The Senate is far from functional, but it still is capable of passing legislation, as we saw last week with the immigration bill. That’s more than can be said for the House, which is effectively controlled by an influential plurality of right-wing members. What’s more, those members are nearly immune to criticism, given the conservatism of their districts. The public may hate the GOP’s opposition to universal background checks, but conservative members represent voters that applaud the stance against new gun regulations.
This has made for a durable Republican majority. As Politico argues this morning, however, the GOP may pay a steep price for its control of the House. “Some top GOP strategists and candidates warn that the ruby red districts the party drew itself into are pushing House Republicans further to the right — narrowing the party’s appeal at a time when some GOP leaders say its future rests on the opposite happening.”
Politico points to gerrymandering as the source of this GOP strength, but that overstates the situation. There’s no doubt gerrymandering plays a part, but the GOP’s current majority has much more to do with geographic sorting and the natural malapportionment of the House. In short, because the Constitution provides a representative for every state, regardless of population, some smaller states have more relative representation than their larger counterparts.
For instance, California — with a population of 38 million — has nearly 717,000 constituents per representative. By contrast, Wyoming has one representative and a population of 576,000 — giving each Wyoming resident a little more representation than a given Californian. When you couple this with political geography — Democrats tend to live in urban centers, Republicans tend to live in rural counties and exurbs — you have a situation where the GOP begins the game with a small advantage that magnifies in situations like 2010, where a large chunk of the country had turned decisively against the Democratic Party.
This seems like a quibble, but it isn’t. If the foundation of the GOP’s majority—and the cause of its extremism—is gerrymandering, then you can fix the problem with bipartisan (or nonpartisan) redistricting. But if the problem isn’t connected to the process, you have a different challenge.
The evidence, I think, points to the culture of the Republican Party as the problem, and not the circumstances of its particular lawmakers. For starters, you have similar attitudes among Republican members of the Senate, i.e., politicians who represent entire states, and not just districts (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example). What’s more, even if you could explain GOP extremism through gerrymandering, there’s nothing about a highly ideological approach to politics that requires intransigence. You can have a strong attachment to your beliefs and show a willingness to compromise for the sake of advancing them.
What’s missing in the Republican Party is that willingness to compromise for anything, even if it benefits the particular interests of individual lawmakers or the interests of the party writ large. And this seems to stem from an attitude that emerged during the 1994 elections and has only grown since—the idea that conservatives aren’t just opposed to liberals but that they’re at war with liberalism. It’s why Republicans have dismantled key norms governing Congress and other institutions (see: the filibuster and the 60-vote Senate), and have taken to opposing everything associated with the Democratic White House. If immigration has a chance, it’s because it isn’t identified with President Obama. And insofar that individual Republicans see it as such, they tend to be opposed.
Changing the method of election won’t fix this problem. Indeed, it’s hard to say what will. The losses in 2008 and 2012 have only strengthened conservatives and deepened the conviction that compromise is verboten. The real question is whether the GOP is sustainable in this form. If it isn’t, then something will have to give. If it is, then we’ll be waiting on reform for a long time.