To understand why the federal government shut down this weekend for the second time in five years, don’t look to D.C. First look to Raleigh and other state capitals, where the real problem lies.
For the past several years, the Republican Party has mastered the use of the gerrymander and restrictive voting laws to help the party hold onto power, all while increasing the incentives for hyper-partisan politics. It’s why federal courts have said some of North Carolina’s laws were written with surgical precision to disenfranchise black voters and that legislative lines were unconstitutional. It’s why Democrats overwhelmed the GOP at the ballot box in Virginia last year but still couldn’t retake state government, and why it would take a political tidal wave for Democrats to retake Congress during the 2018 midterms.
Democrats are not innocent bystanders. For decades, each political party has contrived ways to ensure it could maintain power. But over the past several years, Republicans have been largely the ones taking it to new extremes.
That’s why Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill last week to keep the government open, strictly based on Republican wants, knowing it could not pass a Senate where moderate Republicans and Democrats would balk. A few Republican senators voted against the plan because they wanted a real budget agreement. Five Democratic senators, facing competitive contests this fall, went along with the Republican plan because they knew they’d have to face a mix of voters that cherishes compromise more than political brinksmanship. Imagine calibrating your vote based on a wide swath of the electorate instead of a hyper-partisan slice. How novel.
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Thankfully, the Senate found a compromise that could work for all – for now, at least – by voting Monday to fund the government immediately and take up the topic preventing that – DACA – by Feb. 8.
That the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is suddenly a wedge issue shows just how much extreme political incentives are driving our dysfunction. A majority of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have indicated DACA recipients should be able to call this place home permanently, and polls show eight in 10 Americans want that to happen. So what’s been the hold up? President Donald Trump scuttled any DACA compromise because of right-wing hardliners during the meeting in which he used bigoted language to describe countries predominated by black and brown people. The hardliners are out of sync with the American public but prevented a compromise because they don’t have to answer to a cross-section of a diversifying electorate.
Federal courts, including one that recently decided a Special Master’s legislative maps should be used in North Carolina elections this fall, are providing a needed check on hyper-partisan politics. Still, until more Americans insist that voting laws and legislative lines be designed on a non-partisan basis, we should expect more political paralysis.
Since November, we’ve rightfully been assessing how much damage Russia did to our democracy from the outside. But we’ve been slowly strangling it from within.