Politics & Policy

No, Trump’s Census Pick Won’t Rig Elections

Polling place in Dover, N.H., in 2008 (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
His lack of managerial experience is a legitimate reason to scrutinize his selection; his academic work on democracy is not.

White House eschatology never ends. Every president supposedly threatens to bring down the republic. Reagan was going to declare Rex 84 and suspend the Constitution; Clinton was going to flip the switch on a dormant network of FEMA camps to detain Evangelicals; George W. Bush was going to declare martial law and usher in Gilead. Sharia law was always around the corner under Obama, if he didn’t reactivate the FEMA plan first, and prophets delivered jeremiads aplenty during Donald Trump’s campaign. These even seemed justified as Trump announced his intention to deport 11 million people, spoke like a strongman, and intimated that he would contest the election results if he lost.

He won, and while the authoritarian nightmare has not come to pass, the end-times chorus sings without pause. But the fun thing about Armageddon being right around the corner is that it makes everything feel important. Reports now say that the president will nominate an obscure academic named Thomas Brunell as deputy director of the Census Bureau. Which means, according to the latest generation of Cassandras, that it’s finally happening.

Abigail Tracy wrote in Vanity Fair that Brunell “could rig future elections” and “dramatically undercut the objective mission of the agency.” Charles P. Pierce wrote in Esquire that the nomination shows that the GOP wants “to fasten control of the government to the Republican party no matter for what the people may want to vote.” Leah Aden of the NAACP wrote that the consideration of Brunell “signals this administration’s long-term efforts to skew the electorate.”

The worry is that Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of Texas, Dallas, with scores of journal articles to his name, will design the 2020 census such that Republicans win all future elections. The title of his book, Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America, caused panic among those who subscribe to the faith that competitive elections are a sign of a flourishing democracy. It also set off warning bells among those who are certain that Trump, who really wants to be Caesar, has already been measured for his tunic, toga, and corona. The president’s rigging the census would certainly mark a slide toward dictatorship: The results of the census determine how many seats each state has in the House, and census data inform where the federal government appropriates money. Republicans themselves worried about this during the Clinton age — one dispute centered around the use of inferential computer models rather than taking head counts — and now, as ever, there is anxiety that the president will rig the system to stay in power.

But Brunell is no foe of democracy. His book instead contests the assumption that competition in tight districts is a condition of democratic health. It spells out a scholarly argument from unmistakably democratic principles, finding the problem with competitive congressional districts (and state-legislative districts) to be that they result in a legislature that insufficiently represents its constituents. Brunell says that “policy responsiveness” is a key part of representation, and argues that drawing competitive districts only worsens the principal-agent problem inherent in a representative democracy.

Put simply, when a district is politically homogenous, its residents can choose a candidate who represents everyone — but when a district is 50 percent Republican and 50 percent Democrat, half the population won’t share the policy preferences of the election’s winner. Relatedly, the more competitive a district is, the greater the proportion of dissatisfied voters will be after Election Day. Analyzing swathes of data, Brunell finds that voters in less competitive districts tend to be happier with the way Congress is running.

It’s a relevant insight, but the solution Brunell advocates — redraw districts to pack them with like-minded folks; hold incumbents accountable via the primary process — is already underway thanks to partisan sorting, and the result has been an increasingly polarized country. Right now, the Cook Political Report considers only 21 congressional districts to be toss-ups, which incentivizes ideological purity among candidates. So Brunell’s confidence that making primaries the primary arena for democratic accountability won’t intensify partisanship seems misplaced.

Brunell shows that competitive elections can be bad for democracy in a winner-take-all system.

Nonetheless, his book supplies a valuable lesson for small-d democrats: Electoral competitiveness is not the proper measure of democracy. Participants in the modern debate over gerrymandering often take the value of competitiveness for granted, but Brunell shows that competitive elections can be bad for democracy in a winner-take-all system. He even suggests — however briefly — that a system of proportional representation through multiple-member districts could be a more democratic one.

Thomas Brunell is thus a champion of democracy, if an unconventional one. Of course, it doesn’t follow that he’s the right man to run the Census Bureau in the absence of its director, who stepped down months ago. Critics have noted that Brunell has no prior administrative experience, and that the job for which he is being considered is mainly an operational one. Further, the bureau is undergoing a modernization effort that is designed to cut costs, and Diane W. Schanzenbach of Northwestern University and Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute argue that, without a qualified manager to oversee that effort, the bureau will have to “resort to the old, expensive approach” and “drive up costs to taxpayers,” or “conduct a lower-quality census, diminishing the value of the data.”

Brunell’s inexperience, more than a latent intention to fix the shackles of permanency on an unwitting public so as to pave the gilded way for Emperor Donaldus, is reason to look closely at the appointment. But it also makes him a conventional Trump pick, in the mold of Rex Tillerson, Rick Perry, Scott Pruitt, and more: an outsider, appointed to make an agency more efficient, not to subvert its mission. Liberal eschatologists who think Thomas Brunell’s prospective appointment will bring about the end of the republic fail to make the distinction between inexperience and malice. During the election, Trump would cry “rigged” when something didn’t go his way. Now that he’s president, it’s their turn.

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