Bill Barr has done it again. The attorney general who defanged the Mueller Report before the rest of America had a chance to read it has now stepped in to replace the lawyers arguing for a citizenship question on the census after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was caught dead to rights lying about why he wanted to add it, and after the Supreme Court ruled that Ross was lying. (Tuesday evening, a federal judge in New York torched Barr’s arguments and ruled that the department hadn’t given an adequate justification for replacing the lawyers.)
Barr says he’s come up with a brilliant and legal justification for the citizenship question, which of course he isn’t ready to tell us about yet.
Remember—this is the top law enforcement officer in the United States. And his concern wasn’t holding Ross to account, God forbid, or obeying the obvious spirit of the court’s decision and letting the matter drop. Nope. His goal, again, was to be Donald Trump’s henchman.
And Trump’s goal, and Ross’, and now Barr’s too? To cheat, put simply. To cheat cities and non-white people out of representation and money.
That much has been said. Here’s something that hasn’t quite been said with the force it needs to be. This exact kind of cheating has been going on since the beginning of the republic.
That’s no exaggeration. The history of political representation in the United States is almost wholly—yes, almost wholly—a history of the rural and almost all-white population cheating the urban and racially mixed population. It’s what they have always, always done.
And then, to top it all off, they have gotten endless political mileage down the decades and centuries by constantly complaining that the big bad cities were pushing them around. I used to cover New York politics. The facts were that upstate New York got, for example, far more school funding than it deserved based on population, in large part because the state built new prisons to juice the economy up there, filled those prisons with people from New York City, and then counted those incarcerated people as upstate residents for the purpose of divvying up state funds and drawing up state legislative lines.
It has ever been thus. Clarke Stallworth, a journalist who covered Alabama state politics in the early 20th century, put it like this: “In effect, the people of the more populous counties put up the money to run the state, and the legislators from the rural counties decide how to spend it.” He could have been talking about the New York of the 1990s I covered, or most states still today—or, of course, the United States of America, at nearly any point in our history.
Here’s how it’s worked. As you know, the Constitution orders that a census be conducted every 10 years. It then mandates that the new numbers be used for reapportionment—to draw new district lines for the House of Representatives and state legislatures. In theory, the districts were supposed to be of near-equal population size.
What happened in fact was that the censuses were conducted, and then most states did… nothing. Or worse than nothing: They persisted in making sure they were drawing unfair districts so that rural legislators would outnumber urban ones. That is, they’d make rural districts have, for example, 10,000 people, and urban districts 50,000. That produces a) a lot more rural legislators than urban ones and b) rural voters who have, in effect, five times the voting power that urban voters have.
Think that five-to-one is exaggerated? It’s not. Ratios like that were common. In Michigan, according to J. Douglas Smith in his eye-opening On Democracy’s Doorstep, legislators drew districts that ranged in population from 117,431 to 802,944.
Needless to say, this was entirely about foreigners and black people. It intensified with the great immigration wave of the late 19th century, and it intensified again later when African Americans began to move up to Northern cities from the South beginning after World War I. Its effects were explicitly racist. For example, in 1956, after Brown v. Board, the Virginia legislature voted to close public schools rather than integrate. The vote in the state senate was 21-17. But the 17 represented more people than the 21.
I could go on like this for paragraphs. There are 50, 60 shocking anecdotes in Smith’s book. And they got away with it because courts would say this is a legislative matter, none of our business. This was constant and relentless in our history until 1962, when the Supreme Court finally said it is our business and ended this nonsense with three decisions, the most famous of which is Baker v. Carr.
Ever since, we’ve had equally sized districts. But Republicans, taking advantage of the fact that Democrats and liberals increasingly live bunched together, have still managed through aggressive gerrymandering to sometimes hold majorities in legislatures even though they won fewer votes overall. And it’s not hard to imagine this court someday overturning Baker by returning to the old position that it’s not the court’s business, and the drawing of radically unequal districts will again be legal.
In the meantime, we await Barr’s new justification. There are indications it will be, in essence: because the president wants it. Read this Garrett Epps Atlantic piece for the full story on that. But it’s absurd on its face. The Constitution clearly gives the power of the census to the Congress, in Article I. But what’s clear these days, with a lawless racist president, sycophants like Barr reading the Constitution on his behalf, and an army of unethical nihilists ready to go on cable news and justify anything these gangsters dos?
The story of democracy is not a story of ease. It’s a story of struggle, of setting out goals but sometimes taking decades and centuries to achieve them. This was the case with the census, which unscrupulous and nativist politicians were allowed to abuse for 180 years before the Supreme Court put things right. Trump, Ross, and Barr are working squarely within that dark and disgusting tradition. When I was younger, we had the general sense of democracy pushing forward. Today, we’re learning how a democracy goes backward.