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Here's What We're Watching in 2018

Michael Berkman and Chris Beem on events that may impact democracy this year.

Now that we are officially into 2018 and the new semester has started, we at the McCourtney Institute have started to think ahead about what the new year might bring.

Here are some thoughts we have about what is likely to significantly impact America democracy. Let us know what you think and if we have forgotten anything.

  1. Redistricting
  2. “Fake News”
  3. 2018 Election
  4. Congressional Compromise

The Future of Redistricting

Increasingly sophisticated software has allowed states to develop very precise legislative district maps, often down to the street level.  These create partisan advantages at the state and national level for the party in control of the state government, part of what the 2016 Brown Democracy Medal Award winner Pippa Norris refers to as partisan polarization over electoral procedures. Some states avoid this type of gerrymandering by using non-partisan commissions. But most do not. For those that don’t, gains in the 2010 elections allowed Republicans in some key battle-ground states (including WI, NC and PA) to control the 2011 map-making process. These states have been accused of partisan gerrymandering, but the future of these efforts and those after the upcoming 2020 census will be determined by the Supreme Court in decisions that will be handed down this year.

Just this week a three judge panel struck down North Carolina’s congressional district map, arguing that the legislature had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent” when they created 13 congressional districts in 2016—ten of them Republican—in a redistricting process that was itself required by earlier court decisions.  (That is to say, the Courts have now sent NC back to the drawing board twice!) Basing their decision on the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, this is the first time a federal court has ruled redistricting based on partisan considerations, in other words favoring one party over the other, is unconstitutional.

The panel’s decision will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, which has already heard and will soon rule on Wisconsin’s congressional map in the case of Gill v. Whitford. This case, too, is based on the partisan gerrymandering of the state’s districts.  The case may rest more on technical issues of how to develop an objective standard for unconstitutional gerrymandering, but if they can get past that issue they may rule on whether the Wisconsin map violates the Constitutional provision of one person one vote. 

Combined with the North Carolina case, and another case involving the Maryland legislative districts (in this case the Democrats are the defendants), the Court could issue a ruling that dramatically reshapes the legislative battlefield for either 2018 (as in the North Carolina case) or 2020. It is likely not a stretch to say that a decision finding partisan gerrymandering to be problematic would be similar in its political impact to its decision in Citizens United.

At the same time, here in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this month in League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania General Assembly. This novel case argues that partisan gerrymandered legislative districts violates the state’s constitution. And because the plaintiff’s asked for and received ‘extraordinary relief,’ they will have their case heard and decided before the 2018 elections.  That decision could completely up end the electoral apple cart in the state independent of the Supreme Court decision.

The Fake Media and the Role of Shared Facts

A year of unprecedented attacks on the press by the President and his team has had significant consequences. 

President Donald Trump has had a relationship with the press that is more combative than any other president (with the possible exception of Richard Nixon).  Tagging as “Fake News” any news he doesn’t like, calling the press “the enemy of the people,” reporters as “dishonest,” “terrible people,” and the like, the President has sought to discredit any reporting that reflects negatively on his administration. While doing so, he has also undermined the role the free press plays in our democracy.

This behavior has created increasing partisan division among the American public in the extent to which people accept and trust news coming from national, mainstream news organization.  We see this in our McCourtney Mood of the Nation Poll, where Republican anger toward the media has steadily increased over the last year.  Pew polling shows similar results: Republican trust in national news has decreased over the last year while Democratic trust in the same sources has increased.  And a Harvard poll finds that a remarkable 65 percent of Americans — but more Republicans than Democrats — believe there is a “lot” of “fake news” in the media. 

It is concerning for American democracy that the media, who play a critical informational and oppositional role in a democracy — a role protected in the First Amendment—is itself now increasingly seen in partisan terms. And arguments about a range of critical topics grow ever more difficult because of an inability to come to any agreement on a foundation of shared facts. 

But the stakes are perhaps even higher in other countries. Last month, the New York Times (which the President refers to repeatedly as “failing”) reported that dictators around the world are using the term “fake news” to defend themselves from negative press coverage in their countries. A silly diversion here could further undermine freedom in the rest of the world.

We are concerned that continued attacks on the media will further undercut trust and confidence in American institutions. We also see these attacks as part of a more fundamental problem whereby science and expertise are seen by the Administration as suspect voices that only serve a cadre of elite insiders. 

The 2018 Elections

Intelligence agencies in this country and others have concluded with extremely high confidence that the Russian government actively interfered in the American 2016 election and continues to interfere in elections around the world.

Because the public conversation regarding Russian interference has become so focused on Donald Trump and his team, there has been little work by the federal government to protect the integrity of future American elections. This was not inevitable; the response of the Administration could have been to acknowledge the findings of its intelligence agencies and direct the full resources of the federal government preventing it from happening again, including what we now know were efforts to actually hack election results.  But this has not happened and as a result, our electoral system remains vulnerable. 

It is important here to remember that the intelligence community has concluded that whether the attacks were intended to help Donald Trump or not, and irrespective of whether they did, a goal was to disrupt American democracy and democracies around the world. That goal remains.

Democratic Governance

Passage of a $1.5 trillion dollar tax cut marks a significant legislative achievement for the Republican majority in Congress.  It also marks yet another major public policy decision decided on strictly partisan grounds.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, The Affordable Care Act in 2009, efforts to unsuccessfully repeal the Act in 2017 and the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act are just the most high-profile examples of the trend toward party line voting in an increasingly polarized Congress.

This polarization is just one challenge facing national policymaking institutions in the coming year. So long as one party controls all branches we can see legislative solutions but they will not be accepted by the other side. This is especially true when decisions are reached outside accepted regular order, which provides for systematic input and influence by the minority party.  But Republican control, especially in the Senate, is now so tenuous that we should expect a very quiet legislative year. It seems unlikely that decisions will be reached on several pressing policy concerns.

Most prominent among these is likely the need to pass a true spending plan.  It is remarkable that the American government has operated for years on continuing resolutions, unable to reach agreement on some kind of comprehensive spending plan.  This issue comes to the forefront yet again this month, this time in the face of significant revenue losses from the recent tax plan.  The coming crisis over DACA highlights that comprehensive immigration reform has also been elusive for many years.  In the meantime there is wide agreement that American infrastructure is in serious need of repair, and even simple issues, like the widely popular CHIP program providing medical assistance for children, seem beyond the current capacity of the Congress.

Our concern here is not the passage of any particular legislation. Rather, it is that the American people’s trust in government institutions will continue to erode when confronted with poor government performance along with disgust over the process.