Boehner resurrects the antebellum South

By Bruce J. Schulman
January 17, 2013

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now in Williamsburg, Virginia, meeting with his House Republican conference at their annual retreat. The GOP House members have likely gotten over the initial shock of the November elections – in which President Barack Obama won more than 51 percent of the vote and the Democratic majority swelled in the Senate.

Though the Republicans lost House seats and their candidates collected more than a million fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, the GOP retained a majority in the House of Representatives. This consolation prize has allowed Boehner to claim that House Republicans have a mandate every bit as compelling as that earned by the president. Conservative champions Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed this claim.

“It’s very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate,” asserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows from congressional mandates. “The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it’s a much more conservative mandate than the president’s.”

Many commentators lament the political dynamics that encourage House Republicans to resist the newly re-elected president – even when he proposes exactly what he promised during the campaign. Politicians can, of course, read election results however they please.

Political scientists, meanwhile, have long exposed the functional emptiness of electoral “mandates” in the American system. The father of modern presidential studies, Richard Neustadt, ridiculed the very notion two generations ago. Unlike parliamentary systems, where the majority party actually governs, U.S. policymakers inhabit a heavily constrained political environment – even when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress.

Yet there’s more than mere cheek in the unprecedented claims of Boehner and other conservatives to what Gingrich calls a “split mandate.” They are pointing out a structural defect in American politics – and reviving a century-old theory most closely associated with defenders of the antebellum South, like John C. Calhoun. This thesis insists that different regions, different economic interests, different parts of the population should operate as concurrent majorities – restraining the will of a simple popular majority.

First, the audacity. The year 2012 hardly marks the first time a House majority discerned a national mandate from the myriad results of hundreds of separate congressional races. The victorious party in midterm elections has often successfully nationalized the race. It happened in 1894, for example, when the Republicans picked up 130 seats running against Democrat Grover Cleveland’s ineffective response to an economic collapse. And it happened again a century later, in 1994, when Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years – gaining 54 seats as they rallied behind Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” House leaders plausibly claimed a national endorsement of their platform.

But never before have leaders of the controlling party lost seats and claimed a mandate! You have to admire the brazenness.

Except there’s more to it than that. The Republican position reflects a fundamental reality of U.S. politics: Congress represents a very different electorate than the president – one that differs markedly from a simple majority of American voters. While the Electoral College somewhat distorts the race for the White House, over-weighting small states and concentrating attention on a few political battlegrounds, the popular vote winner has lost just once in the past century. Andrew Jackson was not far off the mark when he described the president as the sole representative of all the people.

Congress, of course, embodies very different principles. The Senate, most obviously, enhances rural interests; the 3 million people of Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming have four times as many seats as 38 million Californians. This goes a long way toward explaining why the United States boasts the developed world’s best system of grazing subsidies but fares less well in urban mass transit.

In recent years, however, these distortions have intensified. Not only has the casual use of the filibuster handed certain regions and interests a de facto veto over policies that national majorities support. But ever more sophisticated redistricting (along with the concentration of nonwhite voters in urban centers) has rigged the House so dramatically that the GOP could retain control of the House even though their candidates tallied dramatically fewer votes nationally than the Democrats.

More than the United States as a whole, the House embodies an electorate that tilts more Sunbelt than Frostbelt, energy producers over energy consumers, rural over urban, lock-and-load over cap-and-trade. It offers certain regions (the South and inland West), certain interests (oil and gas, for example) and important ideological minorities virtual veto power over national legislation.

Even when the House majority does not – or cannot – kill off policy initiatives, as during the recent fiscal cliff deal, its very presence shapes the political landscape. It defines the limits of the possible.

Before the Civil War, Calhoun decried “the government of the absolute majority,” warning that without efficient checks, it would be “the most tyrannical and oppressive that can be devised.” He envisioned a system of concurrent majorities; constitutional methods for minority regions and interests to block the preferences of a national majority.

In an odd way, the gerrymandered House, like the filibuster-happy Senate, functions as a brake on the popular majority that elected the president.

When Boehner and his allies claim a “mandate” for his House caucus, though it represents a minority of House voters in the last election, they display a kind of gumption not seen in American politics for a very long time.

In a way, on this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, they revive a divisive doctrine that that momentous conflict discredited.


PHOTO (Top): House Speaker John Boehner in December, 2012. and Senator John C. Calhoun in 1853 (COMPOSITE: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas and LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/Currier & Ives) 

PHOTO (Middle Insert): Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich REUTERS/Rick Wilking

PHOTO (Bottom Insert): John C. Calhoun in 1952, painted by T. Hicks, from a daguerreotype by Mathew B. Brady LIBRARY OF CONGRESS


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Mikey, if you want a budget, ask your GOP senators to stop filibustering budgets. It’s not that mysterious :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The vast majority of the U.S. population is growing more and more tired of the Bagger mentality, the the rural and South trying to drive the rest of the country!

They are the folks that want to force there to be police in schools, acquire as many military style weapons as they can, etc, etc, etc. The lunatic fringe of which gives us the McVeigh’s of the world; arm yourself, the government is coming to get us, and our guns!

They are too stupid to realize that the term “militia” in the U.S. Constitution is about STATE level groups — like existed in the South before the U.S. formed to keep the slaves under control. In A1S8 it give Congress the power to: “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions”

and in A2S2 it gives: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States”

Ammed2 in that context gives the States freedom to maintain their militias — which Georgia damned well did! until Civil War times; it was disbanded in 1879 — after Ammed13 which outlawed slavery was passed in 1865.

Eventually, the Civil War will be more fully over in the US — once minorities are the majority of the population …

Some day the percentage of the U.S. population that are white, old, racists crackers will be a LOT smaller!

Posted by MadAsHell2 | Report as abusive

Used Wyoming twice, but never mind. Seems that redistricting has become too important to be left to the politicians, so why not let machines do it?
1.Take a state randomly selected, find the geographic center.
2.Use the last Social Security rolls to populate the state.
3.Create squares equaling present # of districts centered on the point found in 1.
4.Allow the program to keep changing the borders of each square until the populations are most nearly even. Yes, they will become rectangles.
5.Wait for inevitable court challenge.
6.If you win, start on the rest of the states, again in random order.
Maybe you won’t like certain people in your new district. That’s the best part. The algos don’t care about your hang-ups, and will just redraw the map. Politicians will have to think about who they’re talking about, as well as to.

Posted by Bagehot | Report as abusive

Thanks to Reuters for reporting on the state of the US, reporting that no longer exists in what was, or maybe never really was, the supposed global example of democracy. It is sad to see this great nation, so full of potential, self destruct through mere greed and self deception.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

Errr, you listed WY twice…. “the 3 million people of Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming” Did you perhaps mean Montana perhaps?

Posted by SomeAlpinist | Report as abusive

Once again, reading these comments, the despicable tactics and unforgiving machine of lies from the Left never seize to amaze me. All you in the kill-all-1-percenters/Republican crowd, do your damn homework for once, please! Not only are major corporations not exclusively in bed with the Right, they donate JUST as much to Dems, if not MORE. Both sides are guilty of crony capitalism, but liberals are the pros in the Majors, while the Republicans are in Single-A. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Google execs, ALL Hollywood execs…do they NOT ring a bell?? The ignorance/dishonesty is despicable.

Posted by AKOC | Report as abusive

Apparently the Republicans do have a mandate from losing the popular vote for the House of Representatives but maintaining control by gerrymandering. The mandate is to CHEAT! Witness their new call to introduce gerrymandering to the Electoral College.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

@ MikeyLikesit – do not worry about the name-calling by the Left. None of the name callers even attempted to challenge the factual underpinnings of what they purportedly responded to. Just about says it all.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

So, the author thinks that those of us in “flyover country” and the south are over-represented. Perhaps he might read the Constitution (and the Federalist papers for a little more “depth” on the subject). But, that takes a bit of effort and comprehension, so I expect Bruce will pass.

If the author wants to use California as the reference point, then I will have to decline. Too much debt, corruption, high taxes, terrible schools, poor roads, one-third of all welfare recipients in the country, government unions defining the agenda to their personal benefit,….ad infinitum. Wow, this sounds like D.C. too. Maybe it’s an issue of having too much government. (Writers note: I grew up in California “in the good old days”, so I know of what I speak.)

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Well the Repos controlled both the legislature and White House during most of the first six years of the Dubya years; look what they did for us.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive