With an assist from some long-term demographic trends, House Republicans have redistricted, propagandized and policed themselves into another country.
As a result, they have become unmoored from the political incentives that typically drive law-makers' decision-making process. Public opinion no longer sways them, and that is creating a potentially insurmountable problem for the party establishment's efforts to broaden the GOP's appeal beyond angry old white people.
House Republicans may care about the GOP's national fortunes in the abstract, but too many are impervious to what the public at large wants because of the nature of the districts they represent. At the same time, a steady stream of spin from the conservative media provides insulation from the realities of American politics, and deep-pocketed outside groups punish Republicans for any deviation from right-wing orthodoxy.
This isn't just a serious problem for establishment Republicans. It's ground our government to a halt, as Congress is virtually incapable of action, even on issues where there is something approaching a consensus among the public at large -- like universal background checks for firearm purchases, for example. They're supported by 80-90 percent of voters, but face a steep uphill climb in the House.
How did this happen?
The Great Gerrymander of 2010
In 2012, Democratic House candidates got 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, but came away 33 seats short of the majority – only the second time since World War Two that such a reversal has taken place. That was the fruit of a well-funded, multi-year plan by the Republican State Leadership Committee to take over state houses before the 2010 Census, and control the redistricting process that followed.
And they gerrymandered with a vengeance. As Princeton University scholar Sam Wang noted, “although gerrymandering is usually thought of as a bipartisan offense... partisan redistricting is not symmetrical between the political parties.”
By my seat-discrepancy criterion, 10 states are out of whack: [Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin] plus Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Texas. Arizona was redistricted by an independent commission, Texas was a combination of Republican and federal court efforts, and Illinois was controlled by Democrats. Republicans designed the other seven maps. Both sides may do it, but one side does it more often.
Surprisingly absent from the guilty list is California, where 62 percent of the two-party vote went to Democrats [which] exactly matched the [proportion of the] newly elected delegation.
Democrats Are “Inefficiently Distributed”
But, as a number of observers pointed out after the mid-terms, even this aggressive effort to redraw districts in their favor wasn't quite enough to lock in Republicans' control of the House. This is where the organic trend comes in. Political scientists Jowei Chen of the University of Michigan and Jonathan Rodden of Stamford explain (PDF) that as a result of migration and urbanization, Democrats tend to be “highly clustered in dense central city areas, while Republicans are scattered more evenly through the suburban, exurban, and rural periphery.” This results in what the authors call “unintentional redistricting,” with “a skew in the distribution of partisanship across districts such that with 50 percent of the votes, Democrats can expect fewer than 50 percent of the seats.”
Those two trends have resulted in a dwindling number of competitive districts. As the New York Times' numbers-guru Nate Silver pointed out, the number of “landslide districts” – which he defined as those that went for one party by 20 or more percentage points than the electorate as a whole – has doubled since 1992, while the number of swing districts has fallen from 155 to just 64 over the same period.
When you look at the racial composition of districts, the trend becomes even more pronounced. According to the Census Bureau, 111 House republicans represent districts that are at least 80 percent white.
This helps explain why immigration reform – desperately sought by the Republican establishment as part of its “rebranding” strategy – is going to face an uphill climb in the House, regardless of whether they achieve some bipartisan agreement in the Senate. As the National Journal's Scott Bland put it, “Not only have many of those members [in overwhelmingly white districts] opposed measures beyond improving border security in the past, but there are also no natural pressure groups for immigration reform in their districts. The Democratic Caucus, which is largely unified in support of some sort of immigration-reform proposal, has just 31 members from such very white districts.”
It's worth noting that while decades of polling suggest that Americans tend to lean somewhat to the right on social issues – God, guns and, until recently, gays – they tend to lean somewhat to the left on economic issues. Majorities favor higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, huge numbers want to see the minimum wage hiked and nobody outside the Washington Beltway favors cutting Social Security or Medicare.
Yet the Republicans' rebranding effort is entirely premised on moderating on abortion and immigration and softening the hard-right's rhetoric to avoid another Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin meltdown. Almost nothing has been said about rejecting the economic nostrum of financing tax cuts for the top by cutting social services, despite the majority's rejection of that formula.
At least part of that is the result of a conservative media project that has created a false sense of certainty among Republican base voters with constant repetition of the narrative that the United States is naturally a “center-right” country, and has been since its founding.
Andrew Kohut, former president of the Pew Research Center, wrote recently in The Washington Post that while the polarization of news consumption isn't a recent development, “what is new is a bloc of voters who rely more on conservative media than on the general news media to comprehend the world.”
Pew found that 54 percent of staunch conservatives report that they regularly watch Fox News, compared with 44 percent who read a newspaper and 30 percent who watch network news regularly. Newspapers and/or television networks top all other news sources for other blocs of voters, both on the right and on the left. Neither CNN, NPR or the New York Times has an audience close to that size among other voting blocs.
Conservative Republicans make up as much as 50 percent of the audiences for Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’ Reilly. There is nothing like this on the left. MSNBC’s “Hardball” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” attract significantly fewer liberal Democrats.
This is the activist base of the party – the people House Republicans need to turn out to vote every two years in order to retain their jobs.
The RNC's recent “autopsy report” laments that “outside groups now play an expanded role affecting federal races and, in some ways, overshadow state parties in primary and general elections.” That's the final piece of the puzzle of how the House Republicans came to represent a different country.
With many deep red districts dominated by an activist conservative base that's been highly politicized by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and a slew of right-wing blogs, Republicans in the House face a far greater threat from primary challenges from their right, and there are a plethora of well financed outside groups that stand poised to make those challenges possible. And they continue to proliferate in the age of Citizens United – just this week, Tom Landry, a former Congressman from Louisiana, announced that he was forming a new SuperPAC called Restore Our Republic that aims to, as Politico put it, “keep stirring up trouble on Capitol Hill from the outside” by supporting “hard-right conservatives in the House of Representatives.” It joins a crowded field. And a little bit of money in a primary goes a long way for challengers who can often tap the energy of the GOP's tea party base to overcome an incumbent's cash advantage.
Most of us look at the intransigence of the House GOP and shake our heads in wonder. The party's favorability is at a 20-year low, and we tend to see them as irrational ideologues. But as Nate Silver noted when you put all of these factors together, “individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives.”
Both Sides Don't Do It
There has been an avalanche of lazy punditry of late that ignores all of these developments, blaming both sides for a “fiscal stand-off” that is well into its third year and Washington's inability to govern – this game of lurching from one manufactured crisis to the next while failing to advance legislation with broad bipartisan support. Washington Post editorial boss Fred Hiatt, the dean of lazy punditry, wrote that what the country needs is “a president who would make the case to the American people, repeatedly and clearly; who would provide cover for legislators of both parties to cast hard votes; who would lead the way.” FormerNew York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller also chimed in, blaming the failure of the sequester to bring about a “Grand Bargain” on Obama.
There exist many outrages for which both major parties deserve our opprobrium. Financial deregulation, trade agreements penned by corporate lobbyists that have helped hollow out the middle class, deficit hysteria and nonsense about the dangers of “entitlements,” the excesses of the so-called “war on terror” and the cruel futility of the “war on drugs” – all of these things can rightly be laid at the feet of both parties.
But contrary to the views of Fred Hiatt or Bill Keller or a thousand other wounded “centrists” desperate to see liberals trade away what little economic security Americans still have for a few more dollars in tax revenues, nothing anyone says or does is going to change the rational, anti-democratic political calculus of the House Republicans.