If your knee-jerk reaction to this is “good!”, I get it. Outgoing Republican governor Scott Walker just signed the GOP lame-duck bill stripping the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general of many powers, and the Republican Party inherently being opposed to democracy is an objective fact like gravity. In a certain sense, it’s nice to see them be the victim of an authoritarian power grab. That said, this is bad, and the GOP is not the only victim here.
Gerrymandering to preserve your political power is bad. It doesn’t matter what party is doing it. It is quite literally anti-democratic, as it enables politicians to choose their voters instead of letting voters choose their politicians. We are losing our democracy in every corner of the country as you read this. Entrenched interests have more power over our politics than us non-billionaires have collectively, and it is growing. It’s a dark day in America, and stuff like this makes it even darker, regardless of the party orchestrating it. Per the New York Times:
Legislative power brokers across the country have long designed district lines in back-room deals that entrenched their control for years, if not decades. But now, Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey are carrying out a power grab in an unusually public fashion: They are seeking to make Republicans a permanent minority by essentially writing gerrymandering into the State Constitution.
Getting into a tit for tat fight over obstructing democracy will not end well. It’s not as if Republicans are going to look at the anti-democratic efforts of New Jersey Democrats and say “well, I guess we can’t restrict democracy anymore, that’s their thing now.” Doing things like this officially makes gerrymandering something like an arms race, and every anti-democratic move will be met with another until there is nothing left but pure totalitarianism. This is really, really, bad, and if you’re a progressive who cares about remaking the Democratic Party into the liberal party they used to be (anyone who claims that the Clinton and Obama years were in-line with the historic liberalism of the Democratic Party needs to open a history book—literally any one), this is especially bad.
New Jersey Republicans are not threatening to take over the state. There is absolutely no reason to fear their power in the 21st century. This is about fossilizing the current power structure in one of America’s most transparently corrupt states. It follows the Democratic primary victory of Bob Menendez, New Jersey’s Democratic Senator, who is one of the most obviously corrupt lawmakers in either party. Here’s a quick recap from CNN on his federal corruption trial:
Menendez faced charges of conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud related to allegedly abusing the power of his office that could carry decades in prison. Prosecutors say the senator accepted more than $600,000 in political contributions, a luxurious hotel suite at the Park Hyatt in Paris, and free rides on a private jet from a wealthy ophthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for political favors.
Both men deny all charges.
Defense lawyers argued that Menendez and Melgen were longtime friends with no corrupt intent to commit a federal crime, and after over two months of testimony, prosecutors never produced a smoking gun in the form of a document, email or incriminating phone call outlining an illicit agreement between the two men.
A ham sandwich running on the Democratic ticket could have won New Jersey’s senate seat in 2018, yet Democrats rallied around Menendez despite a legitimate progressive alternative and his clear toxicity to anyone who values democracy over partisan politics. This should give you a clue what this power grab in New Jersey is really all about. Democratic politicians there are running a racket and they want to make sure that no one—regardless of party—can step in and disrupt their gravy train. This gets to a larger issue within the Democratic Party of not just tolerating rampant corruption, but encouraging it, as Alex Pareene wrote in Splinter when Menendez won the Democratic primary:
And honestly there is very little evidence that today’s Democrats think corruption is important. If they did, prominent Democrats might feel a little more squeamish about endorsing Andrew Cuomo, who famously interfered with and then shut down his own anti-corruption panel when it got to close to his own interests and allies, and whose longtime top aide and campaign manager was convicted on corruption charges for work he (illegally) did out of the governor’s office. I think in their short-sightedness, and eagerness to protect and reward loyal party men like Cuomo and Menendez, these other Democrats don’t really understand what they’re giving up in exchange.
Being the “good government” party—the pro-transparency, anti-corruption party—has been a core part of the Democratic Party brand since Watergate swept an entire generation of new Democrats into office. This is in part why a concurrent conservative strategy, for decades, has been to work very hard to manufacture scandal around Democrats—not simply to deflect from their own scandals or harm their political opponents, but to muddy the waters to the extent that a plurality of voters (and eventually even journalists) think “everyone” is equally rotten, which has the perverse effect of making it so that there are rarely electoral (let alone legal) consequences to actual Republican scandals. Democrats do not do themselves any favors when they validate that strategy by being actually corrupt.
This is not some both-sidesism BS. Republicans are far worse than Democrats when it comes to outright corruption, but Democrats are far closer to Republicans than they are to innocence on this topic. The central problem in all this is that this last generation of Democrats are not liberals. They are conservatives.
This was the story of Bill Clinton’s supposed political genius in the 1990s. He yanked the Democrats out of the doldrums and to the right, and the entire party followed. What we are currently left with is a group of Democratic politicians who have expressed such fealty to our corporate overlords that they would throw any one of their constituents into oncoming traffic just to get a pat on the head from Goldman Sachs’ board of directors. Democracy is quite literally at stake in present day America, and if Democrats don’t call out their corrupt, authoritarian politicians, then we will continue down this Clintonian path of making the Democratic Party into a watered-down version of the GOP.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.