by Stephen Ansolabehere and James N. Snyder. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008. 336pp. Paperback. $19.38. ISBN: 9780393931037.
Reviewed by Christopher Malone, Department of Political Science, Pace University. Email: cmalone [at] pace.edu.
In his widely acclaimed 1991 book HOLLOW HOPE, Gerald Rosenberg made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court of the United States has little power in bringing about social change. Rosenberg took what he called the Constrained Court view, and contended that several factors such as the limits on hearing social reform cases, formidable powers vested in the Constitution to the other branches of government, and the inability of courts to enact policy, all conspire to restrict the influence of the Court to effect social change. In Hamilton’s famous phrase from Federalist 78, the Court has nothing more than the power of “judgment” at its disposal: even when the Court speaks, it takes the cooperation and assistance of the other branches to carry out the decision. As proof, Rosenberg analyzed the impact of landmark cases such as BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954) and ROE v. WADE (1973) and finding that the decisions themselves absent government action by “the political branches” did little to advance the social reforms the decisions initiated.
Rosenberg’s thesis continues to generate much scholarship on the nature and power of the courts – not to mention even a little criticism. Two decades later, the debate still rages on whether the courts are outfitted to deal successfully with social change. Witness, for example, the legal confusion across the country when it comes to the issue of marriage equality – a topic that Rosenberg explores in the updated 2008 edition of HOLLOW HOPE. Whether the Supreme Court is well-equipped or not to bring about social change, Stephen Ansolabehere and James Snyder argue forcefully in their 2008 book THE END OF INEQUALITY: ONE PERSON, ONE VOTE, AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS that the Supreme Court is in fact well-positioned to bring about political change. Where Rosenberg took a Constrained Court view, Ansolabehere and Snyder put forward a Dynamic Court perspective. Further, the authors contend that the courts should venture into what Justice Felix Frankfurter called the “political thicket” whenever or wherever political inequality persists.
THE END OF INEQUALITY focuses on the “quiet revolution” which occurred in the four decades after the landmark BAKER v. CARR decision of 1962. According to Ansolabehere and Snyder, BAKER v. CARR presents the political scientist with the closest thing to a “natural experiment” (pp.13-18) one could find in the political world. For the first five decades of the twentieth century, most state legislative districts across the country remained apportioned [*318] in accordance with the precepts, population and power structure of a rural/agrarian society. By the 1960s, however, the United States had become a predominantly urban/suburban society; population had shifted to metropolitan areas but political power had not followed. BAKER v. CARR, and the ensuing cases, would change the malapportionment of state legislative districts all across the country with an elegantly parsimonious phrase: one person, one vote. For Ansolabehere and Snyder, this sets up a perfect political experiment – a before and after scenario rarely available in American politics.
Have the equal rights announced in BAKER v. CARR and its progeny led to equitable outcomes? The authors write:
Our interest arose out of a desire to understand some of the most fundamental questions about democracy: what is the value of the vote? What does truly democratic representation achieve? Does it equalize the voice and power of the many interests in society, or do wealth, social standing, and concentration of interests squelch those who lack such resources? (p.14).
In brief, the answer for Ansolabehere and Snyder is an unequivocal yes: “the effects of reapportionment [in the wake of BAKER v. CARR] on these different aspects of politics all point to a singular conclusion: equal votes mean equal power. The equalization of representation led directly to an equalization of the distribution of public expenditures – who got what” (p.15).
In its form and method, THE END OF INEQUALITY is the best of what a political scientist has to offer the worlds of social science, politics and government. The work is both qualitative and quantitative in nature. The authors present us with a clear and concise hypothesis that is to be tested: the equal distribution of votes between the electorate and for the elected in a democratic society lead to equitable outcomes. They present the reader with a historical context to BAKER v. CARR and an in-depth narrative of how the Warren Court came to its decision. They follow a rigorous methodology in looking at the distribution of public resources by rural, suburban and urban legislative districts both pre- and post-BAKER. This is no small feat; the data sets for the study were enormous, to say the least. Ansolabehere and Snyder also present data to discern whether reapportionment from the mid-1960s on led to a leftward shift in public policy, as one would assume (since power swung to the cities and suburbs that have always been seen as more liberal or progressive than rural areas of the country). As to the latter point, they come to a somewhat surprising if perfectly logical conclusion: in the Northeast and Midwest, reapportionment pulled public policy to the left, whereas in the South and West, reapportionment pulled public policy to the right (pp.218-219) – the South more so than the West.
After having shown that reapportionment in the wake of BAKER v. CARR had brought about a political revolution unseen in any modern democracy, the authors turn their attention in the penultimate chapter to the ostensible maladies of the current reapportionment system: party gerrymandering, racial districting and incumbent protection. While the reapportionment regime post-Baker may not be perfect, Ansolebehere and Snyder [*319] find that gerrymandering for political or racial purposes has less of an impact than one would think. They conclude in Chapter 11:
The distribution of the vote across legislative districts is clearly uni-modal. Most of the districts are near the center of the distribution. And the frequency of districts tails off as one moves away from the political center. To put matters bluntly, there is absolutely no trace of the bi-partisan cartel. Rather, the distribution of the normal party vote in the legislative districts seems consistent with the notion that the parties can exert relatively little influence over the contours of legislative districts. They have some influence on the margin, but, consistent with our earlier findings on partisan bias, state legislative districts do not seem to reflect a strong partisan tilt (p.270).
And yet, the reelection rate for incumbents across most of the country is over 90%. If political or racial redistricting, on the one hand, or partisan collusion on the other, are not the causes for such high re-election rates, what explains it? According to Ansolebehere and Snyder, it is incumbency – not districting (p.271). As proof, the authors show that in the years immediately following redistricting (usually two years following the decennial census), incumbency departures have accelerated (p.265). In the US House of Representatives, for example, incumbency rates dip as low as 65 percent in redistricting years, versus 80-90 percent in normal years. “Redistricting acts as one of the few forces in American politics today that turns incumbents out of office” (p.265).
Given the amount of data brought to bear on the arguments that Ansolebehere and Snyder present in THE END OF INEQUALITY, the conclusion that ending malapportionment had an equalizing effect on American democracy is indeed convincing. Yet, clearly equal redistricting cannot explain everything when it comes to “the end” of inequality or the transformation of race politics in the United States. For example, even with the redistricting revolution that has taken place over the past forty years, income and wealth inequality are higher today than at any other time before the Great Depression. After leveling off and narrowing between the 1930s and the 1970s, inequality began accelerating in the 1980s, slowed slightly during the 1990s, but continued unabated over the last decade. Even in parts of the country that have seen a left shift in public policy according to Ansolabehere and Snyder, inequality has increased. No doubt this is due to many factors, including tax policy at both the federal and the state level and a transformation in the American economy; but rising inequality also coincides closely with the period of the redistricting revolution over the last four decades the authors describe. One wonders if there is a correlation, i.e., if the power-shift from (poorer) rural counties to (wealthier) urban and suburban counties across the country began after BAKER had anything at all to do with it.
Further, it is quite possible that the authors overreach when it comes to their conclusions on how redistricting affected the partisan and ideological divide in parts of the country. Ansolabehere and Snyder, for example, contend that redistricting moved the South to the right ideologically and toward the Republican Party politically because more suburban districts (which were ideologically more [*320] conservative than both rural and urban areas of the South) were created: “These new districts would add a conservative economic voice to southern state politics that had been absent” (p.224). As a consequence, the South became “more conservative and more Republican” (p.234), and reapportionment “created a pool of Republican politicians seeking to challenge the Democratic establishment” (p.232).
As proof, they present data compiled from the American National Election Study of 1964 and 1968 that are placed on a scale of 1 to 100. For the South, they find that in general ideology urban areas score a 52 (out of 100, with 100 being most liberal, 0 being most conservative), while suburban areas score a 39 and rural areas 49. On Civil Rights, the urban score was 52, while the suburban score dropped to 40 and the rural score to 32. Yet on partisan identification score, all three regions were over 50 (100 being Democratic, 0 being Republican): 62 for urban, 59 for suburban, 53 for rural (222).
The authors back these findings with other data compiled by the Comparative State Elections Project from 1968 (p.226). Again, they find that the South’s general ideology remained moderate to conservative (ranging 30 to 52 on the scale conservative/liberal scale) while the entire region leaned moderately to solidly Democratic (ranging 46 to 63 regionally on the Republican/Democrat scale).
From this data, it is simply not enough to come to the conclusion that it was redistricting which began moving the South in a more conservative, more Republican direction. For one, 1968 as the cutoff date does not give us enough data to work with. While 5 deep South states voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, 1968 was the date at which the South was beginning to trend Republican at the state and congressional level. We would need to see data that spanned several decades in order to arrive at a more informed conclusion. If we looked at other avenues of thought, however, one could well make the case that the cause of the swing to the Republican Party in the South was not reapportionment per se, but the issue of race (Malone 2008, chapter 6).
Consider this: On the evening of July 2nd, 1964, the night he had signed the Civil Rights Act in to law, President Lyndon Johnson sat on the bed in his quarters at the White House with several newspapers spread about him. Johnson’s press secretary Bill Moyers walked in and, sensing the president’s glum mood, asked why his signature on the most important piece of legislation since Reconstruction was not cause for celebration. Johnson replied, “Because Bill, I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come” (The story is recounted in Dallek 1998, p.120 ).
In the short term, Johnson’s fears were unfounded. He coasted to victory that fall, garnering over 61% of the popular vote and racking up 90% of the Electoral College total. But with his uncanny nose for politics, Johnson saw the writing on the wall: signing the Civil Rights Act would most certainly demolish the southern (white) base of his Democratic Party. In the fall of 1964, Johnson lost just six states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and [*321] Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. But the speed with which parts of the South turned on Johnson and the Democrats is telling and foreshadowed things to come in the decades since. In South Carolina, Goldwater received about 59% of the popular vote. In Alabama, the figure was just under 70%. And in Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered just two weeks before Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater received an incredible 87% of the popular vote (see, e.g., Dave Leip’s wonderful website Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, http://uselectionatlas.org/).
In 1968, after Johnson was chased out of the presidential race by his failures in Vietnam, the segregationist George Wallace won the electoral votes of eight of the eleven former confederate states. Nixon won Florida and Virginia, while Humphrey captured only Johnson’s home state of Texas. In 1972, with his “Southern Strategy” firmly in place, Nixon swept the entire South. Carter’s electoral victory in the South in 1976 is somewhat anomalous, given his southern roots, his fervent religious convictions, and the explosive fallout over Watergate. In the three presidential elections between 1980 and 1988, Democratic candidates won the electoral votes of exactly one state in the Deep South – that was Jimmy Carter who won his own state of Georgia in 1980. Even Clinton’s electoral successes in the South in 1992 and 1996 come with an asterisk: the only states where he won a majority of the vote were in Arkansas in 1992 and 1996 (roughly 53% each time) and in Louisiana in 1996 (52%). Al Gore was shut out of the South in 2000, including in his home state of Tennessee. So too was John Kerry in 2004. Barack Obama won Florida, North Carolina and Virginia – an incredible feat for an African American, even with the demographic shifts in those states and the damage to the brand of the Republican Party wrought by the Bush Presidency.
When the 89th Congress convened in January 1965, the Democratic Party held veto-proof majorities in both houses: 295-140 in the House, 68-32 in the Senate. Going into the elections in the fall of 1964, the Democratic Party held nearly 90% of the southern seats in the House and over 95% of the southern seats in the Senate. Yet, by the time the 93th Congress convened in the winter of 1973, the Republican Party had captured 30% of the southern seats in both House and Senate (Bartley and Graham 1975, at 190). And by the time the 109th Congress convened – the same Congress which passed the Voting Rights Reauthorization Act of 2006 – the partisan transformation of the South had more or less been completed. In the sixteen southern states from Delaware to Texas, Republicans held a 95-59 majority in the House and a 22-10 majority in the Senate. The Republican House majority leader was from Texas. The Republican Senate majority leader claimed Tennessee as his home state. Nine of the sixteen governors of these states were Republicans (www.thegreenpapers.org). And of course, another Texan was in the White House – but this time representing the GOP.
Given these trends and realities, it is hard to believe that the sweeping partisan changes in the South from the mid 1960s on were due more to [*322] reapportionment than to the issue of race. Perhaps the two worked hand-in-hand; but the reality is that large parts of the South (and primarily white parts at that) trended Republican only after the end of Jim Crow in the mid 1960s. Further, one could make the argument that, as the center of gravity of the Republican Party migrated further South over the ensuing decades, the moderate northeastern, “Rockefeller Republican” became a rare species. In other words, it is quite feasible that race transformed the partisan identification of the South first, and then subsequently the North – not reapportionment.
One way to get at such a hypothesis would be to compare the ideological and partisan leanings of individuals from the 1990s or the 2000s to the data that Ansolebehere and Snyder present from the 1960s. If the South and Northeast, for example, remained relatively static in terms of general ideology but had significant disparities in partisan identification when the two periods are compared, that would tend to support the conclusion that the reapportionment “revolution” the authors point toward was probably superseded by a “racial revolution.”
These points do not detract from the importance of this work. Discussions and debates such as these are precisely what a successful book should foster. When it comes to the theoretical basis of democracy, to the role and power of the U.S. courts, to the history of voting rights and public policy – that is certainly what THE END OF INEQUALITY does.
Bartley, Numan V. , and Hugh D. Graham. 1975. SOUTHERN POLITICS AND THE SECOND RECONSTRUCTION. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.
Dallek, Robert. 1998. FLAWED GIANT: LYNDON JOHNSON AND HIS TIMES. New York: Oxford University Press.
Leip, Dave. ATLAS OF U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS. Available online at: http://uselectionatlas.org/.
Malone, Christopher. 2008. BETWEEN FREEDOM AND BONDAGE: RACE, PARTY AND VOTING RIGHTS IN THE ANTEBELLUM NORTH. New York Routledge Press.
Rosenberg, Gerald. 1991. HOLLOW HOPE: CAN THE COURTS BRING ABOUT SOCIAL CHANGE? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rosenberg, Gerald. 2008. HOLLOW HOPE: CAN THE COURTS BRING ABOUT SOCIAL CHANGE? (2nd ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
BAKER v. CARR, 369 U.S. 186 (1962).
BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
ROE v. WADE, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
© Copyright 2011 by the author, Christopher Malone.