Ever since the 2011 Great Gerrymander, Wisconsin’s Democrats have been complaining that they just can’t get a break. Maybe they should stop looking for excuses and start figuring out how to win with the hand they’ve been dealt.
I call it the Great Gerrymander because it took the long-established practice of drawing legislative districts to benefit the party in charge well beyond a fuzzy art into a hard science. After winning majorities in both houses and taking the governor’s office in the 2010 conservative tsunami, Republicans had a free hand in redrawing the lines as required after that year’s census. They used all the modern data-crunching and map-making software at their disposal and combined it with an unprecedented secrecy and a partisan viciousness that went well beyond anything that had been employed before.
The result was lots of comfortable Republican districts where a generic Republican candidate could expect to get maybe 55 percent of the vote just for showing up. Meanwhile, they crammed Democrats into a relative handful of deep blue ghettos in the cities where a Democrat might get 80 percent of the vote. And so now the Republicans hold a 63-36 seat advantage in the Assembly and a 20-13 lead in the Senate, while the statewide vote for president gave Donald Trump a razor-thin win.
In other words, the historic massive conservative GOP control of state government doesn’t begin to reflect the true nature of the state electorate. It’s not too much to say that this is a crisis of democracy. The people leading us have views that are way, way, way out of the mainstream. I would certainly admit that the state as a whole isn’t as liberal as your average Madisonian, but we’re not running anything at the state level. And the state isn’t nearly as conservative as your average Republican legislator, but they are running everything at the state level.
Which brings us to the historic case brought by Democrats and others to challenge the Great Gerrymander as unconstitutional. It’s historic because the plaintiffs, for the first time ever, got a federal court to agree that a political gerrymander went too far. Courts had struck down other maps based on minority representation, but they tended to give legislatures wide berth when it came to fudging the lines for political reasons.
What was lacking was a reliable test of what goes too far, and that is what the Wisconsin plaintiffs provided. It is a simple test of “wasted” votes — or what percentage of votes above what is needed to win are delivered in a given district. So, if by the numbers, there are districts that are “packed,” like my blue district on the west side, where Democrats routinely get more than 70 percent of the vote, and others that are “cracked,” where Republicans win comfortably but not overwhelmingly, that’s an unconstitutional gerrymander.
Last week that same federal court ordered the Legislature to redraw the lines. It made big news, but it was actually like ordering the fox to guard the henhouse or ordering Donald Trump to stop tweeting or ordering the Milwaukee Brewers to win the World Series. In other words, good luck with that.
The Republicans will not redraw the lines. Instead what will happen is that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the case. And, believe it or not, even if a Trump appointee to replace the late Antonin Scalia is in place by the time the court rules, it’s possible they will come down on the side of the Democrats.
That would be a good thing, but there’s more wrong with the Democratic Party than just bad lines on a map. The party has lost its way by becoming a jumble of siloed interests based on personal identity, a place where people go to celebrate their victimhood. Without Barack Obama the party has no unifying, overarching positive message, no inspiring vision for the future. While the Republicans have become the party of white, nationalistic grievance, the Democrats are just the party of everybody else’s grievances.
The real tragedy of the Great Gerrymander is that it gave Wisconsin Democrats a giant crutch on which to lean. Every failing in their messaging, strategy or approach was covered over by the whiny excuse of the evil maps.
No other enterprise in any other walk of life would survive that way. This season the Green Bay Packers were beset by injuries. They could have been justified in just declaring the season lost and waiting until next year when they were healthy again — the equivalent to the Democrats’ just waiting for the courts to rescue them. But instead the Pack figured out a way to fight their way out of a midseason hole and get to the NFC championship game. The Democrats need their own Vince Lombardi or Mike McCarthy, somebody who will tell them to stop feeling sorry for themselves, stop complaining about how mean the Republicans are to them and start figuring out how to just win more votes in more places.
Sure, the Great Gerrymander is a horrible thing, but the Democrats’ attitude problem is the real source of their weakness.