A December 11, 2012 Jonathan Weisman’s article in The New York Times finds that a key dynamic in the brinksmanship between President Obama and the Republican House is the intransigence of many Tea Party-backed conservatives over taxes. This defiance of both the will of the majority of the American public and the national interest is, in turn, enabled by the gerrymandering of House districts – most often, at the hands of Republican state legislatures – which creates overwhelming electoral advantages for conservative Congressional candidates in their home districts.
In other words, no matter how far these Congressmen (and, yes, a few women too) go — obstructing progress, distorting policy-making, and holding the American economy and body politic hostage to their own narrow interests — they will suffer few, if any, consequences. Their constituents are the reddest of the red, and will only love them for it all the more.
The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from Mr. Weisman’s article is that, yes, gerrymandering is alive and well, and just as we were taught in high school history class (remember the map of Massachusetts, shown above, that made the state look like an evil dragon?), it is creating a monster. Even though Democrats won a majority of the national popular vote in Congressional races (50.5%), they took only 46% of the seats, and failed to make a substantial dent in the safe Republican House majority. This has happened only one other time in the last 40 years, Mr. Weisman points out – in 1996, when (again) a Republican majority remained safe in spite of the overall distaste of the American public for Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and its consequences.
When the representatives of the American people are safe from suffering the consequences when they defy the will of said American people, democracy cannot help but suffer as a result. And when a party is allowed, across the majority of states, to select its own voters and arrange districting that maximizes its own electoral advantage, and do so for decades, the opportunity for corruption of the system is maximized. (Wasn’t this the argument the Republicans made in 1994, after all? Guess it’s only a problem when it’s the other party doing it.)
A second conclusion that leaps out is that the perceived concentration of Democratic voters into urban ghettos is both real – or real enough to have a significant impact on elections – and hurting the national interest. Because most Democrats do, indeed, live in cities, which are typically isolated pockets within a larger statewide geography, it is all too easy for Republicans to paint Democrats as a liberal (read: socialist) elite that is out of touch with the rest of the country. Although this is a distortion of the reality – I, for one, am a rural progressive living in a highly conservative area – it does fit into a national self-image that hurts the ability of progressives to convey our message effectively beyond our own “true believers.” Republican say, and many Americans find it all too easy to believe, that we simply don’t think like they do. Or live like they do, for that matter.
And finally, there’s this tiny, hopeful note in all the murk. Although in general the bulk of Republican House members seem to be adamant in their refusal to give ground on the issue of revenues in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, there are a few who have heard the appeals of President Obama and some among their own leadership to think about the national interest ahead of the (no doubt powerful) temptation to feed still more red meat to their true believer base. Weisman notes:
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a loyal Boehner lieutenant who nonetheless has been advocating compromise on higher rates, puts it differently. He frames it as this: tax rates are going up Jan. 1, when the Bush-era tax cuts expire, whether Republicans like it or not. The party now has to find a victory in compromise that allows rates to rise on the affluent few while locking in long-sought spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs like Medicare.
“I don’t think voting to cut spending, restrain and reform entitlements and make the Bush tax cuts permanent for 98 percent of the American people is voting against the will of anyone’s constituents, including my own,” he said. “President Obama and the Democratic Senate have to be part of any agreement that prevents taxes from rising on almost everyone who pays income taxes. That is just political reality. Given that hard reality, I believe most voters will accept a deal that keeps their taxes from going up and makes real progress on the deficit.”
It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more Republicans in today’s Congress willing to take such a stand. Or, indeed, to tell the blunt, naked truth to their constituents. In an atmosphere where Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk flood the airwaves with lies and distortions, every day, all the time, it takes a certain brand of integrity to stand up to one’s own side and say, “No, it ain’t so.”
No doubt I’ll be back to shaking my head in dismay at Rep. Cole’s stand on things tomorrow. But for today, he gets at least one progressive’s salute. (And no, I don’t mean the one-fingered kind.)
I still, however, will argue at the top of my lungs that we need to fix the system that allows Mr. Cole – and virtually every House member – to be elected by impossible margins in districts that look like they were scribbled by my 3-year-old.
To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “A child of five could understand what’s wrong with this system. Someone send for a child of five.”