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Leaving The Reagan Era Behind
Have found it interesting in the morning after the horrors of the Sandy Hook shooting discussions about what it would take, politically, to make our gun laws a bit more reasonable. Many of these discussions have eventually ended up reviewing the role of the "Republican House," a House which is either going to be a bulwark against "liberal overreach" (their formulation), or a reactionary force thwarting the will of the majority eager to leave an old age of politics behind (mine).
John Boehner is in no easy position right now. He retained control of the House not through popular will and the consent of the governed, but vigorous redistricting (as the Times documents today). His caucus is made up largely of Members from 70 percent plus GOP districts, whose values on most major issues are out of step with the majority of the country. The Speaker's job of course is to fight for his caucus, something that so far this year is driving his and his Party's poll numbers down to extraordinary low, even dangerous levels. His caucus is in the thrall of late Reagan era rigid, reactionary, ideological positions - no tax hikes, no amnesty, no Obamacare, no gun control - which leave little room for compromise or negotiation. The big question of this Congressional cycle is how long can Boehner and his team hold out against the popular will, and a much more organized and aggressive Democratic team. The negotiations over the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling are the first test of this new political moment. This is not just a Democrat vs. Republican battle, but very much one of forward/backward as I wrote in this major magazine article, and posited in "A 50 Year Strategy," a landmark Mother Jones piece from a few years ago (see Krugman's smart take on all this). And it is unclear how it is all going to turn out.
The Times redistricting piece today raises important questions about whether the particular distribution of today's US population has created a political system slow or unable to accommodate the popular will, or this era of politics. The Times piece looks at the packing of Democratic voters in urban areas. We have identified another, and I think, more serious problem - that half of the nation's population today lives in just nine states. Half of our country - more diverse, more urban, more immigrant - is represented by 18 Senators. The other half - more rural, more white, older - is represented by 82 Senators. This flow of our population into these 9 states over the past generation has resulted in what we described as a "small state bias," which is in itself has become a major mechanism for thwarting the national will.
This discussion began with more reasonable gun laws, but could also be applied to an issue like immigration reform. In the 2012 exit polls, fully 65% of voters embraced legal status for undocumented immigrants, a number consistent with most polls over the past 7 years. And yet we cannot move immigration bills through Congress, largely due to conservative (read House Republican) opposition. Why is this? I believe it comes down to a great degree to this issue of the distribution of the population. The majority of the country who want immigration reform is not represented by a majority in the Senate, or House, due to the methods we use to apportion representation in Congress. It is this small state bias at its most extreme.
The big societal and political breakthrough we saw this past cycle - the growing acceptance of gay marriage - happened without needing a vote of House Republicans, playing out in the courts and in the states. I am not suggesting in any way that the center-left should not fight with everything it has for its agenda in Washington these next two years. But we also have to understand that the Senate and House are not in synch with the growing majority consensus on issues like immigration reform, gay marriage, reasonable gun laws, economic and fiscal matters and other issues. The battles in Congress these next two years are going to be tough, hard and sometimes disappointing - but of course very much worth waging. The current House is just wildly out of step with today's America.
And it is also why a big, broad political reform agenda whose goal is to make it easier for everyone to vote and to remove anti-democratic processes from the system should be at the very top of the center-left's agenda in the years to come.
Update, Mon AM - New HuffPo poll shows majority support for more reasonable gun laws, assault weapons ban. Why I have no doubt these numbers may shift in the months ahead, it demonstrates that there is a working majority ready, now, to move on improving our gun laws.
Tues, AM - A new National Journal piece details the latest GOP scheme to game the US political system. This one will move to apportion electoral college votes by district in Democratic leaning blue states. One more reason why it is time for the Democratic Party to offer a big and bold political reform agenda, including the embrace of the National Popular Vote effort, which would eliminate the electoral college altogether.