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Like Modern GOP, Gilded Age Oligarchs Gerrymandered to Thwart Democracy | The Nation

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Lee Fang

Lee Fang

Investigating the intersection of politics, lobbying and public policy at RepublicReport.org.

Like Modern GOP, Gilded Age Oligarchs Gerrymandered to Thwart Democracy


John Boehner speaks next to Mitch McConnell and other Republican members of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh).

Next year, even if voters cast millions more votes for Democratic candidates, it's likely John Boehner will continue as Speaker of the House, and Republicans will still have a firm grip to determine policy in the waning years of the Obama presidency. In the last campaign for the House, Republicans maintained a comfortable hold on the lower chamber of Congress even though Democrats won at least 1.1 million more votes. That's because over the last few years, GOP state legislators—with help from corporate backers—radically redrew congressional district lines to disadvantage Democrats in over half a dozen states, making representative democracy impossible until the next census in 2020, essentially. (For more on this, see Sam Wang's "The Great Gerrymander of 2012.")

The dismantling of the 'People's House' into a fiefdom for big business-friendly Republicans isn't necessarily a new development. In the late 19th and early 20th century, oligarchs manipulated the voting districts to repress the will, and the votes, of the people -- much like the gerrymandering we see today. A century ago, it was the U.S. Senate, not the House, that fell victim to such sordid tricks.

The last time America experienced a vast decline in representative democracy was the Gilded Era, a period where both major parties became consumed by a small number of robber barons -- tycoons who monopolized entire industries, bought politicians like cattle, killed striking workers, and manipulated cabinet secretaries and judges alike through a system of graft and petty bribery. In the South, the end of Reconstruction brought a reign of terror against recently enfranchised black citizens, who lost the right to vote -- and in some cases, faced re-enslavement -- as railroad and timber industry-financed Redeemer Democrat politicians rewrote state constitutions and began Jim Crow voting restrictions.

Another, less well known aspect of this wave of undemocratic action was in the North concerning town-based state legislative districts. Before the 17th Amendment, state legislators elected U.S. Senators. And in northern states like Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey, state legislative districts were drawn based on counties or towns, not people. As hundreds of thousands of European immigrants arrived in these states, Republicans party chiefs, in a bid to suppress the votes of these new Americans, ruthlessly fought to ensure that legislative districts stayed the same, regardless of population. The immigrants could vote, but their votes wouldn't matter much.

In this era, towns of 565 Republican 'native' voters had the same representation of immigrant towns of 53,230. Despite numerous elections where a majority of voters attempted to send populist Democrats to state legislative office, who in turn would have selected populist U.S. Senators, a rigged system allowed a tiny population of largely wealthy, Protestant Republicans to dominate. This wasn't the exact same as gerrymandering per se, but it had a similar design and effect.

Author Jack Beatty, in his brilliantly researched book, Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, documents this type of voter suppression by way of unfair legislative districts:

Under a Colonial-era system of town-based as opposed to population based voting districts, 14 percent of Connecticut voters could elect a majority of the House of Representatives. Between 1818, when the Connecticut state constitution adopted the town-based standard, and 1910, Hartford's population grew from 6,000 to 98,000, Waterbury's from 2,000 to 73,000, New Haven's from 8,000 to 132,000 -- without additional representation. In 1890 New Haven, population 86,000, sent the same number of representatives to the state legislature as Union, population 431. New Haven's voters were immigrants and Democrats; Union's "native" and Republican. [...] The national Republican Party depended on its Connecticut "rotten borough." Between the 1870s and the 1890s it sent six Republicans senators to Washington, where they cast key votes on the tariff and the currency and enabled the GOP to control four different Congresses. Republican-appointed judges on the state Supreme Court rejected attempts to change the formula of Connecticut's anti-democracy, which in weakened strength lasted until ended by one-man, one-vote court rulings of the early 1960s.

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In Rhode Island, the GOP party boss who enforced a similar "anti-democracy" of warped state legislative districts was also the chief counsel for the New Haven Railroad and held stock in the Providence Electric Company, both of which pumped money into the party's vote-buying and immigrant vote-suppressing machinery. Senator Nelson Aldrich, the infamously corrupt Rhode Island senator and powerful chair of the Senate Finance Committee during much of the Gilded Era, was elected through this political system and elevated himself from wealthy New England merchant to robber baron status through lucrative investments in companies he bestowed with generous subsidies and tax loopholes.

During this era, there were other ploys to maintain control of the U.S. Senate. As Beatty notes, the GOP maintained control of Congress by admitting a large number of Republican-leaning territories that did not meet the historical criteria for statehood (West Virginia, Kansas, and Nevada during the war; followed by Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington) in a bid to add additional GOP senators. "Excluding West Virginia, of the eleven states admitted between 1861 and 1869 only six equaled 'the size of an average congressional district (including Colorado), two were roughly half that size, and Nevada was one-sixth the normal size,'" writes Beatty, quoting from a study by Charles Stewart and Barry R. Weingast.

In the modern age, gerrymandering has made a mockery out of representative democracy, creating congressional districts that twist and turn to ensure partisan domination. Pennsylvania, a state that voted for Obama by 5 percentage points in the last election, elected only 5 Democrats out of 18 congressional districts because of the district lines drawn by Governor Tom Corbett and his allies in the legislature. Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, and Florida are other examples of dramatically undemocratic lines crafted to allow Republicans to capture more seats than they ordinarily could. According to ThinkProgress, Democrats would have to win 7 percent of the popular vote in order to win a slim majority in the House of Representatives under the current gerrymandered system.

And who can we thank for casting a shadow over the legitimacy of our Congress? Devon Energy, Altria Group, Wynn Resorts, ETC Capital, Wal-Mart Stories, Citigroup, Koch Industries, AT&T, Comcast, ExxonMobil, Eli Lilly, and other large firms that helped finance the Republican State Leadership Committee, the GOP committee that masterminded the current gerrymander.

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell's former plan to smear Ashley Judd's mental health and religion has been exposed, prompting the senator to make a bizarre Watergate analogy.

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