The Supreme Court Shows No Love To Anxious White People

“Equality of representation in the legislature is a first principle of liberty.”John Adams, 1776

a very important decision was handed down this morning by the U.S. Supreme Court. And I bet you didn’t even know it was coming. I know I didn’t and I follow this stuff fairly closely. And what this case, Evenwel v. Abbott, shows is that some white conservative activists in this country are not only suspicious of a democracy filled with brown people, they are openly hostile to it.

Before we get to the motives behind the plaintiffs in the case that was decided today, here is a quick summary from a story on MSNBC.com:

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected an effort to change political boundaries and reduce the voting strength of the nation’s Latino population on Monday.

Two residents of Texas urged the court to rule that in drawing legislative boundaries to create districts with roughly equal populations, states should count the voting population, not the total population.

Using the total population figures, the challengers said, dilutes the voting power of residents in districts with large numbers of people who are not eligible to vote, violating the one-person, one-vote requirement.

From an article in The Atlantic last year, we find that simply selecting the voting-age population as the criterion for creating voting districts “would produce districts that are older, whiter, richer, and more likely to vote Republican.” Get it? There are just too many pigmented people around who either don’t vote or can’t vote and if they live in a district with white people who do, then they are “diluting” the power of those white voters.

evenwel v abbottA group of white (let’s stop pretending race has nothing to do with this stuff) conservatives calling themselves (falsely) the Project on Fair Representation was behind this lawsuit, ostensibly brought by two Texas conservative voters, Sue Evenwel and Ed Pfenninger, who Raw Story described this way in December of last year:

Evenwel is a Tea Party activist who has thrown her support behind Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and she helps promote “birther” conspiracy theories at local political meetings in Titus County.

Pfenninger is a security guard who has posted dozens of YouTube videos explaining his disdain for Jews, the Catholic Church and short-haired women, and he also believes that unicorns are real and the sun revolves around the earth.

Raw Story points out that these two upstanding white citizens were recruited by the Project on Fair Representation, who proudly claims the group was “designed to support litigation that challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts,” and says its mission “is to facilitate pro bono legal representation to political subdivisions and individuals that wish to challenge government distinctions and preferences made on the basis of race and ethnicity.” Clear enough? This is the same group that has been largely behind legal attacks on the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action.

You can read more details about the theories both in favor of this anti-democratic scheme and against it (even the state of Texas was against it, if you can believe that), but suffice it to say those in favor of this scheme—again, white conservative groups afraid of the browning of America— were sorely disappointed this morning. By a unanimous vote of 8-0, the Court left in place the very democratic idea of “one man, one vote,” which, oddly, only began to be articulated by the Court in the Earl Warren era, starting with the well-known Baker v. Carr in 1962, followed by the colossally huge case in 1964, Reynolds V. Sims, where the phrase—now a part of the lexicon of all those fighting for the right to vote around the world—was used to summarize the idea that state legislative districts should be drawn according to population rather than geographic districts.

Writing for the majority on the Court today, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said something so simple, yet apparently something so controversial among anxious white people who feel their cultural privilege slipping slowly away from them:

As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote.

Ya think? Should that even have to be articulated in 21st-century America? Ginsburg also reached back into time and rubbed a little salt into the wounds of conservatives by citing a Founder, Alexander Hamilton:

There can be no truer principle than this – that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government.

“No truer principle.” That doesn’t leave much room for white cultural angst, does it?

On a local note, it is interesting that the Cato Institute, a libertarian group-think tank co-founded by Charles Koch, filed a brief urging the Court to take up the case of Evenwel v. Abbott. Sitting prominently on the board of directors of the Cato Institute is Joplin’s own Ethelmae C. Humphreys, part of a family that has showered conservative and libertarian causes with tons and tons of cash. Here’s how the great legal writer for Slate, Dahlia Lithwick, described Cato’s argument:

As a practical matter, if the plaintiffs win this appeal, power will shift markedly from urban voters to rural voters and to white and Republican districts over minority and Democratic ones. In their brief asking the court to take the case, the Cato Institute was quite clear: If we apportion seats based on population, “a relatively small constituency of eligible Hispanic voters … have their votes ‘over-weighted’ and ‘over-valuated,’ effectively diluting the votes of eligible voters” and giving Hispanic voters “disproportionate power.”

Does anyone in their right mind think that Hispanic voters have “disproportionate power”? No. Only people in their white mind. That phrase in Cato’s brief, “diluting the votes of eligible voters,” can fairly be translated, “diluting the vote of eligible white voters.” 

Fortunately, Cato’s argument, and the argument of other brown-fearing white groups and their pawns, failed to convince even the rightiest of the right-wingers on the Supreme Court. And the vital concept of “one-man, one-vote” will live on.

At least for now. Joplin’s Humphreys family and the Koch brothers and those like them have plenty of cash available to keep on challenging what most of us, and all of those sitting on the Supreme Court, still see as fundamental to the success of our democratic experiment. The fight isn’t over I am sure. All of which makes this coming presidential election, with Antonin Scalia now resting in his everlasting home, more important than ever.

8 Comments

  1. King Beauregard

     /  April 4, 2016

    I will admit to being the sort of dullard who said, upon first hearing about this case, that it makes sense to draw Congressional districts along the lines of who votes; it sounds superficially fair.

    But the most direct counterargument to that is, the number of Congressmen a state has, and therefore the number of districts, is determined by number of residents. Mathematically, it is consistent to draw districts according to number of residents and not number of voters. RBG makes other arguments that speak well to principles of good governance, but when you get down to it, this is really resolved via consistent application of the math.

    The plaintiffs’ motives are, as usual, reprehensible.

    Now that said, I do think it’s still a tiny bit unfair that one district may have more voters than another, but I don’t know how big a problem that is. When most people vote, there are at least a few people around them they’re keeping in mind with their votes: a parent thinks about what’s good for their children, I think about what’s good for my neighbors, and so on. With fairly-drawn Congressional districts, maybe it’s not a significant problem.

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    • Even if one were trying to undo the amount of unfairness in a district where a significant number of people vote than another one, it is unclear to me how that would be possible, given the fact that there could be a lot of volatility in the patterns from election to election. And what about local elections? Most people, at least around here, who are registered to vote don’t vote in most local elections. So, one has to wonder what difference it makes whether a certain percentage of people are or aren’t registered to vote, if neither group votes. And then we would have to keep track of those registered voters who actually voted. And that could change from election to election in a given year, let alone in national elections. Practically speaking, I don’t even see how it is possible to always assure fairness.

      I like your point about the way some, perhaps a lot, of people vote: with others in mind. Thus, like you, I think the best way to assure any semblance of fairness is to use the system in our Constitution: districts drawn according to total population. That seems like the fairest, most manageable way to do things, as opposed to that abhorrent system, also in our Constitution, of allowing each state two senators no matter the population.  

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      • King Beauregard

         /  April 5, 2016

        “And then we would have to keep track of those registered voters who actually voted. And that could change from election to election in a given year, let alone in national elections. Practically speaking, I don’t even see how it is possible to always assure fairness.”

        It would probably be something like how we take a census every ten years, so I don’t see it as procedurally insurmountable. Not that we should do it, mind you.

        “I like your point about the way some, perhaps a lot, of people vote: with others in mind.”

        Even if people aren’t thinking directly in terms of their neighbors, they’re still thinking in terms of an “us” of some kind. Politicians don’t make promises to individuals but demographics, and with districts that don’t clip demographics apart gerrymander-style, in theory each “us” will get represented even if some demographics vote less than others.

        In practice, how do you draw districts so that no demographic is cut apart? It’s an imperfect art, but honest intention goes a long way towards minimizing injustices. I think ultimately it comes down to what can be considered “communities”, defined not just in terms of skin tone or ethnicity but in terms of commerce, professions, school districts, and the like.

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        • I don’t disagree with you at all. Honest intention is the key. Drawing districts independent of partisan politics should be as close as we can get to a fair way of doing so.

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          • Honest intention is the key. Drawing districts independent of partisan politics should be as close as we can get to a fair way of doing so.

            Agreed, that’s the essence of it. The bedrock principle at stake is demographic compromise in the interest of the collective welfare. Dilution is good but partisanship promotes disunity and discontent.

            I have sometimes wondered whether the U.S. might have been better off completely federated rather than divided into individual states? Probably so, but impractical. We hold together, but for selfish reasons. How fragile it is.

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            • I think about that fragility a lot. I’m not sure what our secret has been, whether it is really a collective adherence to the “idea” of America, or just luck. But frighteningly fragile it is.

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  2. They’re just going to gerrymander anyway so what’s the point?

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