Thursday, November 06, 2014

“We’re Seeing the Political Equivalent of Segregation Going on in the Country”

Mark Warren has a fine (though very troubling) piece in the November edition of Esquire, titled “Help, We’re in a Living Hell and Don’t Know How to Get Out.” He reportedly talked with 90 members of the present U.S. Congress--“a third of the Senate, more than a tenth of the House”--in order to write about “what’s gone so wrong” with America’s highest legislative branch. There’s much to appreciate in Warren’s article, but the best part may be the section in which he asks these elected representatives Congress has become so incredibly partisan and dysfunctional over the last decade.
Why, if so many members believe that things have gone so wrong, can’t they just fix it? There are reasons, they say, forces brought to bear that are beyond their control, and these symptoms of their current malaise are all related in a complex syndrome. In conversation after conversation, congressmen and congresswomen opened up and talked about each of these realities, regardless of party or ideology.

“You know, if I had a magic wand, one thing I would love to change—which you can’t do unless you’re king—is the redistricting process by which our boundaries are drawn,” says Republican Aaron Schock of Illinois. “Because what has happened over the decades is he who controls the mapmaking process, you know, creates hyperpartisan districts. And you get more and more members who come out here and say, ‘Gee, I know that I want to accomplish something on this issue. I want to take action on this issue, but the base of my district is so far to the right or to the left it makes it difficult for us to negotiate to the center.’ But whether you’re the most conservative member or you’re the most liberal member, if you have half a brain, you recognize you’re not going to get everything, and that any successful legislation requires the art of negotiation.”

“With the way we draw districts, with so few competitive districts, we’ve bifurcated ourselves as a civilization,” says Republican Scott Rigell of Virginia. “We get one ticket to the State of the Union, for the gallery, and my wife attends. And this year I came home from the speech, and she said, ‘Scott, I’m just struck by this, that the Republican side is just all white. And then you look over on the Democratic side, and—and it really doesn’t look like America, either, you know? It’s disproportionately represented the other way.’”

“The Democratic conference in the House looks like America,” says Democrat John Lewis of Georgia, who left his blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and now regularly takes bipartisan groups to civil-rights landmarks to educate his colleagues in nonviolent conflict-resolution techniques he learned during that period of national upheaval. “The country is changing,” Lewis says, “and change makes some people uncomfortable. But our congressional districts don’t reflect that change, and there are so few competitive districts remaining that people only fight for or speak up or speak out for the narrow base of people who reelect them.”

James Clyburn of South Carolina points out, “There are seven people who make up the House delegation from South Carolina. Seven. Of that seven, one’s a Democrat, and that’s me. Of that seven, one is black, and that’s me. Forty-four percent of the electorate is Democratic, yet we get one Democrat in Congress. Twenty-nine percent of the state is black, and yet we get one black in the House.”

“When you have these one-party districts, the only election is in the primary, and the winner of the primary will be the one who is closer to the views of the narrowest base,” says Angus King, Independent senator from Maine. “You can’t be moderate. Who votes in primaries? You have a 10 percent turnout in a primary election in Georgia, and Republicans are 30 percent of the population. So 10 percent of 30 percent—that’s 3 percent of the population voting to choose the nominee, and then if it’s a multiperson race, and the winner gets 35 percent, that's one third of 3 percent—1 percent of the population chooses the nominee, who in a gerrymandered district will be the eventual member of Congress. That is bizarre, and it has completely polarized Congress. In the primary system that we have now, there is no upside for a Republican to be reasonable. I have a friend who is a very conservative senator, and he faced a primary this year, and I said, ‘Good Lord, man, what are they gonna charge you with?’ And he said: ‘Being reasonable.’”

“Our Venn diagram,” says Derek Kilmer, Democrat of Washington State, “is two circles, miles apart. Just after we got here, a group of us, Democrats and Republicans, were at a burger joint talking, and after about forty-five minutes, I said, ‘We have to be able to get our act together and figure some of these things out.’ And across the table, one of my colleagues said, ‘Derek, I like you, but you have to understand that I won my seat by defeating a Republican incumbent in my primary, and I campaigned against him for not being conservative enough. The first vote I cast when I got here was against John Boehner for Speaker, and I put out a press release that I had voted against him because he was too compromising. I like you, but I have zero interest in compromising with you or anybody else. My constituents didn’t send me here to work with you; they sent me here to stop you.’ I left there and called my wife and said, ‘Oh, my God!’

“We’re seeing the political equivalent of segregation going on in the country,” says Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
You can, and should, read all of Warren’s Esquire piece here.

READ MORE:Has Gerrymandering Made It Impossible for Democrats to Win the House?,” by Sam Wang (The New Yorker); “GOP Gerrymandering: Dems Never Had a Chance” (Crooks & Liars); “The Right Makes the Case Against Governing,” by Steve Benen (The Maddow Blog); “No, Republicans Don’t Actually Need to ‘Show They Can Govern,’” by Paul Waldman (The Washington Post).

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