If you've watched the high-profile legislative fights of the last few years and found yourself thinking the two parties in the House of Representatives must represent separate countries, you might not be too far off the mark.
In the Senate, the two-lawmakers-per-state structure creates the moderating possibility of legislators from different parties representing the same set of voters. But the House's single-member districts divide it into a body of two separate countries that do not overlap. That separation is exacerbated by rampant gerrymandering and America's increasingly ideologically ghettoized geography. The result is that when it comes to the U.S. House, John Edwards was right to say there are "two Americas" and Barack Obama was wrong to insist that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America."
In practice, this means that when trying to pass legislation, Speaker John Boehner and his party's leadership only have to market their ideas to the specific nation that lies within Republicans' 234 districts. It means, in other words, that Republicans are empowered to embrace positions that differ from both House Democrats and America as a whole.
The most obvious way to see this was during the government shutdown, when the House Republicans only had to sell their anti-government posture and their budget stonewalling to disproportionately conservative voters within their own distinct country. But the effects of this separation are also felt on other specific issues.
With this in mind, we spent the last few weeks digging through Census data on congressional districts to get a CIA World Factbook-style portrait of the two countries in the House—the one within all the GOP districts (Republistan) and the one within all the Democratic districts (Democravia). The full results are in a table at the bottom of this post.
We did this with a very simple question in mind: How do the differences between the two nations represented in the House correspond to the larger policy differences between the parties?
For starters, take the recent food-stamp cuts championed by House Republicans and opposed by House Democrats. The House GOP represents a country where only about 12 percent of residents receive those benefits, while the House Democrats represent a country where more than 15 percent of residents receive those benefits. That gap does not fully explain the parties' differences over food stamps. But with Republistan less financially reliant on food stamps than Democravia, it may exacerbate those differences.
The periodic battles over federal funding for public-transit systems provide another example. To an America where 5 percent of all residents—or more than 15 million people—rely on public transportation to commute to work every single day, proposals to cut those resources can seem misguided. Such initiatives must seem even more destructive to a House Democratic Caucus that represents a country where almost 9 percent of residents use public transportation to get to their jobs. But in the separate country House Republicans represent, only 1.4 percent of residents use public transportation. That means almost 13 million of those 15 million people who rely on public transportation live in House Democratic districts. Consequently, House Democrats defend such funding while House Republicans push not merely to reduce such funding—but to entirely eliminate it.
The same political dynamic could shape the upcoming debate over tax reform. A full 69 percent of housing in Republistan is owner-occupied, but owners only live in 58 percent of the housing in Democravia. With Republistan having a much larger population, it probably has tens of millions more people than Democravia who potentially benefit from the home-mortgage interest deduction. Not surprisingly, House Republicans have been more skeptical of proposals to limit the deduction, while Democrats have seemed more open to the idea.
Of course, district-by-district Census data show that no demographic difference between the House's two countries is more severe than the racial divide. While it isn't news that GOP districts tend to be whiter than Democratic districts, how much whiter is notable.
Today, whites with no Latino background make up 74 percent of Republistan. That contrasts both with Democratic districts (50 percent non-Latino white) and America as a whole (63 percent non-Latino white). In all, the Republican House represents about 124 million non-Latino white people—51 million more than the country represented by Democratic House members. At the same time, the country House Republicans represent is only 11.7 percent Latino, 8.6 percent African American and 3 percent Asian American, meaning only about 20 million Latinos, 14.5 million African Americans, and 5 million Asian Americans live in their country. By contrast, Democravia is 23 percent Latino, 16.5 percent black, and 7 percent Asian American, meaning it has 33 million Latinos, 24 million African Americans, and 10 million Asian Americans. In all, despite being a country with 23 million fewer total people, Democravia has a whopping 27 million more people of color than Republistan.
These figures tell us a lot about the politics of race. For instance, in terms of political support inside of Republistan, these figures suggest House GOP leaders risk relatively little when they work to gut the Voting Rights Act, tacitly endorse punitive measures against Muslims and immigrants, and bash the federal government for civil-rights enforcement actions that protect people of color. The data from Democravia also suggest that House Democrats have a strong incentive to take positions in support of civil rights.
Immigration is a similar story. Public-opinion surveys show that people of color tend to be among the strongest supporters of immigration reform. Not surprisingly, those reforms are being championed by House Democrats, who represent a country in which almost 48 percent of residents are people of color and almost 26 percent of residents are foreign born. Also unsurprising is that in an America that is almost 35 percent non-white and almost 15 percent foreign born, polls show immigration reform is popular. But the country of 168 million people that House Republicans represent is only 24 percent non-white and 10 percent foreign-born. So Republicans represent a country where blocking immigration reform can be good politics.
None of this to imply that all white people support GOP positions on race issues, nor is it to insinuate that all people of color support Democratic positions on those issues. It is only to suggest that in Republistan the people of color and immigrants who tend to oppose House Republicans' civil rights and immigration policies have comparatively little voting power. Similarly, the numbers suggest that in Democravia, the people of color and immigrants who tend to support Democratic positions on those issues have comparatively more political power.
Despite the cliché that demography is destiny, there are plenty of other factors that sculpt the parties' legislative positions. Money, for instance, plays a big role in deciding elections and, thus, influencing legislators' positions. Who actually turns out to vote in elections—as opposed to who merely lives in a district—also affects the political calculations of members of Congress. And party ideology plays a role.
But in a gerrymandered House that lets the parties answer only to their own countries and nobody else, overall demographics are certainly one major factor in legislative outcomes. That's especially the case at times like the present when the acutely large demographic divides between the two countries are germane to the biggest legislative questions of the day.
* * *
METHODOLOGY: This table is gleaned from data from the Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey. The House Republican and House Democratic columns represent the aggregate averages from the parties' districts in the 113th Congress. The Senate Republican and Senate Democratic columns are the aggregate averages from the states the parties represent in the 113th Congress (states with senators from both parties were counted for both parties). Other than the population and median/mean income figures, the numbers in this chart are average percentages from America’s 435 congressional districts.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.