While you were surfing the Internet, consuming video on-demand, texting on your smartphone, chatting on Facebook, or Tweeting about playing Halo 18, Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was coming true. Postman correctly predicted that while we were on guard against George Orwell’s Big Brother in the dystopian classic, 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World–the one where entertainment and self-indulgent behavior allows the political class to pull a fast one–emerged into our consciousness fully-formed.
We have awakened from our amusements, well, some of us, anyway, to find a world gone mad. A president who lost his voice for four years, and a Republican party that thought it was outsmarting the electorate, only to realize, too late, that it had outsmarted itself. They had gerrymandered themselves into a technically unbeatable congressional majority, but left themselves at the mercy of their own right wing, known as the Tea Party, a sort of sesquicentennial tribute to the Know Nothing Party, that was made up of anti-immigration xenophobes. In 1850, no amount of evidence-based arguing could dissuade them from their beliefs. This may sound familiar to you.
As Ian Millhiser wrote in his article, Grand Theft Election:
In 2012 Democratic House candidates received nearly 1.4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts. Yet Republican candidates currently hold a 33-seat majority in the House, due in large part to the fact that Republican state legislatures controlled the redistricting process in several key states. Indeed, Republicans were so successful in their efforts to lock in their control of the House of Representatives through gerrymandering that Democratic House candidates would have needed to win the national popular vote by more than 7 percentage points in order to receive the barest majority in the House. Republicans aren’t particularly shy about touting the success of their gerrymanders either: The Republican State Leadership Committee released an extensive memo boasting about how they used gerrymanders to lock down GOP majorities in the House.
The impact of the current congressional maps is most profound in six key states…President Obama did win Michigan by nearly 10 points, but Democratic candidates won only 5 of the state’s 14 congressional seats. Likewise, President Obama won Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin—in some cases by comfortable margins—but Republicans dominate the congressional delegations from these states. Notably, all six of these states are currently controlled by Republican governors and legislatures, meaning that all six of them could implement the Republican election-rigging plan before the 2016 election.
(That’s the one where they change the Electoral College rules in their presidentially-blue states so that it is no longer winner take all, but forces each district to cast its electoral votes in accordance with its congressional choice–that is, a rigged, foregone conclusion. It would signal the end of majority rule, and would have allowed Mitt Romney to win the presidency with five-million fewer popular votes than President Obama. You have to hand it to them: only once in the last six presidential elections have Republicans managed to win the Popular Vote; they know the only way to win is to rig the game, and they are okay with that.)
The President and PowerPoint
President Obama found his voice not a second too soon in the Fall election. Now I wonder if he’ll use it to tell the American people exactly what’s going on. I’ve read his books. He’s an excellent story teller. One hopes he will use that gift now when we need it most.
What has finally emerged is the indisputable fact that the country is faced with a vocal and vehement minority whose most closely held civic values revolve around self-sufficiency and letting the societal chips fall where they may. They want very limited government intervention, preferring to let the consequences of sickness, unemployment, injury, bad fortune, infirmity and old age play out like a Dickens’ novel. The descendants of those who fought FDR on Social Security and LBJ on Medicare are in full-throated alarm over Obamacare, the Minimum Wage and banking/business regulation.
The last election, be damned; evidence be damned, they will shrink government if not by hook, then certainly by crook.
So I wonder about the President and Power Point. Is it written somewhere that presidents cannot use audio-visual aids? Why doesn’t President Obama use his bully pulpit to outline the starkly different philosophies that are actually behind the gridlock in Washington? Why can’t he say that Tea Party Republicans want a much smaller government where individuals rely on themselves, while Democrats, and not coincidentally, the majority of Americans, want the social insurance programs that have been in place since the Great Depression?
He could then tie these differing philosophies to the importance of redistricting, he could tell the American people that even though the majority of them want Social Security and Medicare, the conservative forces who opposed social insurance since its beginning now control congress through gerrymandering, and will through the remainder this decade.
He could explain the gridlock in this fashion, and show the American people that independent redistricting panels as a national policy enforced at the state level are the only way to ensure that voters pick their representatives, and not the other way around.
If I were he, I would hire the filmmakers and technologists behind Al Gore’s “An inconvenient Truth,” and lay out a graphic depiction of where we are and how we got here in a visually appealing animation that fifth graders would immediately grasp. I know that still leaves out wide swaths of the American landscape, but, trust me, enough people would still get it.
Independent Redistricting: Our Only Hope
I feel certain that there is a “State Plan” wherein Republicans long ago recognized their dim national prospects, so began an all-out war to control state houses, senates and gubernatorial races as a way to forward their agenda of electoral “fixes” like voter suppression through rule changes and intimidation and gerrymandering.
The good government group, Common Cause (full disclosure: I chair the Georgia state board, but in no way speak for the national or state organization here), is engaged in a long term battle against both parties to create independent redistricting as they did in California. It won’t be easy, but has to be tried if we’re to restore fair congressional elections in this country. There’s a recent documentary that chronicles the decade-long, winning battle in California. Gerrymandering serves as more than a history, it is a guide for states across the land who wish to restore fairness and sanity to our elections. We simply have to save our democracy from, well, us.
We have outsmarted ourselves. No matter what laws we create, partisans, lobbyists and corporations, given enough time and money, will find ways around and through our best intentions. Only a national plan for independent redistricting strikes broadly and simply enough to make sure there are no loopholes. It is complicated by the fact that we are a nation at play, not a nation at work. Where electoral politics are concerned, we are not a vigilant nation. I’m sure you know how many Twitter followers you have and how many Facebook friends as well, but do you know who your Congressional rep is, and a better question, why?