On the same day that Barack Obama spoke of freedom fighters in Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall after being publicly sworn in a second time as president, the Republican president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, Sen. Walter Stosch, proposed that the state Senate adjourn in honor of another Stonewall: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general who fought not for individual freedom, but for states’ rights, which was and remains a more couth way of saying (or denying) that he was fighting so that the Confederacy’s economic elite could continue to own slaves just as he did.
Yes, January 21st was Jackson’s birthday. It was also Martin Luther King Day, and the state of Virginia had already commemorated Jackson’s birthday the previous Friday along with Confederate slaveholder and general Robert E. Lee’s birthday in the state holiday Lee-Jackson Day.
While this might seem like just another instance of silly old Southern Republicans doing silly things to keep the good ole’ boys back home happy, I would argue that it is emblematic of how the Republican Party is content to destroy itself, shattering itself on the petard of its own bigotry. The gerrymandering the Virginia Senate Republicans did just before Senator Stosch moved to adjourn for the day is helping it hoist that petard.
But hasn’t bigotry worked for the GOP up to this point, you ask? The Southern Strategy for a Solid South? Sure, but since Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 election, plenty of Republicans have recognized that the party will have to change its tune if it wants a shot at winning future national and statewide elections in a country where whites are rapidly becoming a minority. Gerrymandering will frustrate those efforts because safe districts become hotbeds of single-party politics, and the more safe districts a party creates, the more it empowers that party’s extremes.
Why? Because an incumbent becomes more threatened by possible primary challengers than by any opposing party. Experience shows that it is all but inevitable for the politics of any single-party district to veer toward that party’s fringes. The middle loses its gravitational pull.
This has already become a serious threat to Republican incumbents. No GOP elected official will fail to note how US Sen. Dick Lugar of the safe state of Indiana got “primaried” by Tea Party nutjob Richard Mourdock (he of the rape-babies-are-a-gift-from-God quote). And so, incumbents who might otherwise have played to the middle now prostrate themselves to the various right wings of the GOP while those on the right drift further over and battle for turf.
Gerrymandering is working out nicely for the Republican Party in terms of individual seats in individual legislatures – Stosch won his first seat in the legislature after redistricting – and it may continue to do so far into the future, but it’s going to present them with a real problem at the national and statewide level. (Unless the GOP succeeds in its current efforts to gerrymander how Electoral College votes are apportioned in key states, doling them out by gerrymandered Congressional districts rather than by the state as a whole; the Virginia Senate has taken the most action so far, with a trickster bill that passed a subcommittee on a tied vote but fortunately got voted down in the full committee).
As many commentators across the political spectrum (including myself) have noted in the aftermath of the 2012 election, aiming exclusively for the white vote didn’t work for Romney, and it isn’t likely to work for the GOP after 2020 or so, but it works and will work just fine for any number of incumbents in gerrymandered safe seats. This means that while Republican presidential hopefuls have laid out new talking points that involve attempting to sound less xenophobic on immigration, to “stop being the party of stupid” (in the words of Republican Louisiana governor and putative candidate Bobby Jindal), and to try to sound like the party of opportunity and the middle class, there will be some incumbents and their challengers in the one-party districts who not only don’t have to read from the same song-sheet, but will find it advantageous not to do so.
This is why the January 21 moment in Richmond is symbolic of why gerrymandering is not going to work for the GOP in the long term. So long as the GOP gambles on redistricting – often based on rather crassly corralling or breaking up areas predominantly based on color (and especially if it does so by playing as dirtily as they did in Virginia on MLK day) – it will ensure that some number of its politicians will take care to speak to the extremists, the crazies and the bigots in the party. In the age of the Internet, this gets noticed. If Republicans think that Hispanics and Asian Americans – or young voters, or non-Christians, or women – won’t notice or mind Republican bigotry even if aimed at other groups, then they’re in for a surprise. And don’t forget about those unloved Republicans-in-name-only, aka RINOs, who keep leaving the party. The GOP is going to end up as a farm team to nowhere.
There’s a final irony here. Just as the Republican Party is accidentally destroying itself through acts of gerrymandering and bigotry like commemorating Stonewall Jackson instead of Dr. King, one might note that something similar happened to old Stonewall himself.
You know how Jackson died, right?
At the Battle of Chancellorsville 150 years ago this coming May, Confederate troops accidentally shot him.