As I pointed out last week, President Obama has a unique opportunity, as the first black President, to engage in an act of personal statesmanship that would be good both good for the country and his re-election chances: declare victory in the War on Discrimination. Bring the federal diversicrat troops home from their long battle against America's employers!
Of course, Obama's not going to do that. Indeed, the entire concept is completely off the radar of respectable political discourse. If you suggested it to—taking a liberal Bigfoot at random—Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate economist would merely look confused until he finally grasped the idea. Then, when he understood its elegant logic, he would become enraged that you even mentioned it.
So, this week, I'm going to offer the President another helpful idea for farsighted reform. This one would even help the Democrats escape some of the redistricting jam they've gotten themselves into for the next decade or so:
Obama should ask the new Congress to pare back the Voting Rights Act to just its colorblind elements—tossing out as obsolete the sections crudely (and arguably unconstitutionally) intended to benefit minorities.
The Democrats were crushed by the GOP in the 2010 state legislature elections. By one estimate, Republicans picked up 680 legislative seats. This was extremely bad timing for the Democrats. These more Republican legislatures will get to redistrict many of the U.S. House and state electoral districts, using the upcoming 2010 Census results, for the 2012 through 2020 elections.
Political consultant John Feehery says: "Republicans will have the pen in redrawing [House] 195 seats, while Democrats will have the power in only 45 seats …"
The paradoxical role that the Voting Rights Act will play in the upcoming orgy of gerrymander is difficult for white liberals to comprehend. They generally assume that "civil rights laws"—being, by definition, good—automatically benefit nice white people like themselves, at the expense of the mean white people in the Other Party. The term "civil rights" has such talismanic, brain-sapping power that few liberals can get their heads around the way in which the VRA hurts them—by facilitating arms-length, tacit deals between minority Democrats and white Republicans.
Thus Slate ran on November 10, 2010 a headline of pure liberal boobbait: Coloring Inside the Lines: Will the Voting Rights Act stop Republicans from redistricting as they please? by Yale Law professor Heather Gerken.
Yet when this essay is read carefully, it makes clear that, no, the Voting Rights Act will likely help the Republican state legislatures gerrymander in their self-interest, by validating the creation of absurdly-contoured majority minority districts.
Gerken explains the mechanisms:
"Two VRA provisions matter for redistricting. The first is Section 5, which applies mainly to states in the Deep South. … Section 5 thus gives DoJ officials considerable sway over line drawing. During the 1990s, for instance, DoJ used its behind-the-scenes power to push states to draw majority-minority districts. … The second provision that matters for redistricting is Section 2, which authorizes both the DoJ and private parties to challenge districting plans that dilute the voting power of racial minorities."
The legal theory is that white voters are so racist that the only way for minorities ever to win elections is to design some districts that are disproportionately Democratic. But in practice the Voting Rights Act enables cynical Republican politicians to coop up large numbers of Democratic voters in "majority minority" districts.
Slate's accompanying slide show of The Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts turns out to be, when you page through it, 80 percent Democratic, with seven of the 16 Democrats being minorities.
Gerken's article was illustrated by a map of a ridiculous Congressional district, presumably to illustrate the kind of gerrymandered atrocities the racist Republicans would concoct if not restrained by the sainted VRA.
Hey, wait a minute, I thought to myself. I recognize that Congressional district! That's the notorious Earmuff District whipped up under the VRA to connect the two Latino sectors of Cook County for the benefit of Luis Gutierrez! (He's now the noisiest amnesty advocate in the House.)
Interestingly, the early 1990s powerbrokers behind this ridiculous shape were Mayor Richie Daley, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and … Rep. Denny Hastert, the future GOP Speaker of the House.
As the Chicago Reader explained back in 1997:
"In Illinois, the way the Fourth Congressional District was drawn hurt Democrats the most. … 'This is an old game for Republicans,' says Victor Crown. 'They'll form a silent coalition with the most radical black and Hispanic activists, and together they'll create all-black or Hispanic districts that really screw the Democratic machine hacks. Sure it's hypocritical, especially coming from conservatives who say they hate racial set-asides. But what do you expect? They're politicians, not saints.'"
[Let's Get Luis! By Ben Joravsky, March 27, 1997]
Gutierrez's custom-made district is 75 percent Hispanic.
It's a surprise, frankly. In general, Democrats are much craftier than Republicans about the implications of arcane race-related rules, as the complex history of racial preferences shows.
To understand the arithmetic of how Republicans use the VRA to gerrymander, consider a stylized example with round numbers:
Say you are a Republican apparatchik assigned by the Republican majority leaders in your state legislature to gerrymander four million people, half Republicans and half Democrats, into four districts. The smart play for the GOP is to divvy up the population something like this:
You make three districts 55 percent Republican and the other one 65 percent Democrat. Thus, in a normal 50-50 year, you win three out of four districts. Perhaps that's one reason the GOP clung to control of the House in their mediocre election years of 1996, 1998, and 2000 even though they were being beaten by Clinton and Gore. Of course, the downside to this strategy is that in truly bad years, like 2006 or 2008, you're in danger of losing all four districts.
How do Republicans justify such a naked partisan power play?
It's easy: they're fighting white racism!
See, white people are so bigoted that Republican leaders are morally mandated to pile up a big surplus of Democrats in District 1 to elect a minority representative—while the Republicans eke out narrow victories (but sill victories) in Districts 2, 3, and 4.
The rhetoric that Republican politicians use to rationalize this can be pretty funny. Four years ago, for example, the GOP-run Congress passed and President Bush signed the hilariously-named "Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, And Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization And Amendments Act Of 2006."
(Why was Harriet Tubman left out?)
So Republican wonks think the VRA is good for GOP politicians. But why do white Democrats think it's in their interests, too?
Because the Democrats are playing a long-term game. It's much like on immigration, where Karl Rove apparently saw lax borders as a way to drive down wages and thus starve organized labor's campaign funds, while Ted Kennedy saw immigration as a way to "elect a new people". The VRA will cost Democrats a few seats over the next decade. But it channels ambitious young minority politicos into the Democratic Party by holding out the hope of their getting a safe seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Indeed, the VRA has been terrific for the careers of low-level black and Hispanic politicians. There will be 42 blacks in the House of Representatives, or 9.6 percent of the 435 total.
Interestingly, two are Republicans elected this month in the South, which actually says a lot about the alleged continuing need for Section 5 of the VRA. Allen West will represent Boca Raton, Florida, which is 82 percent white. And Tim Scott, backed by Tea Party activists, won in a 75 percent white district headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina—the ideological heart of the Confederacy in the 1860s.
But this is the 2010s.
Nevertheless, forty are Democrats, generally of less than edifying quality: Maxine Waters, Alcee Hastings, Bobby Rush, and the like. (One reason the MainStream Media boosted Obama so shamelessly in 2007-08 is that, for all his shortcomings, he's a much classier product than the typical black politician of the 21st Century.)
Similarly, the strident Gutierrez, a former cabdriver / radical activist, has been more effective at convincing gullible reporters that amnesty is the most important issue for Hispanic voters than he has been at convincing Obama and other Washington insiders that his ceaseless threats of racial revenge for not prioritizing "comprehensive immigration reform" are credible.
If Gutierrez had to run in a district with substantial numbers of white and black voters, he wouldn't (and couldn't) be such an angry extremist on illegal immigration.
And out of the 50 U.S. governors, only one is black: Massachusetts' Deval Patrick, who was stage-managed in 2006 by David Axelrod as a beta version of Obama.
Clearly, we need a new, improved Voting Rights Act to redraw racist state boundaries to make some states majority minority! (No!—on second thoughts, let's not give them ideas.)
What seems to be happening here: the VRA helps impose a glass ceiling on black advancement to the Senate and governors' mansions. It increases the number of majority minority districts, so the safe career path for an ambitious young minority politician is to be a "race man". But that's a bad basis for later appealing to an entire, mostly white, state.
Obama's own career frustrations could serve as a case study for the misguidedness of the VRA. A "race man" by ambition, but not by nature or nurture, Obama launched his career on the South Side of Chicago by the almost comically inapt stratagem of publishing a 150,000-word meditation on his story of race and inheritance. Nobody outside of Hyde Park read it. Fortunately for Obama, he had a less literary Plan B: having all his black opponents in the 1996 state senate election disqualified.
In the 2000 House primary, Obama finally ran in his first competitive election. Former Black Panther Bobby Rush mocked him for not being black enough. Obama managed to carry the district's Irish neighborhoods, but he was humiliated by black voters. This crushing of his dream from his father—to be black enough to be a black leader—drove Obama into a long depression, rather like what he seems to be going through now.
But after about a year, he snapped out of it. He then gerrymandered his own state senate district to contain more whites—a rare choice for a black elected official. And then he set his sights on winning a statewide (i.e., mostly white) election.
In short, the current VRA-driven majority minority redistricting system nurtures very few Obamas. And that's not good for the Democrats, who are in danger of coming to be seen over the decades as the Black Party. In the new House, blacks will make up over 20 percent of all Democrats. And most of them aren't good advertisements for the Democratic Party outside their own contrived districts.
A final thought: the VRA's tendency to foster political segregation isn't good for, you know, the country….
The funny thing is that Obama is smart enough and cold-blooded enough to grasp the advantages to himself, his party, and his country of calling for reforming the VRA on colorblind grounds to reflect the post-racist realities of the 21st Century.
But nobody in the political class will ever even ask him about it.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]