The Carolinas' Piper of the Suicide Caucus
Gerrymandering -> ignorant voter pool -> nutso pols -> crippled government
This blog post by The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has been making the rounds since the federal government shut down. It details what a conservative pundit, Charles Krauthammer, has appropriately dubbed the GOP’s “suicide caucus” — 80 House members willing to throw a wrench in the functions of government as a protest against the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. (I think “suicide bomber caucus” would be even more appropriate, since the shutdown is causing all kinds of collateral damage, but I’ll take what I can get from the ‘hammer.)
Standing in the thick of the trash mob is Rep. Mark Meadows, the tea party congressman from Jackson County whose district encompasses a big chunk of western North Carolina and whom CNN has dubbed the “architect of the brink.” (He’s actually just its firing mechanism.) Meadows wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner in August urging a effective defunding of the Affordable Care Act by refusing to pass an appropriations bill, thereby shutting down the government. Seventy-nine other GOP House members signed on. Boehner had publicly dismissed the idea of a shutdown. Look what happened.
It’s how this has played out, though — and how a freshman Congressman could wield such influence — that reveals the mechanism behind the dysfunction. It demonstrates the uselessness of national polls (in this context, anyway) and the real consequences of aggressive gerrymandering. From the New Yorker post:
As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline.
These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population.
Most of the members of the suicide caucus have districts very similar to Meadows’s. While the most salient demographic fact about America is that it is becoming more diverse, Republican districts actually became less diverse in 2012. According to figures compiled by The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, a leading expert on House demographics who provided me with most of the raw data I’ve used here, the average House Republican district became two percentage points more white in 2012.
The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent. The districts also have slightly lower levels of education (twenty-five per cent of the population in suicide districts have college degrees, while that number is twenty-nine per cent for the average district).
The members themselves represent this lack of diversity. Seventy-six of the members who signed the Meadows letter are male. Seventy-nine of them are white.
North Carolina, with five signatories, has more members of the "suicide caucus" than any state except Michigan, also with five, and Texas, with 11. Besides Meadows, who in North Carolina signed on?
I’m assuming it has not escaped your attention that they’re all white dudes. This is no accident.
I lifted the racial makeup of North Carolina’s 13 and South Carolina’s seven Congressional districts from Wasserman’s data. Take a good look at the numbers: Hudson’s district is 63 percent white. Jones’ and Holding’s are 71 percent. Coble’s is 76 percent.
In short, when Meadows referred to the ACA as “remain[ing] broadly unpopular across America” and asserted, “Americans don’t like these impacts,” in his letter to Boehner, you have to understand what he means by “Americans.” He means, in Charlie Pierce’s memorable phrase from yesterday, “the people sitting on hold, waiting for their moment on an evening drive-time radio talk show.”
Except Pierce was referring to members of Congress. The distinction has become irrelevant. Here’s Asheville tea party leader Jane Bilello (from the CNN story):
Billelo said that Meadows hosts conference calls with the groups’ members to explain what’s happening in Congress, including the challenges that he faces promoting their agenda.
She said he told them he’s “persona non grata” around the halls of Congress. Bilello said she and her members remind him: “They don’t elect you. We do.” They also offer assurance: “We have your back. We will support you,” Bilello said she tells him.
Meadows relayed a similar sentiment. “There’s nobody in Washington, D.C., who ever voted for me and there’s no one in Washington, D.C., who will ever vote for me,” Meadows said. “So it’s about representing the people back home.”