How Right-Wingers in Congress Came to Represent a Whole Different Country
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 lawmakers' 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 has 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 II 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 midterms, 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 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.