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Column: Extremists’ Power Doesn’t Come From Voters

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

The National Rifle Association is facing attacks from Gun Owners of America for being too soft on gun control. This is like a double cheeseburger coming under severe criticism for lacking enough cholesterol.

Universal background checks are supported by 91 percent of Americans. Yet there is enormous resistance in Congress to passing a clean bill to keep arms out of the wrong hands. What does “rule of the people” mean if a 9-to-1 issue is having so much trouble gaining traction?

Or consider the Morning Joe/Marist poll last week showing 64 percent of Americans saying that job creation should be the top priority for elected officials. Only 33 percent said their focus should be on reducing the deficit. In light of Friday’s disappointing jobs report, the public’s instinct is sound. Yet politicians in our nation’s capital are so obsessed with the deficit you’d imagine they still haven’t heard how many Americans are unemployed or underemployed.

These three non-randomly selected facts illustrate a deep structural tilt in our politics to the right. This distortion explains why election outcomes and the public’s preferences have so little impact on what is happening in Washington. At the moment, our democracy is not very democratic.

Start with the weirdness within the gun lobby. Once upon a time, the NRA supported background checks for gun buyers, and why not? Polls show that the gun owners overwhelmingly support background checks, too.

But the political far right is, among other things, a big business. The NRA’s chief concern is not sane public policy. Its imperative is to maintain market share within a segment of our country that views the federal government as a conspiracy against its liberties and President Obama as an alien force imposed upon them by voters who aren’t part of “the real America.” Within this market niche, background checks are but a first step toward gun confiscation.

In a well-functioning democracy, the vast majority of politicians — conservative, moderate and liberal — would dismiss such views as just plain kooky. But here is the problem: A substantial portion of the Republican Party’s core electorate is now influenced by both Obama hatred and the views of the ultra-right. Strange conspiracy theories are admitted to the mainstream conversation through the GOP’s back door — and amplified by another fight for market share among talk radio hosts and Fox News commentators.

That’s because the Republican Party is no longer a broad and diverse alliance but a creature of the right. According to a March Washington Post/ABC News poll, 65 percent of Republicans called themselves conservative, just 27 percent were moderates and 7 percent were liberals. Democrats, by contrast, are far more middle-of the road: 43 percent called themselves liberal, 38 percent moderate and 16 percent conservative. Among independents, moderates predominated at 46 percent.

Practical Democratic politicians thus need to worry about the political center. Practical Republican politicians, especially those in gerrymandered House districts where primaries are all that matter, will worry almost entirely about an increasingly radicalized right.

And our Constitution combines with the way we draw congressional districts to overrepresent conservatives in both houses. The 100-member Senate is based on two senators per state regardless of size. This gives rural states far more power than population-based representation would. The filibuster makes matters worse. It’s theoretically possible for 41 senators representing less than 11 percent of the population to block pretty much anything.

In the House, those gerrymanders helped Republicans keep control even though more Americans voted for Democrats in the 2012 congressional races.

This representational skew affects coverage in the media. Most Americans may care more about jobs than deficits. But if a right-tilted power structure is talking about deficits all the time, members of the media feel obligated to cover the argument they hear in Washington, even if that means downplaying views held by a majority of the voters — and even if the economic data say we should be talking about growth, not austerity.

There’s also this: While background checks would likely pass the Senate with relative ease if there were no filibuster, the media cover a world in which 60 votes is the new 51. Thus do the battles for 60 percent of the Senate, not the views of 91 percent of Americans, dominate journalistic accounts.

There is no immediate solution to the obstruction of the democratic will. But we need to acknowledge that our system is giving extremists far more influence than the voters would. That’s why American democracy is deadlocked.