Analysts and politicians trying to explain the breakdown of our federal system regularly pin significant blame on gerrymandering for the radicalization of the Republican party. I think Nate Cohn has a good rebuttal to the notion gerrymandering has significantly influenced the composition of the Republican caucus. I wrote about this a few years ago. In 1988, there were 44 Congressional districts in states where the presidential results were more than 15 points away from the national result. In 2008—when Obama won by roughly the same popular vote percentage of George HW Bush—there were 231 Congressional districts that were 15 or more points from the national average. Outside the 12-16 largest states, it’s hard to do much of a gerrymander when the entire state is much more conservative or liberal than the nation overall. [I do, by the way, think gerrymandering has cost Democrats numerous seats in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, although at most enough to narrowly flip the House to the Democrats, but not enough to return to the majorities won in the 2006 and 2008 elections.]
Whatever the causes of the breakdown—and there are many—John Judis rightly argues that this is among the worst crises in American history (I think the worst since the Civil War). Judis puts too much weight on gerrymandering, and he mentions, but doesn’t go far enough, with what I think is a key factor, and one that may make the current crisis both worse, but also suggests a way out around future impasses. Our government isn’t working because too many White Southerners don’t want it to work.
Look at the last shutdowns, in 1995 and 1996. The Gingrich Congress was radical, but not as crazy as the nihilists pressuring the current Republicans in to increasingly catastrophic positions. That previous Republican caucus was led by a (transplanted) Southerner, and they gained their majority by decisively breaking the Democratic hold on the former slave states, which had continued in to the early 1990’s. But that caucus was not dominated by slave state Republicans, and those conflicts were not strongly sectional. But that’s changed, and now the conflict is essentially White Southerners and some allies standing in the schoolhouse door, trying to hold back the rest of America. [For the sake of this discussion I’m excluding Maryland and Delaware, which have largely lost any Southern character and are now part of the extended Northeast megalopolis.]
After the 1994 election the Republicans had a 230-204 House majority. The slave states (the states of the Confederacy, along with West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma) were apportioned 155 seats in the House. Those seats were split 82 Republican, 73 Democratic. Slave state Republicans made up 19% of Congress, and 35% of the House Republican caucus.
Today the Republicans have a 234-201 majority. Reapportionment has slightly increased the representation of the former slave states; they now have 160 seats. But now it’s split 116 Republican to 44 Democratic. Slave state Republicans now make up over a quarter of the Congress, and they make up almost exactly half the GOP caucus.
And it’s not just that the South is more Republican; other parts of the nation that were once fairly competitive have become solidly Democratic, and in much of the country there’s a much stronger tie between region and partisanship. In 1996 the California Congressional delegation was 25 Republicans and 27 Democrats. Today it’s 15 Republicans and 38 Democrats. Texas went from 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans to 12 Democrats and 23 Republicans. New England had 15 Democrats and 8 Republicans; now the 21 New England seats are all Democratic.
The shift is just as dramatic in the Senate. Slave state senators have gone from 12 Democrats and 18 Republicans to 9 Democrats and 21 Republicans, while New England went from a 6-6 delegation in 1996 to a 10-2 Democratic majority today.
Judis refered to nullification, the antebellum theory “that states, claiming a higher Constitutional authority, could refuse to obey federal laws.” That’s close to what’s happening with Medicaid expansion; it’s mostly happening in non-slave states, while the entire confederacy save Arkansas is denying its poor—who are more heavily African-American than is the case nationally—access to free health care. And it’s a refusal to do in what their states the national election results showed they should do (although the Supreme Court gave them a way out). And trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act by shutting down the government and threatening the world’s financial system is definitely nullifcation. People who hold these views, and who represent parts of the country that adhere to these ideas, dominate the Republican caucuses.
In 1996 the shutdown was a partisan battle, but it wasn’t a sectional battle. Many Republicans were not from the South or the rural center of the country, and not every elected official from those areas acted as a radical. Although we’re not in danger of a war, the conflicts in Congress are almost as strongly sectional as was the case in the 1850’s (this time with the ranks of the Southern reactionaries bolstered by reactionaries from the rural Midwest, the Plains and the Rockies). Barack Obama and Harry Reid may be talking to a guy from Ohio, but unless and until suburban, non-Southern Republicans break from their party, Obama and Reid are really managing a conflict with the South.
I intend to plumb this subject quite a bit deeper over the next few weeks. For now, I’ll say that this return of sectionalism, largely overlapped with partisan alignment, means the current Republican caucus will be impossible to work with in the absence of the Speaker bucking his caucus and putting on the floor bills that could pass with only a couple dozen Republican votes. But over the coming years, the radicalism of those looking to the past could so marginalize the Republicans that they become a largely rural party, centered in the interior of the country, strongly rooted in the states rights petulance of the former slave states. The GOP will be so repugnant that they have a deeply hostile relationship with a significant portion of the residents of their own states, and drive the increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse electorates of most of the rest of the country to vote against the party of reaction, and thus marginalize those parts of the country that are home to a lot of people who can’t stand having to share with everyone else the title “American.”