Get Ready for the War on Data

If you can't win the political battle, change the facts on the ground

A colleague points out something interesting about Mark Sanford's comeback victory in South Carolina's first district: it's part of a broader trend towards uncompetitive congressional districts. Some pundits have despaired at the thought that a guy who left the governor's office (and his wife) to sneak off to meet a girlfriend in a foreign country could nonetheless be returned to elected office--Ross Douthat of the New York Times tweeted "I'm a John Profumo guy living in a Mark Sanford world." But for voters, in the end the only thing that mattered in yesterday's special elections was the (R) after Sanford's name.

And that's not limited to South Carolina. Michael Barone recently noted that . Political preferences are hardening; folks in a given district are consistently voting the party, not the candidate. This suggests that for the foreseeable future, all the political action will lie in the presidency, and the Senate. The next big movement in the House will probably be the 2020 census.

But the implications don't stop there. If the Census is the key to political control, then you can expect parties to put more energy into gaming the census. Arguably, you're already seeing this: Republicans are now making their second attempt to defund the American Community Survey, which uses sampling to generate data between censuses. The American Community Survey is not used for districting, but it is used for all manner of other policy purposes.

As the political fault lines harden in Congress, the battlegrounds are moving back to more hidden levers of policymaking. There are the courts, of course: we're now in the third decade of a mostly undeclared war to gain control of the Supreme Court and do some unelected legislating. Data gathering and research funding are coming under fierce scrutiny. And on the national security front, secrecy and executive orders seem to be the order of the day for whoever is in the White House.

Before you say it, no, this isn't just Republicans. But it's not good on either side. As the legislature has ceased being able to legislate, both parties almost have to resort to more undemocratic methods to achieve their goals. The casualties, like judicial impartiality and good data for policymaking, are vastly more important than the causes for which this war is allegedly being fought.