I don’t know just how close our country came to economic disaster last week, but I do know most Americans are sick and tired of the entire mess in Washington. Up to now, I never thought the country was close to ungovernable, but I’m beginning to wonder.
It’s no secret we came near to chaos — if not economic ruin — last week, in large part because a few tea party-backed Washington politicians dreamed up the idea of holding our economy hostage to their hatred of the Affordable Care Act.
They did that, even though most people — including many Republicans — knew that this strategy could never work.
And in the end, it didn’t. Obamacare enrollment, despite inexcusable software flaws, is still going forward. The government shutdown cost at least an estimated $24 billion in taxpayer money.
Pragmatic Republicans and many in the business community are now assessing whether tea party populism is really the way of the future. The obvious question is going to be whether the voters are likely to penalize those deemed responsible for this mess.
My guess is not, mainly because the 40 to 60 or so incumbent right wingers who are largely responsible represent congressional districts that are gerrymandered so heavily Republican that they’re in no danger of ordinary citizen backlash.
Gerrymandered districts — whether Republican or Democratic — work that way. If a district is drawn to overwhelmingly favor one party, for example, the only election that counts is the primary.
And primary elections traditionally draw low turnouts, mainly from fierce partisan members of the party’s base.
This usually results in the most right-wing candidate getting nominated for certain victory in November’s general election.
Moreover, national hard-right groups, including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, have been eager to dump millions into any primary in which their favorites might be threatened by more moderate candidates.
So as a practical matter, gerrymandered districts immunize incumbents — no matter how radical — from push-back by ordinary citizen voters because August primaries are so narrowly ideological and November general elections are so cut and dried.
Worse, they are an incentive to push candidates and officeholders to extremes.
We can discuss endlessly the details of whether tea party Republicans or Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, or President Obama or Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., are more responsible. But it’s inescapable that the practice of gerrymandering and its enabling cousin, the partisan primary, lie at the heart of the systemic breakdown of our political system.
Incidentally, this isn’t entirely a Washington-based matter. Voter reaction will be tested next year in two congressional districts right here in Michigan:
n The incumbent congressman from West Michigan’s Third Congressional District (gerrymandered bulletproof Republican) is 33-year-old Justin Amash, a firebrand hard-right stomper.
Amash will face opposition in next year’s August primary from Brian Ellis, a businessman and East Grand Rapids school board member, who says Amash has “turned his back on conservative principles.”
My sources in Grand Rapids say the powerful local business community there is disturbed at the growing tendency of the tea party faction of the GOP to ignore economic realities. They may well put up lots of money in an effort to defeat Amash.
n Then there is the 11th District, which includes a bunch of Wayne and Oakland County suburban Detroit communities.
This district was designed to reliably return Republicans to Congress. The present incumbent, reindeer farmer Kerry Bentivolio, R-Milford, is seen as spacey, but he’s also hard right. He’ll face powerful opposition from David Trott, a well-heeled mortgage foreclosure attorney from Birmingham, who has already raised nearly $700,000, much of it from the business community.
In the aftermath of last week’s drama, it’s plain the Republican Party is deeply divided between tea party radicals and pragmatists, including many in the business community. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. But the structural issue lurking at the heart of America’s dysfunctional political crisis is the practice of gerrymandering itself. I’ll be writing about this in next week’s column.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.