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/emails-suggest-republicans-gerrymandered-michigan-weaken-dem-garbage

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/29/us/politics/michigan-congressional-maps.html

https://ballotpedia.org/Party_control_of_Michigan_state_government

On Operation REDMAP, see David Daley, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy (New York: Liveright, 2016).

https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/25/politics/kevin-mccarthy-government-shutdown/index.html

https://twitter.com/NC5PhilWilliams/status/1706096589322821813

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WATCH: ‘This Is My First Rodeo’ | Ben Meets America Ben Kawaller

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In the latest stop on his cross-country quest to understand America, Ben Kawaller watches men hurl cows to the ground.

Last month I attended The American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, a city of around 400,000 souls situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was my first rodeo, and it did not take me long after entering its host venue, the gargantuan Globe Life Field, to realize that I did not know what a rodeo was. If you’d asked me six weeks ago to define the term, I would have said something like, “It’s when you watch someone career around an enclosed pen on an animal.” 

Which is actually not too far off. But what I hadn’t realized is that a rodeo is actually a sporting event. 

You see, some people are especially good at bending these animals to their will, and if you are one of those people, you can win competitions for things like making the animals run very fast, or tying the animals up very quickly, or not dying while trying to sit on one of the animals.

Of course, I wasn’t really there for the games; I was there to talk to the crowd about what makes our society so divided. If you’re tuning in for the first time to my new series—“Ben Meets America”—I was born and raised in progressive Brooklyn, I now live in West Hollywood, and I will admit to being soft in some fundamental way. Suffice it to say I get a more transcendent high from watching a torch song than I do from watching a man hurl a small cow to the ground.

But, in fact, theater and rodeo have their similarities. If you’ve been to a play in recent years, you will have suffered the degradation of a “land acknowledgement.” This is when the audience is told before the show—either in an announcement or in the program notes—that they’ve gathered on land stolen from whatever Native American tribe existed there years ago. My sense is that some of this is rooted in the idea that America itself is fundamentally illegitimate. Whatever’s behind it, the inclusion of a land acknowledgement has become de rigueur.

I did not think conservatives did land acknowledgements, so I was surprised when the Native American actor Mo Brings Plenty appeared before the start of one of the competitions and performed a minute or two of indigenous wailing. I believe the intent of this was to, well, acknowledge the fact that Native American bloodshed was central to the expansion of the American West. What I did not expect was the incongruence of what came after. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I’m still puzzling over its significance.

In the end, however, I decided I prefer the conservative version of a land acknowledgement. Unlike the inane liberal sacrament, it appears to be capable of expressing two truths at once: that oceans of indigenous blood were spilled in the creation of this country, and that we live in one of the greatest nations on earth.

Even if one of our favorite spectator sports is man versus cow.

Only paid subscribers can see Ben’s video on The American Rodeo. Become one today and scroll down to watch.

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April 14, 2024 Garamond

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Senate spotlight: A Trump Republican’s China problem Judd Legum

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November’s election will not only determine which party controls the White House but also the United States Senate. Currently, the Democratic caucus holds a narrow 51-49 advantage. Control of the chamber will come down to a handful of competitive races. This is the first installment in a series that takes a deep dive into the issues shaping these campaigns. 

In Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno (R) is attempting to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown (D). Ohio, once a swing state, has been trending Republican. Moreno’s campaign strategy is to attach himself at the hip to Donald Trump. He refers to himself as the “Trump endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate from Ohio.” This helped him easily win the Republican primary against a field of more politically experienced opponents.  

In a potential second term, Trump is vowing to declare economic war on China, promising to “tax China to build America up.” Trump’s plan is to revoke China’s most favored nation trading status and impose a tariff on Chinese goods of up to 60%. (The policy would cost the typical American household thousands of dollars annually and increase inflation.) Imports of “essential goods” from China, including electronics, steel, and pharmaceuticals, would be completely banned

Moreno has taken a similar approach, saying he is running for Senate to “Beat Communist China.” To bolster his anti-China credentials, Moreno claims to have a history of combating Chinese power. These stories, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Moreno made his fortune through buying and selling car dealerships. As his wealth increased, so did his interest in Republican politics. In 2011, former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) appointed him to the board of trustees at Cleveland State, one of Ohio’s public universities. Moreno served as chairman of the Cleveland State board from 2016 to 2018.

Confucius Institutes, which offer “Chinese language and culture programs,” were established at numerous U.S. universities beginning in 2005. They were partially funded by the Chinese government. Over time, there were bipartisan concerns that Confucius Institutes were being used to promote Chinese government propaganda or even to facilitate espionage. On the campaign trail, Moreno has repeatedly claimed that, in his role as chair of Cleveland State’s Board of Trustees, he eliminated the university’s Confucius Institute.

Here is how Moreno described his role in a March 2023 campaign event:

I chaired the board of trustees at Cleveland State University, and I’m very proud of the fact that when I was there, we got rid of our Confucius Institute. We made certain that we focused everybody on student achievement, and we respected free speech on campus.

He made a nearly identical claim in October 2023. But it is a lie.

Moreno’s service on the board ended in May 2018. Cleveland State did not shut down its Confucius Institute until 2021. The truth is, while Moreno was on the board, he repeatedly approved funding for Cleveland State’s Confucius Institute. In 2016, when Moreno was still vice chairman, he voted to approve $38,000 in funding for the school’s Confucius Institute. The following year, as chairman, Moreno voted to re-up the funding. Minutes from these meetings show that Moreno did not express any concerns about the Confucius Institute

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Moreno told the Columbus Dispatch that he deserves credit for the elimination of the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State because of “his role in the hiring of Harlan Sands, who was Cleveland State’s president when the institute closed.” There are a couple of issues with this response. First, this is not what Moreno said previously. He clearly said that the board “got rid” of the Confucius Institute while he was chair. Second, Cleveland State did not eliminate the Confucius Institute because of the initiative of President Sands. Cleveland State, along with nearly all other universities, closed its Confucius Institute after Congress passed legislation in 2018 and 2020 limiting federal funding for universities that maintained the Confucius Institutes. From 2019 to 2023, the number of Confucius Institutes operating in the United States went from about 100 to fewer than 5.

The truth about Moreno and Chinese-made SUVs

“When I was a General Motors dealer, I sold Buicks. The Buick Envision was made in China. I told General Motors I wouldn’t sell one of them, don’t even ship it to me,” Moreno said during a February 10, 2024 radio interview. “They threatened me and sent me all kinds of nasty notes… we have to actually take this stand…”

That story, which Moreno also told during his brief run for Senate in 2021, is a lie. 

In reality, Moreno sold the Buick Envision at his dealership for at least five years — from 2014 to 2019 — and promoted the vehicle repeatedly on its social media channels, an investigation by NY1 revealed

A December 13, 2016 video published on the “Bernie Moreno Companies” YouTube page begins with this testimonial: “My name is Kayla McCullough. I purchased a 2017 Buick Envision from Buick GMC of Beachwood… I highly recommend you visit the team at Buick GMC of Beachwood, a Bernie Moreno company.”

Moreno’s campaign “acknowledged to Spectrum News that his dealership did sell the Chinese-made SUVs.” It claimed that “in response to the closure of the Lordstown Plant here in Ohio [in March 2019],  Bernie made a decision to stop any new inventory of Envision’s from being sold at his dealership. After he sold off the inventory he already had on the lot, he refused to take orders for more Envisions.” This explanation, however, makes little sense as the Envision was also produced in China and never at Ohio’s Lordstown Plant. Moreno’s dealerships also continued to advertise for the Envision months after the closure of the plant. 

 

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