Watching the Republican festival of hate and treacle in Cleveland, an outraged Democrat or Independent wouldn’t know that Republicans have locked down control of the House of Representatives for at least the coming decade, no matter what happens in November.
In Ratf**ked, a potentially game-changing account of electoral skullduggery, David Daley exposes how the GOP used a massive election-districting scam to steal Democrats’ electoral prospects. A savvy journalist who encourages Republican operatives to talk frankly, Daley tells the story of a perversely legal campaign that caught Democrats unaware, despite precedents set in the 1980s.
Daley opens up the usually closed-mouth villains behind redistricting, and explains election-law arcana with an accessible, unpretentious style. Every state legislator, member of Congress, political staffer, and campaign consultant will guarantee this book solid sales, but it could have reached a wider audience without the dubious title, about which more in a moment.
As Daley shows, the technical and legal revolutions in legislative district line-drawing are similar to the historical gerrymandering of congressional and state-legislative districts but worse. More than ever before, politicians can sift and sort their most-likely voters, probing and mapping their preferences, house by house, as well as block by block.
Daley’s colorful vignettes and disarming interviews with colorless Republican operators bare the partisan bloodlust behind the feigned innocence of techies who claim, “I’m just doing my job.” Republican districting mastermind Chris Jankowski has feigned such innocence at times but tells Daley now that, the morning after his party swept Congress in 2010 on the strength of devious districting, he bragged to his father, “Yeah, Dad, it was an ass-kicking and [Democrats] don’t even know it. It can’t historically be undone very easily.”
Daley also catches some of the masterminds pulling strings on supposedly “neutral” redistricting commissions that only a determined “ratfucker” would pull: Jeff Timmer, unassuming line-drawer of a convoluted “majority-minority” district in Detroit, was also a member of the bipartisan Michigan Board of State Canvassers that had to rule on his handiwork—and he helped to deadlock the Commission.
Democrats set precedents for more of this sorry behavior than you might think. They were the first to give tortuous redistricting new legitimacy in 1982 by passing ill-advised amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a fact which Daley could have emphasized more clearly. The original act had rightly prevented district line drawers from parceling out contiguous black or Latino communities to nearby, mostly-white congressional districts to prevent minorities from electing “their own” to Congress. But the ’82 amendments went too far, mandating that if line drawers could connect even the farthest-flung, unrelated black or Hispanic enclaves to create “majority-minority” districts, they must do it.
Republicans sold the Congressional Black Caucus on this chance to create more “majority-minority” districts, a move which whitened neighboring areas and ensured a Republican majority in Congress. Not to put too fine a point on it, black congressional and state-legislative Democrats were willing to get themselves more seats, even when doing so would leave them surrounded by a bigger sea of white Republicans.
In the “Voting Wrongs” chapter of my book Liberal Racism, I walked the boundaries of one such strung-out “majority-minority” district in New York, much as Daley does in Detroit. In New York, I found evidence of the civic and political costs of rediestricting, something I wish Daley spent more time explaining in Ratf**ked. For example, a convoluted legislative district covers disparate pieces of otherwise coherent neighborhoods, police precincts, school and health-care districts, and other community boards, each of which now has more than one member of Congress and several state legislators, making it less effective and the incumbent legislators more remote and difficult for any one dedicated local activist to challenge.
Now, Daley’s title: In recent years, the American publishing industry has exposed its desperation to catch attention with vulgar titles, surprisingly often with books by academics. In 2010, we got On Bullshit, by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in 2014, Assholes: A Theory, by the philosopher Aaron James (this year James published a sequel, Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump).
With Ratf**ked, Daley is on firmer ground. From Richard Nixon’s Watergate crew member Donald Segretti and George H. W. Bush’s “Willy Horton” ad man Lee Atwater to redistricting pioneer Benjamin Ginsberg, Republican operatives have all used the word “ratfuck” to characterize what they’ve done to Democrats and, as Daley makes clear, to American democracy.
Daley notes wryly in the book’s coda that former Rep. Jim Leach proposed Democracy in Peril as a title, but for Daley (and the publishing industry), that was “too passive” and didn’t “assign responsibility for how our most sacred civic values became so debased. We have been ratfucked. A deep dysfunction and electoral disconnect has settled into our politics, and it will not be easily defeated or removed.”
Sorry to sound more pious about “sacred civic values” than Daley does in this very important book, but our civic culture and rule of law have been as deranged by unregulated marketing riptides as by the sleazy electioneering that surfs them. Blame it all not only on unprecedented redistricting but also on the market-driven mindlessness that infuses our news media, publishing, and entertainment industries.
In 2014, when Daley was a discerning and tolerant editor at Salon, I wrote a long essay about the implosion of the New Republic, which he headlined, “Enough with the f***ing rich kids: Our entitled, spoiled 1 percent is destroying everything.” The piece got 10,000 shares. At the time I hoped my arguments got past the empty prurience. I hope Daley’s will, too.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, wrote about racial districting in Liberal Racism (Viking/Penguin, 1997) and New York racial politics in The Closest of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 1990).