One of my unofficial duties as an American living in Berlin is occasionally to explain the US political system to German friends - not always an easy assignment. People from democratic countries tend to equate democracy with their own political systems. Democracy, of course, comes in various forms. Americans, for instance, think it odd that German politicians can make it into parliament via party lists even though they didn’t win an election, while Germans find it bizarre that Barack Obama is not the head of the Democratic Party and that election results are first-past-the-post and not proportional.
I have no explanation, however, for the shenanigans in Washington - at least in terms of a political or historical justification. What we witnessed on Capitol Hill was not a debate over national debt or government expenditures that could yield any sort of reasonable compromise solution. The government shutdown was an attempt by a minority within a minority - i.e. the Tea Party - to govern against the wishes of the majority of American voters. This is not democracy. It's idiocracy.
The leader of the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives, who presumes to know best about national finances, Michele Bachmann, is the same person who once claimed that the HPV anti-cancer vaccine causes mental retardation and that the US could eradicate unemployment by doing away with the minimum wage. What would be the point of Barack Obama and the Democrats negotiating in this situation? You can't compromise with someone who thinks the earth is flat.
Despite Bachmann's obvious unsuitability for political office, the voters of the sixth congressional district of Minnesota have seen fit to elect her four times. There are 49 Tea Party members in the House - 49 Michele Bachmanns, if you will, gumming up the works. There are no arguments for a political system that fails to ensure that a modicum of common sense prevails. There are only explanations for how America’s idiocracy came into being. And they start with congressional districts.
The poisonous salamander
In head-to-head terms, the Republicans received 49 percent of all votes cast for the House of Representatives in 2012 - compared with 51 percent for the Democrats. The politically neutral "Cook Political Report" calculated that 1,170,000 more people voted Democratic than Republican in House races. Yet Republicans hold 234 (54 percent) of House seats compared to 201 for Democrats.
One reason for the distortion is congressional districts gerrymandered to favor Republicans. The etymology of this most American term tells you all you need to know about it. In the early 19th century, the Governor of Massachusetts, Eldrich Gerry, redefined voting districts to favor his own party. One of them reminded critics of a salamander - hence the term Gerry-mander. Many of the congressional districts used for the first time in 2012 are also decidedly reptilian. Gerrymandering may be ineffective in Presidential and Senate elections. In House elections, however, it is poison for democracy.
The only national standards applying to congressional districts are that they must encompass around 750,000 people and be contiguous. Otherwise, it's up to state authorities to decide what the districts should look like. This allowed Republicans to parlay their local election successes of 2010 into easily winnable units for House elections. The bad news is that the districts are not up for reapportionment until 2020. As a result, the "Cook Report" estimates that Democrats would have to win 55 percent of the popular vote in House elections to earn a majority of seats.
For the time being, The House of Representatives represents the interests of Republicans and not the majority of American voters. And compounding the problem is the type of Republicans who are getting into office there.
Stupefaction and cowardice
One consequence of gerrymandering is that the decision about who will represent a district is transferred to the party-internal primary, and it is there that the Tea Party is at its most aggressive. A politician perceived as insufficiently conservative is sure to be challenged from the right. Over time, that means representatives get more right-wing, more religious and more immune to the dictates of realism. After the national elections of 2012, even the Republican Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, admitted that the GOP was becoming "the stupid party."
It's hardly a surprise that the Tea Party would try to strong-arm Obama. They've been strong-arming their own fellow party members for years. What is more dismaying is the lack of courage being shown by mainstream Republicans, who have thus far refused to curb the whacko wing of the party. House Speaker John Boehner could have ended the stand-off much earlier if he had wanted to. But he preferred to kowtow to idiocrats than to risk his own position.
The irony is that Boehner’s strategy, if you want to call it that, is itself pretty idiotic since the situation that virtually guarantees Republicans dominance of the House makes it difficult for them to compete for the Presidency and the Senate. A party of dumber-than-average extremists is going to find it difficult to build a national majority. The GOP has steered itself down a dead-end-street and is now capable only of hindering government, not of governing. The polls showed that Americans were infuriated by the shutdown and hold the Republicans mostly to blame.
The end of dialogue
One suspects that Tea Party Republicans aren't really interested in governing at all, at least not within a democracy. Democracy presumes that all participants are capable of debate, whereas in an idiocracy self-styled mavericks can hold endless monologues, no matter how absurd the content and how few people may be listening. In Obama, the Republicans have a pragmatic adversary who has signaled a willingness to listen to reasonable suggestions. Unfortunately, the current GOP has none.
Conservative extremists don't want to have a conversation. They're having far too much fun within the echo chamber of talk radio and Fox News that they've constructed for themselves. The only problem is that every once in a while - for instance on November 6, 2012 - 51 percent of Americans go out and vote for a Democratic candidate, while Republicans poll 47 percent. Then conservatives are appalled. No one saw it coming. How could they when Republicans never look outside their own comfy little universe?
In a true democracy, Republicans would now be analyzing their clear defeat in last year's national election and asking themselves how their party could appeal to more people. The current crop of Republicans is doing practically the opposite, barricading themselves inside a fantasy land in which stopping Evil Obama would cure all the nation's ills. The tragedy is that they’re forcing the entire country into stagnation in the process.
I have to admit that I’m jealous when I see how the conservatives here in Germany, who came within a hair of achieving an absolute majority in federal elections last month, are sitting down to negotiate a coalition government with their arch-rivals. That's democracy. The result of those negotiations won’t be perfect, but they'll be better than whatever emerges from a system that unfortunately, for the time being, rewards stubbornness and stupidity.