Saturday, September 28, 2013

More on Dysfunctionology: Minority Rules

More on Dysfunctionology: Minority Rules


Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington and a former chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

I continue to believe that dysfunctionology — the study of why our national politics are so deeply screwed up — is an essential discipline for those of us who long for politicians who actually try to solve, not create, problems.
As I noted earlier this week:
… gerrymandering is clearly implicated. The fact of “safe,” noncompetitive districts…robs the political process of a disciplinary force, where members could conceivably be held to task for shutdowns and defaults.
Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker has raised interesting points about this in an article that maps the districts of Republican representatives who signed a letter urging Speaker Boehner to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare.  Representative Mark Meadows, who drafted the letter, represents North Carolina’s 11th District — one that Mr. Lizza notes was gerrymandered after the 2010 census to become the most Republican district in the state.
There are 80 of these members, and Mr. Lizza points out that “[t]he ability of eighty members of the House of Representatives to push the Republican Party into a strategic course that is condemned by the party’s top strategists is a historical oddity.”
“These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population…
“Obama defeated Romney by four points nationally. But in [these] districts, Obama lost to Romney by an average of twenty-three points. The Republican members themselves did even better. In these eighty districts, the average margin of victory for the Republican candidate was thirty-four points.
“…these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.”
Nothing you don’t know if you follow this, but I found those numbers to be illuminating.  Why such intense minority rule?  What’s got America stuck in Cruz control?
Someone in comments suggested that the courts had been far more lax on imposing rules against gerrymandering.  Others noted that state legislatures are where the gerrymandering action is, so you’ve got to crack this case from the bottom up.  Those explanations resonate with me.
But you have to ask yourself why a relatively small fringe from a demographic bubble has such sway over all the other, more moderate members of the party.  Say what you want about John Boehner, but believe me, he knows better than to follow these guys down these paths to nowhere — or worse.  The lopsided vote Friday in the Senate — where members are less bound by a narrow district — in favor of cloture on the budget-patch bill actually provides a good counterexample: 25 Republicans supported ending the debate, against the very long-winded admonitions of Senator Cruz.
The answer seems to be fear. They’re worried about being “primaried” from the right. And if you can strike that fear into a politician, your control over them is Svengali-like.  It’s a power that Occupy Wall Street didn’t even get close to holding.  It’s not even clear to me that “big labor,” as the right calls the labor movement, holds such sway anymore.  But this fear is at the heart of how a small, extreme, demographically shrinking minority is controlling national politics and even, when you consider the ramifications of default on our sovereign debt, global economics.

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