Asymmetrical Political Warfare
The metaphors, vocabulary, and imagery of war are often commandeered for political commentary. As anyone who has witnessed the carnage of actual combat can attest, we should be very careful about likening the normal back and forth of policy debates and electoral advantage to the physical battlefield.
But what about when, like in the present, it is not just tax policy or social priorities at stake but the very continuation of American democracy? What if what we are trying to wrap our heads around is a grave threat to our national unity?
This is literally a battle for the soul of our nation and the consequences rise to a level where invoking the specter of how warfare can scar and alter societies is warranted.
Which brings us to the notion of “asymmetrical warfare.”
Webster’s defines the phrase as: “warfare that is between opposing forces which differ greatly in military power and that typically involves the use of unconventional weapons and tactics (such as those associated with guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks).”
And for the case of our discussion here, the focus will be on what I believe (and I know many others believe as well) to be one of the most serious threats to our democratic stability - partisan gerrymandering.
As the congressional and state government maps come into focus in the wake of the last census, one thing is clear. Republicans at every level of government are pushing for maximum advantage where even a minority of voters in states they control can keep Republican grips on Congressional delegations and state legislatures intact. Democrats are doing that in certain states they control as well. But they have nowhere near the elected power to keep up with this tactic.
Furthermore, in several blue or purple states, districts are determined by a nonpartisan process, including California, Colorado, and New Jersey. Those who count seats have determined that if Democrats could gerrymander these states they would have a lot more seats in Congress than they will have now.
Now I want to make it very clear that I think partisan gerrymandering is an abhorrent process no matter who does it. It distorts what democracy is supposed to be about, the competition for votes based around ideas and not pure party loyalty. The lack of competitive districts pushes our politics into the extremes. It undermines compromise. If every state drew its districts around non-partisan metrics, the United States would have a much healthier national government.
Furthermore, if this was only about who would have the power to push a legislative advantage then perhaps the impact of these gerrymandered districts would be serious but not as dire. What is becoming obvious, however, is that Republicans at all levels of government have endorsed Donald Trump’s “Big Lie,” and are eager to use their political power not to advocate for their policies but to lock in political control, even if that means, or especially if that requires, minority rule.
This is asymmetrical political warfare. The Democrats are adhering to an approach to politics to which only they subscribe. And the Republicans are resorting to any unconventional tactic they can muster. By ceding so many Congressional seats it means it is more likely that Republicans can undermine future elections, and so the cycle has the potential to continue to spiral.
With all this in mind, there are many in and outside of government who argue that this very point is the most urgent for the Democrats in Washington to address, because without it there will be no opportunity to legislate and lead on all the other important issues facing our country. They point to bills being pushed in Congress that would address this problem. And they wonder, and I suspect that this includes many of you, why the Biden Administration and leaders on Capitol Hill aren’t acting with more tenacity and resolve.
There is a counterargument that with at least two Democratic Senators (and maybe more) not willing to gut the filibuster to promote voting rights then nothing can be accomplished.
Here I want to return to the metaphors of warfare. Wars are not only won and lost on the beaches and trenches of the battlefield. They are won and lost on the homefront. It matters how the troops are supported and supplied. It matters if the population has a will to win.
This is what I think looms over this moment in ways we cannot predict. What are our political leaders in Washington hearing from the rest of the country? Will there be a groundswell for fairness in our electoral process? Is there a majority with the energy and determination to keep pushing?
Those who have made the biggest differences in humanity’s march towards a more just and equitable society are invariably the ones who do not give up. To succumb to fatalism is its own form of privilege. I can count the votes in Congress. I can see who has the power of elected office in state and local governments. I understand that it might seem like nothing can be done.
But I also firmly believe that no political leader, including the president of the United States, is bigger than the country (or state or county) they lead. The voices of the people matter, and not just at the ballot box. If there is a sustained national movement around this issue, if it is everywhere, if the troops fighting for it on the frontlines can feel the support from the “homefront,” I believe change is possible. I’ve seen it happen.
There’s an old saying which happens to be a wise one: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.