America’s Political System Is Rigged Against the Left (and Always Has Been)

The House still needs knocking down. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There is a majority coalition for progressive politics in the United States — but not necessarily a winning one.

In opinion polls, many of the American left’s economic ideas command majoritarian support, while its positions on most social issues are more popular than the conservative movement’s. At the ballot box, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer has won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, while its House candidates won the nationwide vote by 8.6 percent in last year’s midterms. As of 2018, there were 12 million more registered Democrats than Republicans on America’s voting rolls.

And yet conservative Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, the Supreme Court, 30 of 50 state legislatures, and a majority of America’s governors’ mansions. Meanwhile, in the one chamber where Democrats do wield federal power, House leadership regularly denigrates their party’s most outspoken progressives, ignores the liberal base’s pleas for impeachment, and is struggling to pass the minimum-wage hike and collective-bargaining reforms that the left was promised during campaign season.

Few liberals (let alone socialists) are unfamiliar with the idea that American politics is rigged against them. Many of the left’s disadvantages are well understood. The excesses of GOP gerrymandering, biases of the Electoral College, obscenity of Senate malapportionment, and inequity of class disparities in voter turnout have been detailed in countless columns and Twitter tirades — while the myriad ways that concentrated capital pulls politics rightward have been catalogued in many a Marxist’s manifesto.

But beneath all these impediments lies a less infamous, but arguably more fundamental, obstacle to progressive power — one that doesn’t just shortchange the left in the United States but also in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, and Japan. In Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide, Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden puts a spotlight on this transnational, counterrevolutionary menace: population density.

Gerrymandering is a problem for equal representation, but it’s not the problem.

There was never much doubt that Democrats would win a majority of votes in last year’s House elections. The question was whether they would win a large enough majority for popular sovereignty to prevail. Polls consistently showed the electorate favoring a Democratic Congress over a Republican one by upwards of 5 percent, but many models suggested that such a margin would be insufficient to overcome the House map’s rightward tilt.

The historic scale of the “blue wave” — combined with a series of narrow victories in hotly contested districts — spared our republic the indignity of another minoritarian triumph. Still, the playing field’s structural biases rendered Nancy Pelosi’s caucus much smaller than its share of the popular vote would have predicted. And those biases also ensured that her majority would be deeply reliant on moderate lawmakers from right-leaning districts (a reality that is now sowing no small amount of discord within the caucus). Meanwhile, in state legislative elections, GOP majorities in purple states weathered the tsunami. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates for the general assembly won 55 percent of all ballots — but just 46 percent of seats in the lower chamber; in Wisconsin, they claimed 53 percent of the vote but just 36 percent of seats.

Liberals have largely attributed these anti-democratic outcomes to the frenzy of GOP gerrymandering that followed the 2010 midterms. And there is no question that the Republican Party’s immense state-level power during the last round of redistricting enabled it to draw shamelessly self-serving electoral maps. But even if the Roberts Court had tossed partisan gerrymandering into the dustbin of history last month, the Democrats’ structural disadvantage would persist.

After all, in Pennsylvania, state legislative districts are drawn by a bipartisan commission — and the state constitution has long mandated that these districts “be composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable,” a requirement that forbids extreme partisan gerrymandering. Nevertheless, the Republican Party has enjoyed uninterrupted control of the Pennsylvania state senate since 1994 — a period in which Pennsylvania voters backed the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in five of six presidential elections.

Nationally, the GOP was winning more than its fair share of representation in Congress well before 2010. And this overrepresentation of the right is not a purely American phenomenon. Between 1945 and 2005, left-of-center parties received more votes than right-of-center ones in France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia — and yet, over that same period, conservative parties formed a large majority of parliamentary governments in those nations.

Liberals can’t blame these inequities on unscrupulous Republican cartographers. Rather, the left’s predicament is largely the product of a conspiracy between progressive voters’ transnational tendency to concentrate in urban centers and the institution of geographically defined, winner-take-all legislative districting.

Why cities lose (in countries that lack proportional representation).

As Rodden explains in his book, the left has been predominantly urban since (at least) the dawn of industrialization. Early in the 20th century, socialist and labor parties arose to represent the burgeoning proletariat. This was an enviable social base in numerical terms. But since such workers were densely packed into company towns, or the manufacturing districts of major cities, left-wing parties inevitably punched below their weight in winner-take-all legislative elections. Labor parties would “waste” votes by running up the score in a few districts, while their rivals secured narrow plurality victories in many districts. Between 1890 and 1907, Germany’s Social Democrats won the most votes of any party in every single election but never won the most seats; some years, their main conservative rival claimed twice as many votes in parliament, despite winning a million fewer ballots.

Nevertheless, throughout much of Continental Europe, socialists amassed enough power to make liberal parties (which had dominated cities on the strength of their support among the urban bourgeoisie in the era before universal enfranchisement) sweat. As liberals began losing seats to laborites in winner-take-all elections, many such parties opted to save themselves from oblivion by embracing the left’s call for proportional representation or (“PR”). The precise details of PR systems vary across countries, but the basic idea is simple:

[S]mall, single-member districts drawn around a single city or neighborhood would be replaced by much larger districts that encompassed an entire region, with each district electing several representatives. Each party’s candidates would be placed on a ranked list, and its parliamentary representation would be drawn from that list in proportion to its vote share. With this system, 35 percent of the vote would correspond to roughly 35 percent of the seats.

But urban parties did not reach this grand bargain in all Western democracies. By the 20th century, America’s two-party system was already entrenched — as were Democratic “machines” in many major cities. Thus, while the rise of proletarian parties in U.S. metros did (eventually) force the Democrats to incorporate trade-union demands into their platforms, it never compelled them to embrace electoral reform. Meanwhile, in Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, workers parties took over urban districts too fast for their own (long-term) good: Having already triumphed over the liberals, leftists lost interest in pursuing electoral reforms that might enable their urban rivals to mount a comeback.

The consequences of this diversion between countries that embraced PR and those that did not would prove momentous — because the correlation between urbanism and leftism would prove lasting.

Manufacturing eventually left Western cities and industrial towns, but the left never did. There are several reasons for this persistence. When factories and mines closed down, the working-class housing that surrounded them usually remained, and such affordable residences attracted new communities of immigrants, minorities, and low-income workers — all left-leaning constituencies. Meanwhile, in the course of industrialization, left-of-center parties had become so entrenched in major cities, the rise of “the knowledge economy” failed to displace them. As high finance and tech firms replaced industrial unions in New York and London, the Democrats and Labor adjusted to meet the demands of their new constituencies.

Beyond these path-dependent factors, though, there seems to be an inherent connection between urbanism and progressivism. Cities attract immigrants and strivers from the countryside, who are often less able to rely on kinship networks and religious institutions during hard times than their peers in rural areas, which may explain city dwellers’ disproportionate support for social-insurance programs. Further, since those who are more open to new experiences — and tolerant of diversity — are more likely to self-select into cities, urban populations have an inherently cosmopolitan and socially liberal bent. Regardless, across decades and national borders, urban voters express aberrantly progressive views on issues of social spending, environmental protection, immigration, gender equality, LGBT rights, and other issues.

Given all this, you would expect winner-take-all electoral systems — which inherently disadvantage urban areas — to produce less-progressive policy outcomes than PR systems do. And you would be right. As Rodden writes:

During a period of rapid growth in the size of government in industrialized societies after World War II, social expenditures took off much faster in the countries with proportional electoral systems … Urban voters also tend to have more liberal views on issues related to crime and punishment, and proportional democracies engage in less incarceration. Urban voters are also typically more socially progressive on issues of gender and sexuality, and countries with proportional electoral systems have adopted civil union or gay marriage legislation more rapidly than majoritarian countries.

(France is separated because it switched from proportional representation to winner-take-all districts over this period).

Public opinion in the U.S. may be somewhat more conservative than it is in Continental Europe. But this alone cannot explain the gulf between our nation’s threadbare safety net and the Nordics’ comprehensive one. Surveys consistently find majoritarian support for progressive fiscal policies among the U.S. electorate. America does not lack a robust welfare state because its people are uniquely allergic to redistribution but rather because our electoral institutions systematically diminish the influence of left-wing people.

Why the Democrats are caught in a dilemma.

Democrats have drawn disproportionate support from urban voters since the New Deal. But the party’s overreliance on underrepresented urbanites has grown more severe and problematic in recent decades. Before the civil-rights movement’s triumphs, the Democrats’ grip on the segregationist South blotted out the electoral disadvantages that came with being the party of northern cities. And even after Republicans began painting the South red, “blue dog” Democrats succeeded in distancing themselves from their party’s urban Establishment, crafting regional identities that enabled them to compete in low-density areas. But over the past three decades, as American politics grew ever-more nationalized — and social issues (which divide city and country more sharply than fiscal ones) grew in salience — conservative voters stopped splitting their tickets and the right secured an overwhelming structural advantage in U.S. politics.

This development is an underappreciated cause of the mounting tensions in Nancy Pelosi’s caucus. The concentration of left-wing voters in urban districts bifurcates the Democrats’ House majority between lawmakers with overwhelmingly progressive, urban constituencies, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and those who represent Republican-leaning areas, like Oklahoma’s Kendra Horn. The progressives believe — quite rightly — that much of their agenda commands majority support. But moderates can reply, with equal accuracy, that their party can’t retain power by pleasing a mere majority of the voting public: As Rodden illustrates, the median congressional district lies well to the right of the median voter.

Of course, this chart is a generalized abstraction (and a tad outdated); the views of actually existing voters are too messy and idiosyncratic to map cleanly onto a unidimensional ideological spectrum. Some of the left’s most ambitious ideas for expanding state intervention in the economy poll well in all regions of the country (and studies suggest that lawmakers routinely overestimate the conservatism of their constituents). But some other left-wing ideas do not.

More critically, since social identity tends to influence voter behavior more profoundly than policy details, the Democratic Party’s association with left-wing city dwellers can undermine its candidates in low-density areas, where many voters feel alienated from urban liberals (and/or nonwhite communities). This is why GOP ad-makers worked so incessantly to tie Democratic candidates to “San Francisco liberal” Nancy Pelosi ahead of the 2018 midterms, and why Fox News has proved so eager to make Ocasio-Cortez the face of Team Blue in the election’s aftermath, and why many (though not all) swing-district Democrats have sought to distance themselves from the AOCs of the world. It is also, likely, one reason why Pelosi is currently going out of her way to marginalize her caucus’s most progressive freshmen (the nefarious influence of Reagan’s ghost may be another).

But the difficulty of maintaining harmony between the House majority’s underrepresented (and thus righteously frustrated) progressive wing and its anxious swing-district moderates is the least of the Democrats’ problems. State legislative maps are even more severely biased against city dwellers than congressional ones are, since the smaller size of state legislative districts isolates urban areas from their surrounding suburbs. For this reason, it is now all but impossible for Democrats to gain full control of government in purple states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And then, of course, there’s the Senate, which overrepresents rural areas even more severely than the House does.

All of which is to say: In a world without gerrymandering, the present extent of urban-rural polarization would be sufficient to bar America’s majority party from securing full control of the federal government in all but the most fortuitous of circumstances (i.e., in the wake of a recession or a historic scandal, such as say, Donald Trump’s presidency), or from governing a majority of American states in all conceivable circumstances.

In the world we actually live in, the American left’s immediate-term prospects appear even bleaker.

Transition to suburbanism, or regress into barbarism?

Providing the American left with equitable representation would require the establishment of PR and the abolition of the Senate. Virginia Democrat Don Beyer has introduced a proposal for proportional representation in the House. And Maine’s embrace of ranked-choice voting last year demonstrated that some headway toward electoral reform can be made in the states. But elected officeholders have never been too keen on changing the rules of the game they already mastered. And Democratic incumbents who represent urban districts actually benefit from the unfairness of the existing system, which renders them invulnerable to challenges from Republicans and far-left third parties. The GOP, meanwhile, has every incentive to oppose proportional representation. For these reasons, comprehensive electoral reform is (almost certainly) a quixotic fantasy.

There is a less-improbable path to modest structural reform: If Democrats can leverage Trump’s unpopularity (and/or a declining economy) into a 2020 landslide large enough to deliver them a slim Senate majority, then they could theoretically abolish the filibuster and grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and various other U.S. territories on a party-line vote. This would do little to correct the underrepresentation of urban voters in the upper chamber but it would mitigate that of nonwhite Americans. Then again, this would require a level of political courage and party discipline that Chuck Schumer’s caucus shows no signs of possessing.

More plausibly, Democrats in deep-blue states could mitigate their party’s disadvantage in the House by gerrymandering more aggressively. If the party disavowed the notion that districts should be compact or contiguous, then Empire State Democrats could chop New York City into pieces and put at least one hefty chunk of urban voters into each and every one of their state’s congressional districts. Then again, this would cost Democratic incumbents a modicum of job security and could inspire popular backlash.

If urban America’s structural disadvantages can’t be mitigated, perhaps urban-rural polarization can be. Democrats could try to increase the salience of bread-and-butter issues to residents of low-density areas by formulating an agenda that addresses rural America’s very real economic problems. Or the party could tolerate (even) more triangulation from aspiring “blue dogs” in light-red territory (although such a strategy would risk alienating the party’s core supporters and further inflaming intra-Democratic tensions).

Or perhaps, demography will solve Democrats’ problem for them. In recent years, the Republican Party has grown more reliant on its rural, socially reactionary base — while America’s suburbs have grown more racially diverse and ideologically progressive. Liberal cities’ passion for exclusionary zoning seems to be expediting the latter process by forcing would-be urban leftists to settle for suburban sprawl. Which is awful for the environment and the economy, but good for the left’s political representation (go NIMBYs, go?). Meanwhile, the sprawling geography of America’s fast-growing Sun Belt cities is also dispersing cosmopolitans more widely across space, thereby reducing their underrepresentation. For these reasons, among others, it’s possible that the Democrats’ success in traditionally Republican suburbs last fall was not a one-off reaction to Donald Trump but the beginning of a realignment. And if America’s suburbs do turn durably blue, then the tables could turn: Support for Republicans could become so heavily concentrated in rural areas that winner-take-all districting starts hurting the right more than the left.

Demography isn’t destiny. But if demographic change (or some kind of political revolution) does not radically reshape America’s electoral terrain, perpetual disempowerment may be the left’s fate.

Why America’s Political System Is Rigged Against the Left