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:
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.
In essence, the “Personhood” bill before the Virginia General Assembly has been killed, without supporters having to take a technical vote against it.
Just remember, the only reason these folks tabled this is because the public was paying attention. If given the chance, they’ll do it again.
This is why elections matter.
As the debate surrounding the contraception ruling continues at the federal level, and the Virginia legislature continues its march of marginalizing women’s rights, I can’t help but be reminded of an earlier post about the failures of Democratic messaging.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a frame to the messaging coming from Democrats on these types of issues. Well, aside from the general “Republicans are crazy / We warned you, now look what happened” theme. But on a more serious note, what I hear from the liberal movement in general right now is:
Sometimes, I’ll hear number four explicitly, but more often than not that is implicit in the outrage.
The problem is that none of this calls back to a larger meta-platform of the Democratic party or the Progressive movement in general. Instead, it either falls into the categories of why you shouldn’t vote Republican, or sometimes addresses the specific problem of healthcare access. The latter gives no reason to vote for Democrats, while the latter is more policy than ideology. This is the equivalent of a company’s decisions being driven entirely by their next quarter’s profit margin. It is shortsighted, and will result in a great deal of missed opportunities.
Even as crazy as this issue sounds, because it ties directly back into the Republican party’s ideology, they are able to hold the line where they need. At the federal level, this is about the belief in small government. Small Government wouldn’t impose mandates on morally objecting religious organizations, just as Small Government wouldn’t try to takeover the healthcare system or destroy our economy via the environmental extremists at the EPA. Small Government gives you freedom and prosperity.
This is obviously an oversimplification of the issue, but the Democrats have an opportunity here to really win over some very concerned independent voters at the state and federal level, as well as build intensity in Democratic-leaning voters. But to make those changes last beyond the next election cycle, they’ve got to tie it into a larger narrative. They’ve got to tie it into an ideology.
I would love to hear a Democrat come out in support of the President on the contraception ruling because they support equal opportunity for all, and for many, birth control is out of their grasp. Without coverage, they can’t afford it. And we all deserve the opportunity to plan our families, we all deserve the opportunity to be healthy, and we all deserve the opportunity to make these decisions ourselves.
And any church or company or political group’s power to say otherwise should stop at that line of opportunity. Because when you deny any people these basic opportunities, you’re denying them the very things that make America the kind of place we all want to live, work, and raise those families.