Easy Chair — From the January 2014 issue

Donkey Business

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After President Obama’s electoral triumph of 2012, you will recall, Democrats and liberal thinkers rode a momentary surge of demographic righteousness. Their voters made up what they were pleased to call a “coalition of the ascendant”: minority groups whose numbers were increasing rapidly, plus the vaunted millennials. This last group, it turns out, was aptly named. Many of them (and many older Democrats as well) viewed Obama’s victory as a sort of apocalyptic transformation, a final farewell to the old, square America, with all its stupid fixations on God, guns, and gays. Democrats were the face of the coming nation, and their already solid majorities would only grow.

Back then, in those happy weeks of late 2012, everyone could see that the G.O.P.’s day was done. They had become a remnant, a dinosaur faction of disgruntled white people. Plenty of Democrats took it a step further: the G.O.P., they argued, was in fact a party of racists, driven by an irrational hatred for the first black president. Republicans had departed from the realm of the reasonable and were no more approachable than were the segregationists and white supremacists to whom they were so often and so satisfyingly compared. Trying to enlighten or persuade them was a waste of time. The correct attitude toward the G.O.P. was one of complete contempt.

Then something terrible happened. The Republicans didn’t go extinct. After a preposterous series of threats and votes, the party’s congressional posse was able to shut down the federal government and bring the nation to the brink of default — and they did it by intimidating their own elders with fearsome threats of primary challenges from the right. Almost overnight, the tone changed in the liberal sphere. From what inky depths had these coelacanths arisen? Didn’t they know they represented a dying order and that their role was to fade away?

The virtually unanimous explanation: gerrymandering. Across the country, Republicans in state legislatures had dominated the last round of redistricting, in the wake of the 2010 census, and they had redrawn the boundaries of congressional districts to give their side an unfair advantage. But they had done more than this, went the argument — they had insulated themselves from modernity. Those rampaging reptiles in the House hailed from districts where white people predominated, where Democrats were a negligible force and the only conceivable threat would come from people even further to the right. Their very presence in Congress was a fantasy, an electoral will-o’-the-wisp. As proof of this thesis, liberals cited the 2012 vote totals: the Democratic House candidates took more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but they won a distinct minority of House seats.

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