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The 'Suicide Caucus' Has A Not-So-Secret Weapon

This article is more than 6 years old.

As I write this, we’re in day three of the government shutdown. It’s costing an estimated $300 million in lost wages per day, and shutting down everything from EPA to the FDA to NASA to National Parks to vital medical research.

Rather than acceding to common sense, or common decency, and passing a budget resolution, House Republicans are now talking about forcing the United States to default on our financial obligations, an act that would send the entire global economy into chaos.

The one possible positive outcome of this manufactured crisis is that Americans may finally wake up to the perils of gerrymandering.

Do most Americans think this makes sense? No. Do most Republicans? No. Do most rational adults? No.

But our House of Representatives is not being run by rational adults. It is being run by ideological zealots whose central ambition is not to govern, but to disable government.

The one possible positive outcome of this manufactured crisis is that Americans may finally wake up to the perils of gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing electoral districts in a partisan manner. It’s been around for more than 200 years, and in fact derives from our own Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who, in 1812, redrew state senate district lines in such a manner that one in the Boston area was said to resemble a salamander.

The modern custom is for state legislatures to draw these lines to their party’s advantage. Both sides have done so plenty of times. But a few years ago, a shrewd Republican group decided to pour $30 million into key state legislative races, and to thereby lock in GOP advantages.

This political cartoon, which was originally published in the Boston-based Columbian Centinel in 1812, led to the coining of the term "Gerrymander." (Wikimedia Commons)
This political cartoon, which was originally published in the Boston-based Columbian Centinel in 1812, led to the coining of the term "Gerrymander." (Wikimedia Commons)

They were wildly successful. How successful? Well, let’s put it this way: Democratic congressional candidates received a million more votes overall than Republicans in the 2012 election and yet Republicans won 234 seats — 33 more than Democrats.

In states such as Pennsylvania, the discrepancy was astonishing. Barack Obama won the state by 5 percent. And yet Republicans claimed 13 of 18 seats, thanks to some carefully carved districts. Same thing in Ohio, where Republicans lost in the popular vote but claimed 12 of 16 seats.

But the most insidious effect of this gerrymandering is that it’s created dozens of districts that are shockingly out of sync with the rest of the country. Which is to say: rural, white, less educated, and radically conservative.

I think of these places as Fox News Districts. The term coined by one GOP pundit is “the suicide caucus.”

The lawmakers from these districts are the ones who came to Washington with the stated desire to shut down the government, and the ones who urged party leaders to use the budget and debt limit process as bargaining chips.

They can afford to behave in this way because they hail from places in which a majority of voters still believe Obama is a Muslim hell-bent on offing granny via death panel.

Until moderate Republicans choose to turn against these folks, our legislative process will cease to function. In fact, the current Congress has been able to accomplish almost nothing of genuine value to the American people since the GOP took over in 2010, which is why its approval rating stands at 10 percent.

Gerrymandering is wrong regardless of party. It distorts the will of the people and, in this case, has led to a tyranny of the minority.

The only other solution to this crisis is for the 80 percent of the country who would like a functioning government is to start pushing back against the evils of gerrymandering.

To be perfectly clear: this is not a partisan position, but a basic moral argument. Gerrymandering is wrong regardless of party. It distorts the will of the people and, in this case, has led to a tyranny of the minority.

But it’s also something that can be remedied. Californians, for instance, voted to create a Citizens Redistricting Commission, rather than allowing lawmakers to play their reindeer games. The result was a delegation whose composition reflected the popular vote.

Regardless of how long this government shutdown lasts, it will have served a crucial democratic function if it helps drive the gerrymander into extinction, and allows the will of an essentially reasonable majority to drive Congress, rather than the destructive impulses of childish extremists.


Related:

This program aired on October 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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