'Anything Goes' Is the New Normal in Politics

Attempt to gerrymander the Electoral College is just the latest example of the dangerous new ‘win at any cost’ mentality.

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The GOP's attempt to gerrymander the Electoral College by having a few swing states distribute their electoral votes according to congressional district rather than through the winner of the popular vote seems to be collapsing. The scheme has been voted down ( Virginia) or talked down ( Ohio, Florida, Michigan), in four of the states in question. Only Wisconsin (where the governor is walking back his initial enthusiasm for the idea) and Pennsylvania still seem to be seriously considering the notion.

The Maddow Blog's Steve Benen yesterday had a good take on the implosion of the electoral gerrymander movement:

… while the relief of the scheme's failure is understandable, it's the result of diminished expectations.

The "bar has shifted" so far that many of us are delighted, if not amazed, when Republican policymakers voluntarily agree not to crash the global economy on purpose. Our standards for success have fallen so low, we don't actually expect progress—we instead cheer the absence of political malevolence.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

But something's going on here that's larger than merely diminished expectations. The electoral vote-rigging scheme was the latest example of the end of norms in our politics. It used to be that certain tactics and certain tools simply were not used or were used only in extremis. But we are currently in an era of no holds barred politics: The end—accruing political power and/or victories—apparently justifies all means. Consider:

  • The filibuster was once a rarely used tool but has become the order of the day. Now the Senate passing something with less than 60 votes is the extraordinary exception where it was once the rule.
  • The idea of using the debt ceiling—or more specifically the threat of causing the United States to default on its obligations by not raising it—would once have been inconceivable but is rapidly becoming just another sign of gridlock.
  • Ditto the idea of intentionally shutting down the government.
  • Republicans in the Virginia state Senate last week used the absence of one Democratic member (he was attending President Obama's inaugural) to ram through a mid-decade, partisan redistricting plan. If the new map, which the House of Delegates is slow-walking, is enacted, they are following the trail blazed in Texas by Tom DeLay (preconviction) and his state acolytes a decade ago. Redistricting is meant to take place on a decennial basis after the new census, not where political opportunity presents itself.
  • So is it any surprise that some conservatives thought the idea of gerrymandering the Electoral College was acceptable?

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

We're in the "just win, baby" era of politics. But that attitude is appallingly short sighted because once the new normal takes hold it's hard to walk back. If Democrats lose the Senate does anyone think they'll throttle back on the filibuster because it's the honorable thing to do? Or will they disavow unilateral disarmament while grinding the chamber to a halt?

The problem we all face is that the ends-justify-any-means attitude infecting our politics threatens the system itself. The Founding Fathers were brilliant and created a wonderfully durable system, but not an indestructible one.