Blinking yellow light at the end of Trump tunnel

Virginia's election showed some voters are beginning to reject Trump and his policies

Blinking yellow light at the end of Trump tunnel
In my most recent article two weeks ago, I wrote of the takeover of the Republican Party by President Trump. Congressional Republicans, by their own fragmentation, and inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act demonstrated to Republican voters their ineffectualness, which is why those voters support him far more vociferously than the party. This has given him a death grip on the Republicans in Congress. Simply by backing challengers in the primary elections, he can end the Congressional career of many Republicans. In effect, because the Republicans control both Congress and the White House, Americans live now in a one-party state, and the one party is dangerously driven by ideologies that the great majority of Americans reject. What has saved us so far from even worse policies than the current ones is the fragmentation of the Congressional Republicans.

But a greater test is coming; the Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are trying to push through a tax bill that appears to be a naked transfer of wealth and leverage to the wealthy and corporations. Tax cuts are one thing that most Republicans dote on, and their motivation on this particular tax bill is increased by their determination to have accomplished at least one thing in their first year of one-party governance.
A greater test is coming; the Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are trying to push through a tax bill that appears to be a naked transfer of wealth and leverage to the wealthy and corporations

This effort to get a tax cut through is made even more sordid by the admission of at least one member of Congress who explained frankly that his rich donors are demanding a tax cut bill as the price of continued financial support. One could write volumes about the pernicious influence of the unbridled use of unspeakable amounts of money in American politics, and about the debilitating nature of our partisan politics on governance. But I want to turn to a slightly more optimistic scenario.

By the time the results of the election in the state of Virginia were known the week before last, my deadline had passed. So the good news of the results of the Virginia election had to wait. The Virginia election hardly seems like an anomaly; Virginia has been among the prominent battleground states for the last several elections. The electoral map shows that Virginia has two small blue areas in a sea of different shades of red. The blue areas are the urban and suburban areas which Democrats always carry with massive majorities that lately have overcome the Republican opposition. The non-blue areas are rural or ex-urban and tend to be Republican, but the lighter the red the more contested the area.

If the recent election reflects national trends, it may, at least, mean that the independent and the undecided American voters in the ex-urban areas are beginning to reject Trump and his policies. But we are a year away from the next election, and the opposition to Trump has a steep uphill climb given the way the US electoral system has been rigged to favor Republicans.

In Virginia, on November 7, the Democrats gave the Republicans a good pasting. The Democratic candidate for Governor, an unpretentious and uncharismatic doctor, who had been Lieutenant Governor, Ralph Northam, beat the Republican candidate by 9 percentage points, 53.9% to 45%. This may not seem like a big win to Pakistanis, but in the US, a victory by 9 percentage points is huge. Close to a landslide. Mr. Northam ran against a candidate who tried to have it both ways with President Trump. He draped himself in Trump’s policies and behavior, yet did not invite the President to campaign with him in Virginia. Democratic candidates for the legislature also won overall by 9 percentage points, and added 14 seats (with some still undecided because of recounts), and may have a majority in the Assembly. The New York Times quotes election analysts as saying that the legislative elections may be the “purest test of grass-roots anger” at Trump, as the candidates “are little known to the voters, largely absent from TV ads, and the races approximate a generic partisan ballot.” In other words most of these voters voted strictly for the party they want in power.

Yes, this is good news. But let’s not begin the celebrations yet. There is a little thing called gerrymandering, which makes extrapolation from Virginia to the nation very difficult. I explained gerrymandering in the previous article; it is when state legislatures, given the power by the constitution to draw voting districts after every decennial census, use this power to the advantage of their own party. Beginning in the last decade, Republicans in state legislatures have done this while Democrats slept. In 2008, Democrats still held about 60 percent of the state legislatures. Now, it seems Republicans hold about 70 percent. This shows in the Democrat representation in Congress; as the Republican-controlled state legislatures reconfigured electoral districts to their advantage in big swing states such as North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the Democrat’s representation from those states has fallen to 20 seats while the Republican representation has risen to 48.

And here is the critical point: the Democratic candidates for the Virginia State Assembly won by 9 percentage points over their Republican opponents but, at best, this would only give them a 1 vote majority in the Assembly. In other words, the way the voting districts are structured, the Democrats have to win 10 percent more than the Republicans just to get to equal representation. They should have, and would have, done far better if the state’s voting districts had been drawn more or less fairly.

Virginia is one of the states that makes the honor roll of badly gerrymandered states, but it is not the worst. In many of the important and critical states in the 2018 election, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and many more, the Democrats will have to do better than their opponents by probably about 10 percent or more to have a chance of winning. There is now a case before the US Supreme Court, involving gerrymandering in Wisconsin, which is illustrative of the problem. In 2011, the Republican-controlled Assembly redrew the map of Assembly voting districts which, led in the following election, to the Democrats winning 174,000 more votes than the Republicans and getting only 39 of the 99 seats. This conservative Supreme Court will be reluctant to take away that advantage, but the figures are so egregious that there is hope it will have no choice to hand down a ruling that reins in such overt partisan gerrymandering.

Whether the Democrats can take advantage of the voter anger and disgust with the Trump Administration which seems to be demonstrated by the Virginia results is uncertain at best. The Democrats are fragmented also, although not so badly as the Republicans, but there is a sizeable section of the party which is being pulled leftwards by Bernie Sanders, who began this campaign to move the party (although he is not a member) towards his own socialist moorings in his crusade against Hilary Clinton. This segment of the party is promoting policies that seem unlikely to bring centrist, independent voters into Democratic ranks. So the jury is still out on whether the Democrats can come to the elections united and with a vision of America’s future that will bring people together. The democrats cannot look upon the Virginia victory as a predictor of future victories; not only do they need to unite over an inclusive policy agenda, but they also need to keep pushing on the gerrymandering question. It will not go away.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.