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The Stranglehold on Our Politics

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Michele Bachmann (left) and Ted Cruz (center) with Tea Party leaders, Washington, D.C., May 16, 2013

Most of the electorate can’t be bothered with midterm elections, and this has had large consequences—none of them good—for our political system and our country. Voting for a president might be exciting or dutiful, worth troubling ourselves for. But the midterms, in which a varying number of governorships are up for election, as well as the entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate, just don’t seem worth as much effort. Such inaction is a political act in itself, with major effects.

In the past ten elections, voter turnout for presidential contests—which requires a tremendous and expensive effort by the campaigns—has ranged from 51.7 to 61.6 percent, while for the midterms it’s been in the high thirties. Turnout was highest for the two midterms in which the Republicans made their greatest gains: in 1994, when Clinton was president, it was 41.1 percent and in 2010 it was 41.6 percent. In 2006, when Bush was president, the Democrats took over the House and Senate and won most of the governorships, turnout was the next highest, 40.4 percent. The quality of the candidates, the economy, and many unexpected issues of course determine the atmosphere of an election; but in the end turnout is almost always decisive.

The midterms, with their lower turnout, reward intensity. In 2010, the Republicans were sufficiently worked up about the new health care law and an old standby, “government spending,” particularly the stimulus bill, to drive them to the polls in far larger numbers than the Democrats. A slight upward tick in turnout numbers can have a disproportionate impact in Congress and many of the states, and therefore the country as a whole. The difference in turnout caused such a change in 2010; in fact, the Republicans gained sixty-three House seats and took control of both the governorships and the legislatures in twelve states; the Democrats ended up with control of the fewest state legislative bodies since 1946. The midterms go a long way toward explaining the dismaying spectacle in Washington today. State elections bear much of the responsibility for the near paralysis in Congress thus far this year and the extremism that has gripped the House Republicans and is oozing over into the Senate.

The difference in the turnouts for presidential and midterm elections means that there are now almost two different electorates. Typically, the midterm electorate is skewed toward the white and elderly. In 2010 the youth vote dropped a full 60 percent from 2008. Those who are disappointed with the president they helped elect two years earlier and decide to stay home have the same effect on an election as those who vote for the opposition candidate.

Little wonder, then, that there can be such a gulf between the president and Congress, particularly the House of Representatives—but also between the president and the governments of most of the twenty-four states over which the Republicans now maintain complete control; almost half of these were elected in 2010. Democrats have complete control over fourteen states. The Republican-controlled states include almost all the most populous ones outside of New York and California. Since the midterms of 2010 the Republicans in most of these states have pursued coordinated, highly regressive economic policies and a harsh social agenda. Thus, while there’s largely been stalemate in Washington, sweeping social and economic changes that are entirely at odds with how the country voted in the last presidential election have been taking place in Republican-controlled states.

As a result of the relative lack of interest in state elections, we now have the most polarized political system in modern American history. It’s also the least functional. Many state governments’ policies are not just almost completely divorced from what is going on at the federal level—but also in some cases what is prescribed by law and the Constitution. Systemic factors based in state politics explain more about our national political condition than tired arguments in Washington over who is at fault for what does or doesn’t—mainly doesn’t—happen at the federal level. The dysfunction begins in the states.

The 2010 elections were the single most important event leading up to the domination of the House by the Republican far right. Both the recession and organized agitation by the Tea Party over the newly passed health care law—“spontaneous” campaigns guided from Washington by the old pros Karl Rove and Dick Armey, and funded by reactionary business moguls—helped the Republicans, and especially the most radical elements in the party, sweep into the majority in the House of Representatives and take control of twelve additional states, including Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The Republicans who took over states in 2010 reset our politics. Among other things, they made the House of Representatives unrepresentative. In 2012 Democrats won more than 1.7 million more votes for the House than the Republicans did, but they picked up only eight seats. (This was the largest discrepancy between votes and the division of House seats since 1950.)

Thus, while Obama won 51.1 percent of the popular vote in 2012, as a result of the redistricting following 2010 the Republican House majority represents 47.5 percent as opposed to 48.8 percent for the Democrats, or a minority of the voters for the House in 2012. Take the example of the Ohio election: Obama won the state with 51 percent of the vote, but because of redistricting, its House delegation is 75 percent Republican and 25 percent Democratic.

The state government’s power over the redrawing of congressional districts every ten years is probably the single most determining factor of our political situation. It’s clear that the Republicans were successful in winning and using the 2010 elections as a prelude to the most distorted and partisan redistricting in modern times. Their approach was so different in degree as to be a difference in substance—and the post-2010 politics in Washington resemble nothing that has gone before. There has been something of a war raging among students of electoral politics over the role of redistricting in our current situation. But Sam Wang of Princeton, a neuroscientist who founded the Princeton Election Consortium, wrote in The New York Times earlier this year:

Political scientists have identified other factors that have influenced the relationship between votes and seats in the past. Concentration of voters in urban areas can, for example, limit how districts are drawn, creating a natural packing effect. But in 2012 the net effect of intentional gerrymandering was far larger than any one factor.

Moreover, the redistricting has become different from the process that we learned about in civics classes. Traditional “gerrymandering,” which had been practiced since the early 1800s, involved drawing weirdly shaped districts for the purpose of protecting incumbents. But in recent years redistricting has developed into a vicious fight for control of redistricting—though the shape of the districts can be just as weird.

The Republicans have made the greater effort to shape the House to their benefit, through a deliberate two-step process: first, win state elections so as to control the redistricting, and then redistrict to give the party as much advantage as possible in the House. Though they’ve done their own self-interested redistricting, Democrats haven’t been as zealous about controlling reapportionment. Still, through the combination of both parties’ actions, they have ended up with more safe seats than before.

There was just one problem: when the Republicans began their intense effort in the run-up to 2010 to take over state legislatures and draw districts free of serious Democratic challengers, they failed to anticipate that this would leave their members more vulnerable to challenges from the right. The fear of being defeated in local contests by even more radical Republicans has also taken hold in the state legislatures, which in turn affects the nature of the House. The more established House Republicans, including the leaders, now live in terror of a putsch from the most extreme right-wing elements of their caucus, in particular the Tea Party. They are not yet a majority of the party but they have the power to behave like one through their use of fear. A lamentable result of the effort to draw safe districts is that only an estimated thirty-five House seats out of 435 will actually be competitive in the 2014 election. Therein lies the source of the near paralysis of the federal government.

Nate Silver wrote in the The New York Times after the 2012 election that while there had been earlier periods of great partisanship, in particular between 1880 and 1920, “it is not clear that there have been other periods when individual members of the House had so little to deter them from highly partisan behavior.” Under these circumstances, it’s harder than ever before to put together bipartisan coalitions to pass major legislation, as had long been done for civil rights bills and other major changes in economic, social, and even environmental policy. The fact that Obama had to pass the health care law with almost no Republican support rendered it more vulnerable later. The Republicans’ limp and deceptive explanation for their opposition to the law is that the Democrats left them out of consideration of the bill (which was actually based on Republican ideas).

The Republicans who took over the states following the 2010 elections arrived with an agenda strongly based on model laws supplied by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), heavily funded by the Koch brothers along with some other big corporations. The other group that benefited most from the 2010 elections was the passionately anti-abortion Christian right—which is not only an essential part of the national Republican Party’s base but also dominates the Republican Party in about twenty states, and has a substantial influence in more than a dozen other state parties. The Christian right is tremendously effective in motivating its followers to go to the polls—and then threaten a loss of support if their agenda isn’t adopted.

The overall result of the new Republican domination has been that these states have cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations and moved toward a more comprehensive sales tax; slashed unemployment benefits; cut money for education and various public services; and sought to break the remaining power of the unions. Not only did Republican officials in these states manipulate the constitutionally guaranteed right to vote in their effort to win the presidency in 2012 and preserve their own power by keeping Democratic supporters from voting, but they are at it again. The constitutional right to abortion granted under Roe v. Wade has been flouted. The new strategy among anti-abortion forces is to limit legal abortions to the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. Several states have adopted this measure and others are in the process of doing so.

Pregnant women’s privacy has also been invaded through state measures requiring them to be subjected to transvaginal ultrasound examinations of the fetus, and forcing them to look at or hear described the result of any sonogram. Doctors have been ordered by state law to lie to women about supposed dire consequences of abortion, for example that abortions can lead to breast cancer. Abortion clinics in some states have been shut down or eliminated. Funding for other medical services for women, such as mammograms, has also been greatly reduced. Many of these state laws are under legal challenge and some of them may end up in the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade may be doomed.

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