The perverse math behind the Republican budget showdown: Neil Macdonald

It's one of the dirty little secrets of American politics, Neil Macdonald says, and a big reason why Republicans feel they can shut down the federal government with relative impunity. Having done a much better job than Democrats at gerrymandering their districts, they are more immune to broad public opinion.

Why the U.S. Congress is not representative of very much any more

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the Green Eggs and Ham guy, is one of those leading the fight to shut down the government if the president does not agree to defer his health-care act, which comes into effect today, Oct. 1. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The small group of Tea Partiers effectively running the Republican Party at the moment love to piously invoke the will of the American people.

"Let's just do what we all know needs to be done and quite frankly what the American people want to see done," proclaimed Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio last week, as he helped push the U.S. government into shutdown.

"People will be very grateful," said Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, smiling her glassy smile at the prospect of forcing Washington into insolvency later this month, when the debt-ceiling deadline hits.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a camera hound of the first order, stood on the Senate floor quoting the Dr. Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham as the clocked ticked toward a government shutdown.

Just about the entire story consists of Sam-I-Am trying to foist green eggs and ham on an unnamed protagonist who won't touch them. The green eggs and ham, in Cruz's presumed logic, is Obamacare, which the Tea Party is determined to repeal, even if it means shuttering government and the world's faith in America's ability to pay its debts.

Cruz also compared his less extreme Republican colleagues, who don't want to shut down or bankrupt the government, to politicians who tried to appease Hitler and the Nazis. And if in Cruz's imagination his less-ideological fellow Republicans are Neville Chamberlain, you can imagine who plays Hitler.

That sort of shrieking rhetoric is hardly new here. But this whole GOP voice-of-the-people shtick is more than a bit rich, given the Republicans' electoral reality.

As former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain noted in reply to Cruz last week, Obamacare was the main issue in the 2012 general election. And the Democrats won.

"I'd remind my colleagues that … the people spoke. They spoke much to my dismay, but they spoke," said McCain, a war hero who was pretty annoyed at having been compared to Nazi appeasers. "I think all of us should respect elections which reflect the will of the American people."

Wanton gerrymandering

Actually, not only did the American people vote for Barack Obama a year ago, they put Democrats back in control of the Senate as well. And in the races for the House of Representatives, Americans collectively cast 1.4 million more votes for Democrats than Republican candidates.

And yet, the Republicans still control the House, and a small minority of those Republicans, defying their own party's leadership, are now pushing their nation toward calamity.

That's not to say they don't have the right to do that. Political parties can often find themselves being driven by a unified, if tiny, minority. But, in this case, that group derives its power from what is probably the most undemocratic aspect of the democracy Americans are so proud of.

The budget showdown trio. From top, Democratic President Barack Obama, Republican congressional Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Senate Speaker Harry Reid. (Reuters)

Here's the equation: Republicans control a lot more state legislatures than the Democrats do. State legislatures are in charge of all voting, federal and state. And basically, the Republicans have rigged the game.

For Congress, they've drawn electoral districts that meander and twist and jut, maximizing the influence of their own voters, and "wasting" opposition votes by packing as many of them as possible into districts their opponents will already probably win.

It's called gerrymandering, a word coined nearly 200 years ago in Boston, after then governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a district so tortured it resembled a salamander.

The result of contemporary gerrymandering: 233 Republican House seats, to 200 Democrats, despite the big Democratic majority in the popular vote. (Two House seats are vacant).

Another result, according to a demographic analysis by the Wall Street Journal: The average Republican district is 73 per cent white (as opposed to 52 per cent in the average Democratic district), and rural, meaning much more thinly populated.

For that reason, Republicans tend to win by much larger margins and are just about impossible to unseat. They are only vulnerable to attacks from the right, and Tea Party candidates are about as far right as you can get.

Perfectly legal if partisan

This is all perfectly legal. The U.S. Supreme Court has effectively ruled that partisan gerrymandering does not offend the Constitution.

At the same time, for legal reasons that are almost impossible to fathom, the court has ruled that gerrymandering to strengthen minority votes — so-called "affirmative gerrymandering" — is illegal.

To repeat: It is illegal here to gerrymander in order to correct a history of overwhelming discrimination against minority voters, but perfectly OK to do it in order to entrench your own party, even if that means ensuring your electorate is mostly white and rural.

In North Carolina, for example, where Democrats won 51 per cent of the House votes in 2012 and Republicans 49 per cent, the outcome was nine Republicans elected and four Democrats.

In California, which has repudiated gerrymandering by creating a Canadian-style independent districting commission, 62 per cent of the popular vote went to Democrats, and the outcome was more in line with reality: 38 Democrats and 15 Republicans were sent to Washington.

But California is a huge exception. In most of America, both parties rig the electoral districts whenever they can. Democrats in Maryland and Illinois, for example, saw to it that their House representation far exceeded their popular vote in 2012.

The Republicans, however, just seem much better at it. They in fact have a $30-million, multi-year plan called Redmap, specifically designed to redraw districts in their favour.

So, this country has accepted a fundamentally undemocratic practice — "In effect, the representatives choose their voters, hardly a democratic ideal," observes presidential historian James Thurber at the American University in Washington.

And Americans are now suffering for it, about to be deprived of their government's services and, perhaps, on their way to government default.

Meanwhile, Tea Party Republicans like Ohio's Jim Jordan, justify their crusade, by saying things like: "We're the House of Representatives. We're the body that's supposed to be closer to the people."

And one other thing: Senator Cruz stopped short of telling the whole Dr. Seuss story. In the end, Sam-I-Am managed to convince the unnamed fellow to try green eggs and ham, and he really, really liked it.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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