A ferocious plan for Democrats to reconquer America
In the wake of Hillary Clinton's shocking November loss to a run-on sentence with two feet named Donald Trump, Democrats are frantically casting about for salvation. Can a renewed focus on the economic concerns of the white working class deliver the Midwest in 2020? Do narrow losses in Georgia and Arizona mean the Democratic Party can flip those states in the future? Will the Trump administration be such a disaster that Democrats might gain seats in Congress despite a gerrymandered House and an absolutely brutal 2018 Senate map?
Also: Will Democrats ever experience joy again?
These are important questions, but they betray a misunderstanding of the party's long-term predicament. For one thing, Democrats face a structural disadvantage in the U.S. Senate that will not change unless white, rural America experiences a sudden shift in its social and economic values. With about 30 Republican-leaning states and 20 Democratic-leaning states, the Senate will likely remain in the hands of the Republican Party more often than not.
The solution to this problem is simple: Democrats need to create more Democratic-leaning states.
Because it hasn't happened since Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in 1959, people think that the statehood process is harder than it actually is, or that the peculiar 50-state shape of the country today was hashed out by Madison and Jefferson over Philadelphia candlelight and is therefore immutable. But creating states is actually easy. All it requires is for the citizens of a territory to express their desire to join the union, and for Congress to make it so. So the next time Democrats capture unified power in Washington — itself a tall but not impossible order — they should move aggressively to grant statehood to long-suffering Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. There you go: Four more Democratic senators.
But Democrats should go much further and artfully filet the progressive stronghold of California into seven or more pieces, thereby giving Democrats an insurmountable strategic advantage in the U.S. Senate and making it less likely that another Republican will ever capture the White House with a minority of the popular vote.
Conservatives will surely say that this is rule-bending at best, and a blatant and illegal power grab at worst. Well, it's not. And it would actually remedy some of our democracy's worst features.
While most Americans are taught to uncritically revere our constitutional order, scholars have long recognized its many shortcomings. In How Democratic is the American Constitution? the late political scientist Robert Dahl lamented some of our system's most egregious inequities. The possibility of the national popular vote winner losing the Electoral College — something that has now happened to Democrats twice in 16 years — was one concern.
But Dahl argued that the Senate is perhaps America's premier undemocratic institution. Every U.S. state gets two senators, even though population totals vary from Wyoming's 582,000 to California's 38 million. Before anyone Foundersplains to you about how this is all part of some careful design, such disparities were unforeseen even by the Framers. The largest population difference among the states in 1787 was between Virginia (about 420,000) and Delaware (37,000). This roughly 11-fold difference is blown away by contemporary population inequalities. California has about 67 times the population of America's smallest state and has more citizens than the smallest 21 states combined. Those 21 states get 42 senators. Californians get two.
This is a nonsense system that no sentient institutional designer would create on purpose today. The arguments for why millions of Californians — or the citizens of any large state — should have to defer in perpetuity to the judgment of 858,000 rural South Dakotans are profoundly flimsy. As Dahl argued, there was no higher purpose or theory behind the composition of the Senate, which was "nothing more than a practical outcome of a hard bargain that its opponents finally agreed to in order to achieve a Constitution." No other functional democracy on the planet organizes their politics in a way so clearly and unapologetically designed to thwart majorities from governing.
Why not just push to make the Senate a proportional body instead of carving a large, prosperous state into different loaves? Because the composition of the U.S. Senate cannot feasibly be amended. Article V states "that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate." Since no state — let alone a large group of them — is likely to ever willingly give up its over-representation, the Senate and its population disparities are not going anywhere absent a complete collapse of the constitutional order.
So if Democrats can't beat small states at their game, they should join them, starting with the nation's capital. Washington, D.C., has yearned for statehood for almost as long as it has dreamed of having a soul. The district's 672,000 people have no voting representation whatsoever in Congress or the Senate, a situation which is difficult to justify with any coherent theory of democratic representation. In November, D.C. voted overwhelmingly for statehood. In addition to being the right thing to do, granting statehood to D.C. would give Democrats two automatic Senate seats, as well as another stool in the House.
The case for Puerto Rican statehood is also a no-brainer. Its 3.5 million people also completely lack voting representation in Congress, and like in D.C., they have already politely expressed their desire for statehood. And while its Senate seats would be less of a layup for Democrats than D.C.'s, as long as wall-building nativists are running the GOP, Puerto Rico's senators would almost certainly go blue. Statehood would also be beneficial for Puerto Rico, a territory mired in a terrible economic crisis that is not helped by its ambiguous legal status.
These two moves alone would net Democrats an extra four Senate seats and 10 Electoral College votes. But that wouldn't have been sufficient to keep Trump and his troupe of state-liquidators, Russian sleeper agents, and K Street grifters out of the White House. That's why Democrats must consider breaking up California.
It's not exactly a new idea. Proposals to divide the Golden State date back to the 1850s, when California's daunting size made governance a challenge. Since then, more than 200 (mostly unserious) efforts to divide the state have ensued. A recent initiative called Six Californias fell just short of the required number of signatures to appear on the 2016 ballot. (It has a sweet website because it's backed by a venture capitalist whose unsubtle goal is to create an uber-wealthy techtopia literally called Silicon Valley.) But the Six Californias is hugely flawed. It would create, improbably, at least two and perhaps three Republican-leaning entities out of a state that went for Hillary Clinton by an astonishing 29 points. This is a non-starter.
What Democrats need is a plan crafted to increase the national voting and legislative power of California's overwhelming progressive majority. That might just appeal to many people in a state where Democrats can do more or less anything they like. Particularly now that Trump is about to move into the White House despite losing California by 3.4 million votes, proposals to create more Californias might receive a serious hearing in a state that is increasingly out of reach for the GOP. Clinton's (electorally useless) surge in the state was the culmination of a long leftward drift that saw even reliably Republican Orange County swing to the Democrats last year.
How many Californias should there be, and where should the boundaries be drawn? A separate state centered around each of the six largest cities — Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, and Sacramento — would be a good start, with a seventh for Orange County. All seven states would boast access to the Pacific, and each would include one large, prosperous city so that no Californians are left destitute. Each would be well within the prevailing norms for both geographic size and population of American states.
You know what else? All seven would have been carried easily by Clinton.
Laid-back Californians would doubtlessly prefer to avoid the hassle and remain unified. But they would also, surely, rather not see the values of their progressive utopia trampled upon by a Vichy Republican Party wielding its power through the popular-vote runner-up, a radicalized House, and a Senate whose rural-urban power imbalance exists precisely because California is so large. At the moment, Californian unity and progressive power may be mutually exclusive. And a plan to divide the state is a much better idea than the quixotic and almost certainly unconstitutional #CalExit movement, which even if it was possible would only abandon Democrats in the rest of the country to the predations of an increasingly unhinged Republican Party.
Obviously, breaking up California would raise difficult issues like deciding how to distribute the state's debt and who gets to keep all of the best marijuana farms, as well as the expensive and time-consuming effort to create a series of new governments, university systems, and water-sharing agreements, among many other things. But the coin we'd have to drop to create seven Californias is negligible compared to some mid-range Pentagon boondoggle like the Osprey. Plus, planning it would give Democratic civil servants currently fleeing D.C. like refugees ahead of a plundering army something to do for the next four years.
The end result of adding eight new states to the union would be a 116-member Senate, with the structural Republican Senate advantage permanently eliminated. Twenty-two left-leaning electors would be added to an Electoral College whose size would probably be 560 (still not enough to stop Trump, sadly), and Democrats would pick up six seats in the House.
But the benefits to the party would go well beyond better representation in Congress. It would also generate a wave of national political talent, with a slew of new governors and senators taking office in some of the country's most dynamic regions and bringing the best of California's political culture to the rest of the country. Once the messy process of division is complete, it would also give all Californians access to a less distant state government, forcing their elites to better address local concerns that might normally get lost in the Sacramento shuffle. And it would allow the Democrats to wrest control of the national policy agenda away from a Republican Party bent on incinerating both the New Deal and what's left of the atmosphere.
Could Republicans respond by, say, turning Texas into five states? Probably not. Any feasible division of Texas — which is slowly trending Democratic anyway — would create at least one if not more states where Democrats are at least competitive, if not dominant. This would be true of almost any state seeking to divide itself into multiple pieces, because one of the new states would contain a major metropolitan area, and big cities almost without exception lean Democratic.
Republicans will surely read this and say it's crazy. But what the Republicans have proven over the past eight years — most recently when the North Carolina GOP legislature shamelessly stripped the incoming Democratic governor of his powers — is that it is possible to win by playing ruthless procedural hardball. Democrats need to get creative. In our system, the only way forward is for the narrow interests of the over-represented few to be overwhelmed by the votes of the democratic many.