A lot of folks have asked me something what is in the water at the General Assembly Building in Richmond, to have all these crazy bills this session. I wish I could say there was something in the water, because at least then we could easily solve the problem. Unfortunately, the real issue is a little more complex, with a number of specific circumstances which come together to form Coen Brothers levels of absurdity.
First, it begins with people like Delegate Marshall. Delegate Marshall is an incredibly conservative individual. He introduced the constitutional amendment that limited marriage to a man and woman (since passed), a law that purports to exempt Virginia from federal healthcare reform legislation (since passed), legislation to have Virginia mint its own currency (failed), and most recently, the personhood legislation (now failed) that made “fetus” synonymous with “person” in all instances of the state code. He’s also running against George Allen for the Republican nomination in the Senate this year, because the former isn’t conservative enough. In essence, he lives and breathes puritanical social policy and conspiratorial libertarian economic policy. And I can only fault him so much for it, because unlike many politicians, he honestly believes in it as the right stances to better the commonwealth as a whole. His district is very conservative, and while he routinely has Democratic challengers, he has never had a serious threat to his re-election.
In years past, the more extreme bills submitted by Delegate Marshall have died quiet deaths in either the House or Senate, because there were enough moderate Republicans and (any type of) Democrats to kill these bills in subcommittees. Both sides had a reason to pursue this, aside from whatever convictions they had: Democrats legitimately opposed these bills and would be rewarded politically for doing so, while the public fallout for Republicans on a macro-level would jeopardize whatever narrow control they had over either chamber.
However, this political calculus has changed in the past decade for the Republicans. Nationally, those who self-identify as “Very Conservative” has increased as a percentage of affiliated Republican voters. Especially with the more recent growth of the Tea Party (whose polled views on social issues do not match their hands-off approach with economics) and its focus on becoming active in local issues, the Republican Party as a whole has found itself having to grapple with a base demanding greater ideological purity than in the past. To understand the real implications of this, however, requires us to think about something called redistricting.
Redistricting happens once every ten years in Virginia, and this past election was the first to happen since our most recent redistricting. Since every district has to have a roughly equal amount of voters, and the population moves over time, we need to redraw the lines of each political district to match the growth or loss of people therein. The problem is that the agency in charge of this in Virginia (and most states) is the legislature, the very people whose political careers depend on being re-elected. And with the advent of GIS technology and the growing amount of consumer data on each voter that allows us to predict their political opinions, they are able to slice and dice these districts into such a way that they will never face a credible challenge by the opposition party. If my district were 60/40 Democrat to Republican, the only real challenge I’m going to face is from a primary. And this is extremely important for understanding what is going on in Virginia, because who votes in a party primary?
The most extreme members of that party.
So just to recap, you’ve now got a system that:
- Makes any credible challenge to re-election shift from the general election to the primary.
- For Republicans especially, has a growth in self-identified “Very Conservative” voters, being spurred to local voting by groups such as the Tea Party.
- Was just redistricted, ensuring the highest degree of structural bias toward one party or another in how the districts are drawn.
- Has recently given Republicans control of both chambers of the legislature as well as the executive branch.
- With a proliferation of online tools and blogs, has made what happens at the General Assembly far more transparent and public.
So what happens if you are a moderate Republican, in a biased district, and a very conservative colleague introduces something like the personhood bill? What happens when you’ve got a blog with a large, active readership that is holding elected officials feet to the fire if they vote the “wrong” way on similar bills? What happens when there is so much transparency in the system that you can’t kill the bill in the dead of night?
You have a choice: Vote the way you believe, and possibly lose your seat in a primary challenge from the right for a single vote, or vote for it and hope it gets killed down the line. We’ve just seen what most people will do in that situation, barring the national spotlight and a governor who wants to be vice president.
And due to that political tragedy of the commons, we as a commonwealth lose. We could blame Delegate Marshall for his beliefs, or the people that voted him in. We could blame the cowardice of those who knew it was a bad bill but voted for it regardless. We could blame the perverse outcomes of an incredibly transparent system. But by my eye, the real threat to representative democracy is a system where elected officials get to decide who elects them, rather than the other way around. Where they must pander to the most extreme 1% of their district to guarantee re-election.