November 6, 2019

Yesterday's elections in Kentucky and Virginia illustrate that we are in a major political realignment. In Kentucky, unpopular Republican Governor Matt Bevin lost his office to the state's Attorney General, Democrat Andy Beshear, by a razor thin margin of about 5100 votes. In Virginia, voters gave Democrats control of both houses of the legislature and turned the state blue for the first time in 26 years.

These Democratic victories in formerly red states, and the reaction to them, are textbook illustrations of the mechanics of how a political party collapses in a democracy. Mind you, I'm not talking about the policies at stake here, but rather trying to shed light on an important systemic pattern that shows up really well in these two elections.

In a democracy, if you want to advance policies that do not command a majority of voters, you can do one of two things. You can either change your policies to make them more attractive to more people, or you can game the system to cut voters who don't support you out of the process. Starting in the 1980s, the Republican Party went the second direction. Leaders began to challenge Democratic victories by claiming they were a result of "voter fraud," (investigations show that actual voter fraud is so rare as to be virtually non-existent). This led to voter purges and ID laws that skewed the electorate toward the GOP.

While this was a huge problem for the Democrats, of course, who lost voters, it created a deep systemic problem for the Republicans, even though few of them noticed it during the heady time when they won again and again. The problem was this: candidates no longer needed to appeal to moderates; instead, they had to be sure they couldn't be attacked from their right by primary challengers. So candidates moved rightward. When their increasing extremism alienated even more voters, they retained power through gerrymandering, carving up state districts to give themselves huge structural advantages. It was less important than ever to appeal to anyone but their base, and the party moved even farther rightward.

This system works until a party gets so extreme it loses even its original supporters. That's what we saw yesterday in Virginia, and here's where I find this moment of a party's history fascinating (and why this strategy has always seemed to me supremely dumb, aside from any questions of morality). When a party finally loses the majority despite all its gaming of the system, its opponents take over, and they are in a position to undo all the machinations that have kept them from power. They will, for example, undo gerrymandering and restore the vote to those who have been disfranchised. Suddenly, all those people who have felt unrepresented and cheated again have a voice, and they will not be using it in support of those who continued to get more and more extreme after cutting them out of the process. The backlash creates a political tidal wave.

Yesterday's elections sit on both sides of this mechanical divide. In Kentucky, a red state where the Democrat won by getting out the vote against a historically unpopular governor but where the GOP remains strong, Republican leaders have greeted the news of a Democratic victory as if they are still able to win by simply fiddling around with the rules. Governor Matt Bevin is contesting his loss. He claims his opponent won by cheating and suggests that he could still pull out a victory. “We know for a fact that there have been more than a few irregularities, they are very well corroborated,” Bevin said. (He did not provide any evidence for this allegation of voter fraud.) “The process will be followed, and in the end, we will have the governor that was chosen by the people of Kentucky, and that’s the way the process should work.” (Observers say that Bevin will be hard pressed to overturn his opponent's 5000 vote lead.) The Republican president of the Kentucky Senate had a different thought: maybe the election could somehow be thrown into the Republican legislature, where Republican members could choose who won. This has happened before... in 1899.

If what's happening in Kentucky looks like the old system, Virginia looks like the new. In Virginia, the election has launched the process of restoring the voices and votes of people previously disfranchised. The new Democratic legislature will be in charge of redistricting the state after the 2020 census. Republicans launched Operation REDMAP a decade ago to gain Republican control of state legislatures to guarantee gerrymandering would benefit Republicans. It worked brilliantly... but it also forced the party rightward. Now Democrats will undo that gerrymandering, and today's Republicans will have to try to attract voters from a position further right than a decade ago. It's going to be uphill work.

So what happens next? If the historical pattern holds, we will not have a normal back and forth between parties for awhile. Either the GOP will double down on minority rule and destroy democracy altogether in order to stay in power, or their opponents will take power and reopen politics to voices that have been silenced by voter suppression and gerrymandering.

Either will create a sea change in America. It is, as Ronald Reagan said in the speech that rocketed him to political prominence, "A Time for Choosing."