“The End Of Majority Rule?”: Giving Extremists Far More Influence, Our Democracy At The Moment Is Not Very Democratic
The National Rifle Association is facing attacks from Gun Owners of America for being too soft on gun control. This is like a double cheeseburger coming under severe criticism for lacking enough cholesterol.
Universal background checks are supported by 91 percent of Americans. Yet there is enormous resistance in Congress to passing a strong bill to keep arms out of the wrong hands. What does “rule of the people” mean if a 9-to-1 issue is having so much trouble gaining traction?
Or consider the Morning Joe/Marist poll last week showing 64 percent of Americans saying that job creation should be the top priority for elected officials. Only 33 percent said their focus should be on reducing the deficit. In light of Friday’s disappointing jobs report, the public’s instinct is sound. Yet politicians in our nation’s capital are so obsessed with the deficit you’d imagine they still haven’t heard how many Americans are unemployed or underemployed.
These three non-randomly selected facts illustrate a deep structural tilt in our politics to the right. This distortion explains why election outcomes and the public’s preferences have so little impact on what is happening in Washington. At the moment, our democracy is not very democratic.
Start with the weirdness within the gun lobby. Once upon a time, the NRA supported background checks for gun buyers, and why not? Polls show that gun owners overwhelmingly support background checks, too.
But the political far right is, among other things, a big business. The NRA’s chief concern is not sane public policy. Its imperative is to maintain market share within a segment of our country that views the federal government as a conspiracy against its liberties and President Obama as an alien force imposed upon them by voters who aren’t part of “the real America.” Within this market niche, background checks are but a first step toward gun confiscation.
In a well-functioning democracy, the vast majority of politicians — conservative, moderate and liberal — would dismiss such views as just plain kooky. But here is the problem: A substantial portion of the Republican Party’s core electorate is now influenced both by hatred of Obama and by the views of the ultra-right. Strange conspiracy theories are admitted to the mainstream conversation through the GOP’s back door — and amplified by another fight for market share among talk radio hosts and Fox News commentators.
That’s because the Republican Party is no longer a broad and diverse alliance but a creature of the right. According to a March Washington Post/ABC News poll, 65 percent of Republicans called themselves conservative, just 27 percent were moderates and 7 percent were liberals. Democrats, by contrast, are far more middle of the road: 43 percent called themselves liberal, 38 percent moderate and 16 percent conservative. Among independents, moderates predominated at 46 percent.
Practical Democratic politicians thus need to worry about the political center. Practical Republican politicians, especially those in gerrymandered House districts where primaries are all that matter, will worry almost entirely about an increasingly radicalized right.
And our Constitution combines with the way we draw congressional districts to overrepresent conservatives in both houses. The 100-member Senate is based on two senators per state regardless of size. This gives rural states far more power than population-based representation would. The filibuster makes matters worse. It’s theoretically possible for 41 senators representing less than 11 percent of the population to block pretty much anything.
In the House, those gerrymanders helped Republicans keep control even though more Americans voted for Democrats in the 2012 congressional races.
This representational skew affects coverage in the media. Most Americans may care more about jobs than deficits. But if a right-tilted power structure is talking about deficits all the time, members of the media feel obligated to cover the argument they hear in Washington, even if that means downplaying views held by a majority of the voters — and even if the economic data say we should be talking about growth, not austerity.
There’s also this: While background checks probably would pass the Senate with relative ease if there were no filibuster, the media cover a world in which 60 votes is the new 51. Thus do the battles for 60 percent of the Senate, not the views of 91 percent of Americans, dominate journalistic accounts.
There is no immediate solution to the obstruction of the democratic will. But we need to acknowledge that our system is giving extremists far more influence than the voters would. That’s why American democracy is deadlocked.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 7, 2013
On Thursday, the top Democrat in the House made what amounted to a major concession, pronouncing herself open to the idea of reducing Social Security benefits. This moved Nancy Pelosi closer to the position that President Barack Obama, who has already put out a plan that includes chained-CPI, has staked out in pursuit of a deficit reduction “grand bargain” with Republicans. This could make it easier for Obama to convince Senate Republicans, whom he’s begun courting in recent weeks, that he can deliver on a deal that includes real sacrifices on Democratic priorities.
And how does the top Republican in the House fit into this mix? Well, he doesn’t.
In a Thursday interview with the New York Times, Speaker John Boehner said he’s not currently engaged in budget conversations with the White House and suggested the onus is on Obama to move closer to the blueprint that Paul Ryan staked out this week — a 10-year balanced budget plan that the GOP-controlled House will probably adopt in the next week. That Ryan budget offers absolutely nothing in the way of concessions. But for a few cynical accounting tricks, it’s the same plan Ryan presented in 2012 and 2011, one that would turn Medicare into a voucher program, slash taxes on corporations and the wealthy, gut the Affordable Care Act and turn federal programs targeted for the poor into block grants for states to manage. It was this radical rethinking of the size and scope of the federal safety net that played a major role in last year’s election, with Democrats warning voters that the Ryan plan would be implemented if Republicans gained control of the executive and legislative branches.
In other words, House Republicans — and their leader — haven’t budged at all on fiscal issues since the election, even though the results were humbling for their party. Sure, they provided a scattering of votes for the New Year’s Eve fiscal cliff deal that raised income tax rates on high-end earners, but a) that was because they were up against a Jan. 1 deadline that would have triggered across-the-board tax hikes for all earners if no deal was reached; and b) the majority of House Republicans still voted against that package. And since that deal was enacted, the determination of House Republicans to stop any further revenue increases — even those involving loopholes and deductions, not income tax rates — has only intensified. The president already got his tax hikes, the GOP talking point goes, and now he wants more?
The reason Obama wants more, of course, is that he and most of his party (and, truth be told, a number of Republicans) would like to turn off the sequester, which went into effect on March 1 when the two parties failed to reach agreement on a replacement plan. The stumbling block was simple: Republicans were adamant in opposing a “balanced” deal with a revenue component. Many of them also claimed that Obama wasn’t serious about cutting entitlement spending, even though the president produced the above-referenced plan, which included Social Security benefits cuts. It’s clear that, for the time being anyway, House Republicans are completely uninterested in striking a fiscal deal with Obama, unless the deal is that he goes along with everything they want.
What’s so striking — and, some might say, galling — about this is that Republicans lost pretty badly in the most recent election. No, it wasn’t en epic LBJ ’64-style wipeout, but the party spent 2011 and 2012 convinced that the rotten economy would compel voters to fire Obama, restore Republican control of the Senate and boost the GOP’s House majority. But none of that happened. As I wrote last week, it can sometimes feel like Republicans actually won the election. The problem is mainly centered in the House, although the Senate has more than its share of problems, and can be explained by two main factors:
The average House Republican represents a district that is older, whiter and more Republican-friendly than the country as a whole. Gerrymandering is typically cited as the reason for this, but it’s a red herring. The real problem is that the core Democratic vote — a rising majority of nonwhites, millennials, single women and college-educated professionals — is tightly bunched in metropolitan areas. They account for massive majorities in a relatively small number of congressional districts. Suburban, exurban and rural areas, by contrast, tend to be populated by more Republican-friendly voters, who are more widely dispersed. Thus, it’s not uncommon in big states for Democrats to enjoy clear majorities in statewide elections even as Republicans gobble up the majority of House seats. Barring the kind of anti-Republican wave elections we saw in 2006 and 2008, this dynamic should persist through the next decade, ensuring Republican control of the House. The Republicans in these districts are mostly immune to the cultural and demographic changes that hurt their party at the national level in 2012; thus, the same reflexively anti-tax/anti-government/anti-Obama hysteria that sold in these areas before November 2012 still sells today — making it likely that these districts will send to Washington either a) true believer Tea Party-type congressmen and -women, who win their seats simply by running far to the right in the GOP primary; or b) secretly pragmatic Republicans who adopt the rhetoric and voting habits of the Tea Party crowd for the sake of their own political survival.
2. The powerless speaker
A case can be made that Boehner’s skills as a House leader are underappreciated. There’s something to this, but it’s an argument that amounts to a backhanded compliment — that Boehner, by routinely looking the other way as his party worsens its public image and subjecting himself to the occasional high-profile indignity, is able to build just enough clout to steer the House GOP away from complete catastrophe when he absolutely has to. There’s an art to this, all right, and I guess you could say Boehner is good at it. But that’s really the limit of his power as speaker. The problem is that the conservative movement has never trusted him and has been looking for the moment he sells them out from the second he claimed the speaker’s gavel in 2011. This has imposed some humiliating limits on him — forcing Boehner, for instance, to walk away at the 11th hour from grand bargain negotiations with Obama in the summer of ’11 and compelling him to promise Republicans a few months ago that he wouldn’t attempt any more one-on-one negotiations with the president.
So when it comes to Obama’s current quest for a grand bargain, there’s really nothing for Boehner to do but repeat the right’s familiar attacks on Obama for always wanting to raise taxes and never wanting to cut spending. Never mind, of course, that Obama has already signed off on $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction and is seeking $1.2 trillion more with his grand bargain crusade, and that most of that money is from spending cuts. Acknowledging that would destroy whatever credibility Boehner now has with the conservative base, and make it impossible for him to push any kind of deal through the House without being dethroned. So he bashes away, pretends the problem is Obama’s inflexible liberalism and waits. What the endgame is is unclear. It may just be that Boehner is hoping to keep the GOP conference from pursuing a debt ceiling showdown in May. Or maybe he’s hoping that after a few more months of bashing Obama, he just might have clearance to put a Senate-passed grand bargain on the House floor and to allow it to pass mainly with Democratic votes. Or he may think none of this is possible — and may mainly be interested in patching up the damage the fiscal cliff deal did to his standing with the right.
The key here is that Boehner oversees a Republican conference whose members do not, generally speaking, feel any personal pressure to respond to the Democrats’ big national victory last November. In the America where they leave, Obama and the national Democratic Party are as reviled now as they were before Election Day.
By: Steve Kornacki, Salon, March 15, 2013
Some of you may recall that the day after last November’s elections, I published a fairly extensive piece at TNR answering the question of whether a chastened Republican Party would now proceed to undertake an internal criticism-and-self-criticism process similar to that which among Democrats led to the rise of Bill Clinton and his two consecutive presidential victories:
The short answer is “no.” (And I’m tempted to say the long answer is “Hell, no!”)
I then went through the various factors that led to the “New Democrat” movement in the Donkey Party–particularly the leadership of elected officials and a mass base for something different–and how they were all largely missing in the contemporary GOP.
Today at the Daily Beast a guy with a much better pedigree than mine for making these comparisons has weighed in on the subject: Progressive Policy Institute president and Democratic Leadership Council co-founder Will Marshall. And though he goes into far greater detail than I did of the conditions that created the DLC and the Clinton presidency, he reaches the same conclusion:
[E]lected Republicans seem AWOL in the fight to take back their party. On the contrary, House Republicans seem as intransigent as ever, even as polls show that Americans increasingly blame them for the fiscal impasse in Washington.
This underscores the key difference between Democrats in 1989 and Republicans in 2013. The DLC spoke to, and for, a Democratic rank and file that was considerably more moderate than [the] party establishment. For Republicans, however, the “base” is the problem, not the solution. Radicalism rises from the grass roots. The Tea Party-Club for Growth axis is still eager to punish ideological deviation, threatening to “primary” GOP officeholders who show the slightest inclination toward compromise. And it’s not just intimidation: thanks to a combination of geographic sorting and gerrymandering, many House Republicans can truthfully claim to be faithfully representing their constituents who sent them to Washington to pull down the Temple, not to do deals with Democrats. That’s why the House stands for now at least as the Proud Tower of unbending right-wing orthodoxy.
With the “base” and elected officials (not to mention the vast noise machine of activists and gabbers) alike embracing every available excuse for maintaining the GOP’s ideological totems, the handful of wonks and scribblers calling for a fundamental reexamination of those totems are laughably outgunned. Marshall doesn’t specifically note the complicity of the MSM in mis-describing the various “rebranding” and “better messaging” projects of the GOP as something far more consequential than they actually are. But that, too, encourages the deception and self-deception that keeps Republicans from facing the music, and helps, as Marshall does observe, prevent a divided federal government from functioning on a whole host of issues. Thus:
[I]t will probably take more GOP losses to convince conservatives that they need to build majorities within an actually existing America, not the America of their dreams.
Listen to the speakers at CPAC the next three days, and ask yourself if you hear any serious talk of conservatism itself being a political problem. I’d be shocked if you do. These people just need the honesty that comes with chronic defeat. That won’t be easy for those who still think of Barry Goldwater’s calamitous loss in 1964 as a moral victory.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, March 14, 2013
Bobby Kennedy once allegedly said of Pennsylvania that it is “Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other, and Mississippi in the middle.” These days, Republican elected officials in the Keystone State are hard at work doing everything human possible to eliminate the Philly and Pittsburgh bits.
ThinkProgress is reporting that an exceedingly dodgy scam designed to deliver the state’s electoral college votes to the G.O.P. is alive and well. Thirteen Republican members of Pennsylvania’s state senate are sponsoring a bill that would allot electoral college votes on the basis of Congressional districts. Due to shameless gerrymandering, in many states (Pennsylvania included) a disproportionate number of Congressional districts are solidly Republican, even though the state as a whole leans Democratic. So the national G.O.P. has been strongly advocating that these states institute schemes that discriminate against Democrats by apportioning electoral college votes by House district, rather than the majority vote in the state as a whole.
Earlier this year, similar schemes were defeated in a number of states, including Virginia and Michigan. But it looks as though the latest incarnation of this scam might have a decent shot in Pennsylvania. All the plan needs is for one more state senator to sign on, in addition to the 13 who are already sponsoring the bill. According to a state representative mentioned in the ThinkProgress piece, Republicans “could conceivably ram [the bill] through both houses of the state legislature and have it on [Republican Governor] Corbett’s desk in just four days.” Awesome!
In other states, similar G.O.P. vote-riggning scams were quickly abandoned almost as soon as they saw the light of day, due to a loud public outcry. It is devoutly to be hoped that this is what will happen here. But as undemocratic and gross as these schemes are, there is one positive thing to be said about them, and that is that they reveal the utter craven desperation of the contemporary G.O.P. This is not a confident, proud, surging political party we’re looking at here. On the contrary, they are sweating bullets and seem to realize that their political message lacks popular appeal and that the only way they will be able to hold on to power is if they cheat. Ultimately, that’s a good sign for the forces of progress. But if the Repubs get away with this, the forces of progress will be ruthlessly crushed before they ever get to have a fighting chance at the polls.
By: Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly Political Animal, February 23, 2013
Savvy Republicans know that something is deeply wrong with the GOP – frequently mocked these days by Republicans themselves as “the stupid party” — which has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Some have noticed as well that their congressional majority is so widely despised – its main achievement being historically low public approval ratings — as to be sustainable only by gerrymandering. During the last election cycle, those fearsome Republican SuperPACs, funded by the overlords of Wall Street and Las Vegas, spent hundreds of millions of dollars – with no discernible impact on an alienated electorate.
The result is a burgeoning self-improvement movement on the right, generating introspective articles and interviews in which Republicans ask: “What is wrong with us? How can we change? What must we do to avoid partisan extinction?”
But like many troubled people grappling with serious life issues, they aren’t truly ready for change. They want to maintain the status quo while giving lip service to reform – and changing as little as possible beyond the superficial. They would do anything to project a fresher image, more attractive and effective, without confronting their deeper problems.
The deceptions involved in this process are perfectly exposed in Robert Draper’s fascinating excursion among the urbane young Republicans whose frustration he skillfully reported in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. His account is well worth reading, if only to observe these self-consciously “hip” conservatives confronting the reality of last November – and failing utterly to comprehend its meaning. Early in Draper’s article, a GOP technology consultant notes that the youth vote for President Obama grew by 1.25 million in 2012 over 2008 (precisely the opposite of what most pundits and pollsters predicted). But he doesn’t seem to realize that the youth gap cannot be remedied by stronger social media or updated voter files.
The young Republicans bitterly mock the Romney campaign’s technological ineptitude, and complain more broadly about the party’s repellent reputation among young voters, minorities, gays, immigrants, women, and everyone sympathetic to them. They largely seem to believe that if the Republican National Committee would hire people like them – and if Rush Limbaugh and Todd Akin would simply shut the eff up – then the party could expand beyond its narrow, aging, white, and religiously conservative base.
As they hasten to assure Draper, these dissidents would adopt a friendlier attitude toward those who are different, and are even eager to engineer a few minor platform alterations to accommodate immigrants or gays.
But why would they make such concessions to decency? Not out of any sense of justice or shame. They are not interested in social justice and they only feel ashamed of losing. Rather than honestly confronting the harm done by pandering to bigotry and division, they’d prefer to paper it over with a smiley face and move on.
By proclaiming that their defeats are due mainly to technological inferiority or bad messaging, the young Republicans ignore the underlying source of popular disdain for their party. It is true that their technology was feeble, their candidate and consultants were incompetent, and their messaging was often repellent. But the self-styled hipsters of the right are in fact not much different from the Tea Party octogenarians in their hostility to government investment, social insurance, health care, education, and industry – and both are in conflict with the evolving attitudes of young Americans across all demographic lines.
The disgruntled figures who spoke with Draper represent almost nobody in the GOP, compared with the legions commanded by Limbaugh and the religious right. But if their fantasy could be made real, what shape would it take: A tech-savvy, gay-friendly, 21st-century Calvin Coolidge? A composite of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul?
Good luck with that.
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, February 19, 2013