Boehner resurrects the antebellum South

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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Thus far the GOP has shown zero leadership or fitness to govern, so I’d say the President has the mandate.

Posted by Concernedcitz | Report as abusive

A mandate through gerrymandering and massive cash contributions. Not exactly a link to the populace, but assures them of incumbency. Their only worry is a challenge in the primaries. Not exactly the prescription for governing.

I do not fault the Republicans for claiming a ‘mandate’. The problem comes when they obstruct government and refuse compromise. We are supposed to be the United States, not separate fiefdoms.

The President is not a king, but Congress was elected to help govern, not to obstruct anything their donors object to.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

“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.”

That’s a good one. However, I sympathize with Calhoun’s idea, even if it’s counter to my current interests and voting record. Joel Garreau’s “Nine Nations of North America” convinced me that the United States is perhaps better off as a loose conglomerate of different nations, or alternately, a union where states have much stronger rights (which is closer to the vision of the founding fathers anyway). Though they might speak the same language and pay taxes to the same entity, two individuals from different states can be as different as any two people from European countries. And this is one reason that American politics can be so divisive, one reason why the whole political process moves so slowly. It’s not always to our benefit to engage in this slow-motion boxing match.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

It is all about power, money, and bribes, not the region.
Bruce (of Boston which is in the North), the civil war has been over for 150 years now, you can stop fighting it with reruns of civil war era articles.
You’re the one reviving the Civil War, not Congress.
Get over it.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

Bohner doubles down on the incest states. Good luck with that strategy, republicans. The tea party has done wonders for the GOP in recent years. :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

This commentary is off the mark. The GOP lost a handful of seats in the House – the losing Presidential party usually loses a lot more, much less retain a substantial majority. Moreover, while a win is a win, President Obama’s re-election was the most underwhelming in US history. Never before has a President been re-elected to a 2d term with less electoral support than he had the first time. With all the powers of incumbency, every re-elected President who has been even moderately successful has added to his electoral majority. Not so this time.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

The GOP is fractured. They weren’t even able to unseat Harry Reid in 2010…. a give-away election year. The tea party is splitting the GOP and saving us Democrats a lot of money. Hope it continues.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

i don’t recall any reichtie talking like this in 2000 when bush lost the popular vote and won the electoral by 1 (after being appointed by a right leaning supreme court no less). time to get a grip.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

Man, don’t get me started….:) Are we going to revive the articles of the confederacy? Europe would probably look like paradise if we go that route. But i see your point.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

People like SayHey are the problem here… an utter refusal to accept reality.
When Clinton was handed his mid term beating, he took note, changed and evolved and we had what some could argue was the best government this country has had for years, along with budget surpluses..

the GOp needs to understand and compromise. If only the koch brothers would let them

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

A Democracy, if you can keep it. Well, we lost it. All hail the Plutocracy! Once the States lost the ability to appoint and remove, at will, the Senators of Congress, the so called “checks and balances” were eliminated. No more Unites “States”, just a popularity contest vote for who will be your Federal masters. This Republicrat argument is ridiculous. Each flip flop of party finds the new majorities doing the same thing as the old. Government is literally the most expensive play you will ever be forced to watch. Hell of an act though.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

@SayHey — does that shilling job pay well?

Thanks Mr Schulman. I don’t think we can mention too many times that, even in the House races, more folks voted for Democrats than for Republicans. They legitimately control the House (an unfortunate result of the Supreme’s support for gerrymandering over the centuries), but they should show more respect for the voters than to claim a mandate for anything. And small-state Senators might want to become a bit more flexible towards the concerns of the big-staters. The imbalance between power and population is only getting worse, and such imbalances do eventually right themselves one way or another.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Did it ever dawn on the author that perhaps neither party has demonstrated the ability to effectively “lead” when they control the legislative and executive branches (e.g. 2009-2010). What we endured was an agenda where “bipartisanship” was not graciously embraced by the Dems–because they had a “mandate”. And I would raise the same issue during the GW Bush years, when the Pubs had full control.

Perhaps Americans are far more intelligent than you give them credit for–as each party has demonstrated the inability to govern wisely (e.g. Obamacare is still opposed by a majority of voters, and the Medicare benefits enacted during the Bush years are a fiscal disaster.)

So. we vote our local interests in the House, our combined national and state interests in the Senate. Gridlock is good–as it forcees the side in the majority to listen–except for the fact our current President and Senate Majority Leader are on a mission to change the very foundation of this country–from one of individual initiative (and responsibility) to one of European social-democracy. So any appreciation for the perspective of the “other side” is not consistent with their agenda.

To our long-term detriment, 50.8% of the population thinks this is good. While 50.8% may be a (very slim) majority, it does not, in any way, shape or form constitute a “mandate”.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Official statistics – Congress
Representative John Boehner has reported a total of 10,908 contributions ($200 or more) totaling $12,305,512 in the current cycle. $12,305,512 in “contributions” from major corporations.
Almost all of Boehner’s contributions come from large corporations, most of which are based in the North, and almost none in Ohio.
Boehner does what he does because of bribe money, not voters in the South. SAME FOR ALMOST ALL MEMBERS OF CONGRESS.
I call baloney on this article that brings back the civil war.
If Bruce Shulman does not realize that members of Congress are bribed by big corporations and the wealthy to do the things they do, I feel sorry for Bruce.
The FACTS prove I am right.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

In latest move, Republicans look to Rasmussen polls again for better news.

This is getting awesome. It’s like using a broken fuel gauge on purpose, so that you don’t have to receive bad news. Good luck with all that, GOP. Don’t think of it as losing ground so much as…. gaining QUALITY ground :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

It was always like that. When the Washington State government tried to bring up the subject of education, the back benchers shouted: “What we need is irrigation.”

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Even with the backing of the One Percenters Club through the Congressional lobbyists, the GOP seems determined to marginalize itself.
Then, the One Percenters Club can continue to control America through the other party and nothing will change.

Magical Myth is probably still trying to figure out how to fire the 47% and prove that he actually won the election. Maybe now he can hire illegal aliens since he’s no longer running for public office (for God’s sake). So, what to do with the $200 million in offshore banks?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

“never before have leaders of the controlling party lost seats and claimed a mandate”

This statement is comparing the 2012 Presidential election with the 2010 midterm election results where the President himself conceded that the voters gave his party a shellacking.

Read more:  /nov/3/obama-concedes-shellacking/#ixzz 2Gfe6xbqG
Quote: “A pensive and introspective President Obama said Wednesday [November 3, 2010] the election was a “shellacking” and took responsibility for his party’s disastrous showing”

For the Democrats, the 2012 Presidential election was a partial recovery from the 2010 disaster; but comparing the last two actual Presidential elections in 2008 and 2012 shows a very different story. Compared to the last Presidential election 2008, the Democrats have dropped 5 million in the Presidential Popular Vote; lost control of the House; and seen their Senate majority reduced by 4 seats.

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

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

There is nothing ‘odd’ here – that is the way that the system is supposed to work. Obama only got 52% of the popular vote; but he got 62% of the Electoral College vote because he understood that where your votes come from is just as important as how many votes you get. The two senators per state rule; the requirement that each state get at least one Representative regardless of how few people live there; and ⅓ House re-election feature are all part of the system. The system wasn’t just some invention of the antebellum South – the Founders wanted something other than overall popular majorities to be important. The voters turned sharply against the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections; but they weren’t given a option to change Presidents until 2012 – by which time Democratic Party had significantly recovered its strength. France has a straightforward popular majority Presidential system – they are currently on their fifth Republic in a shorter timespan than America’s one Republic has existed.

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

The GOP remains out of touch on most issues. Gay marriage, minority rights, legalizing marijuana, abortion, taxing the rich, you name it. They are losing a whole generation of voters and they know it. In Reagan’s time, 2 out of 3 new voters signed on republican. Since 2006, it has been exactly the opposite. 2 out of 3 new voters sign on with the Democratic party, support the democratic party, and vote democratic. That has a long ripple effect over the next 30 – 40 years. Bohner can double down on tea party ignorance if he chooses, but he’s choosing to lose again in 2016.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

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