Yes, I know Shakespeare didn't actually endorse killing all the lawyers, (the line is spoken in his play Henry VI by a villain). And yes, I know "gerrymanderers" isn't really a word (try and say it 10 times fast). What I also know is that gerrymandering, among other factors, has created a Republican House majority where virtually all its members have nothing to fear from being seen as too right-wing, in particular on fiscal/spending issues. Not only is their extremism a problem because of the noxiousness of their views, it is especially dangerous because of the way our Congress was designed to function -- namely that, absent a landslide victory, one party can make it virtually impossible to get anything done, even the most basic tasks like paying our bills on time. Gerrymandering feeds that extremism, in particular on the right and in particular in the House of Representatives.
At least in the Senate, at some point, Republican primary voters may realize that nominating the Christine O'Donnells, Todd Akins, Sharron Angles, Ken Bucks and Richard Mourdocks of the world only leads to Democratic victories in all but the reddest of states. Either way, those extremists did not become senators. In the House, however, Stuart Rothenberg currently ranks 211 out of 234 Republican-held House seats as safely Republican in 2014. The safety of these seats means that the only flank 90 percent of House Republicans need to cover is their right flank, as no Republican nominee will be too far to the right to lose a general election in these districts--thanks in large part to gerrymandering.
Look, I have no problem with the Republican Party campaigning to repeal Obamacare, as they did in 2012. But they lost. The people spoke, and reelected the president. The party that loses cannot be allowed to implement its agenda as if it won. It certainly cannot be allowed to threaten defaulting on our debts if it doesn't get its agenda passed -- after losing an election. That would mean the end of democracy as we know it. Non-extremist Republicans like Sen. John McCain understand this. As President Obama succinctly put it: "That's why we have elections."
It's not just that the extremist policies put forth by Tea Party Republicans offend any decent sense of morality, deny the notion of the common good, and would weaken us as a country. It's that our Congress is structured in a way that the extremism of one group can -- if one party has the White House and Senate and the other holds the House of Representatives -- literally bring the country to its knees in a way that could not happen under other kinds of legislative systems.
Not to get all poli-sci on you, but let's talk just for a second about the differences between ours and the systems that exist in parliamentary democracies. In countries with a unicameral legislature (i.e. one legislative body as opposed to our two), in which the parliamentary majority can simply pass its legislative agenda and there is no president who can veto it, an extreme group cannot gum up the works (although I'm focused on the U.S. House here, obviously the filibuster has wreaked much havoc in the Senate as well). In a parliamentary system, either that group is elected by the people to be the majority and can pass its legislative program (which, obviously, presents a different set of problems), or it is in the minority, and can do nothing to stand in the way.
Would I regret living under such a system if a Tea Party majority were ever elected? You bet. But I firmly believe their ideas could not compete and win a majority in this country, either under our current system or any other fair one, especially after voters have seen the kinds of things they've done in states (like North Carolina) where hard-right conservatives have won full control of the legislative process. Nevertheless, in the system we have now, they don't need to win a majority of votes to be able to accomplish their main ideological goal at the federal level -- stopping the government from operating. And make no mistake, they will be able do that unless House Speaker John Boehner abandons the majority of his party.
Now let's step back from the nitty-gritty of procedure. More broadly, our system's design means that major changes can only occur either with the support of fairly bipartisan majorities or if one party wins the White House and working control of both houses of Congress. Perhaps that's as it should be. But such a design was never intended to allow a party that has not won such a decisive electoral victory -- or even lost an election -- to turn around and threaten massive economic damage if it didn't get what it wanted.
And apparently, Boehner can't even enough Republicans on board with what Joan McCarter rightly called a "wingnut dream" bill that would raise the debt ceiling, and has had to postpone the vote on it as of Thursday night. Some Republicans are radical enough that they won't raise the debt ceiling -- which only allows us to pay the bills we've already racked up -- even if Mitt Romney's agenda were signed into law by Barack Obama. I don't even know how to react to that.
The "majority of the majority" -- which is, in fact, a minority overall even within the House of Representatives -- dictates the direction of the Republican party and thus the House itself. This minority faction potentially exercises an effective veto over the operation of the entire federal government.
And because House Republicans don't believe they have anything to fear from moving too far to the right, and everything to fear if they are perceived as open to a primary challenge from a Tea Party member, most of them are going to keep on doing what they are doing. From the perspective of self-preservation, it makes sense. Of course, from the perspective of patriotism, of doing what's best for the country they supposedly love, it's insane.
The question is whether John Boehner loves his country more than this faction. The question is whether he will allow this faction, to paraphrase a quotation from the Vietnam War, "to destroy this country in order to save it." Maybe the speaker will end up allowing the government to shut down briefly so that the the Tea Party members can get it out of their system, and thus avoid the even worse disaster of defaulting on our debts a couple of weeks later. I really don't know how this ends.
But it shouldn't come down to Boehner. In a system that functions well, a legislator who goes too far in one direction would have to contend with an opponent from the other side who appealed more successfully to a majority of his or her constituents. And a party that goes too far in one direction would be soundly defeated and unable to gum up the works going forward. Our system, due in large part to gerrymandering, does not work that way. Among House Republicans at least, extremism is almost always rewarded while moderation -- or even sanity for Pete's sake -- is punished in the form of a Tea Party challenger.
In the long run, the answer to this problem is to have non-partisan bodies draw the lines of legislative districts for state and federal elections. Although there are certainly crazy senators (do I really need a link here after the last week of shenanigans?), the fact is that the borders of states can't be gerrymandered in a way that leaves virtually every Republican invulnerable to a challenge from the left either in a primary or general election. So we know that non-partisan redistricting would help rein in the nuttery -- if done across the board. There can be no unilateral disarmament by Democrats here.
The problem is, there's always a short run, there's always something more pressing, more urgent. In fact, that's a feature of a system like ours that allows an extreme faction to hold it hostage. We spend so much time cleaning up their messes that it's impossible to focus on anything else.
My hope is that I'm wrong, along with all the other analysts who've argued that House Republicans are only vulnerable to a challenge from the right, especially in mid-term elections. But if we aren't wrong, then even if John Boehner somehow figures out that he needs to solve this crisis by cutting loose the extremists and coming together with Democrats, something he's done a few times this year already, there will always be another crisis around the corner. And if Boehner does do the right thing this time, he may well get replaced as Speaker by someone even worse (Eric Cantor?), someone really willing drive us over the cliff, and the next crisis will bring a truly catastrophic result.
But we shouldn't have to count on John Boehner to not shoot our country in the head. We need a comprehensive, long-term solution to the problem of right-wing extremism. That solution has to include an end to gerrymandering.