When the Republican House managed to fit in one last embarrassing debacle before exiting for the August recess—with Speaker John Boehner first pulling a bill to address the problem of Central American children arriving at the border after conservatives revolted, then allowing a pair of meaningless votes meant to placate those Tea Partiers who require so much placating—it seemed like the same self-destructive dynamic that has plagued the GOP for the last few years. It's a story that I've told many times; it happens because the interests of the party as a whole in things like immigration reform and a general ideological moderation are most decidedly not in the interests of a large number of its elected representatives. For instance, the party may want to reach out to Hispanic voters to have a chance at winning presidential elections, but if you're a congressman from a conservative district, your re-election could depend on furious opposition to whatever reaching out might entail.
This intra-Republican tension has gotten a lot of deserved attention recently. But we should ask why the same thing hasn't happened to Democrats, as well. After all, aren't there just as many Democrats representing districts where they never have to worry about reelection?
Actually, there are even more. If they wanted to pull the Democratic Party into the quicksand of infighting and ideological purges, they could. But they don't.
As some analysts have noted, swing districts, where there is a reasonable chance in any given election that the candidate of either party might win, have become more rare with each passing year. Partisan redistricting is part of the reason why, but only part—it's also happening because Americans' patterns of movement are sorting them into Republican and Democratic areas.
You may recall that in 2012, more Americans voted for Democrats for the House, but Republicans retained a sizeable majority, in large part because their voters are distributed more efficiently throughout the country. To simplify a bit, there are lots of places where there are virtually no Republicans—usually urban districts with large minority populations—but there are few places with virtually no Democrats. Instead, many Republicans have a healthy enough majority to make them invulnerable, but still govern over lots of Democrats. To give you a sense of the difference, there were only nine congressional districts where Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by a margin of 50 or more points in 2012, while there were forty-four districts where Obama beat Romney by 50 or more points.
There's a point beyond which a congressional district is functionally a one-party district, and it comes long before everyone in the district is a member of that party. A Democrat from an urban district in the north who's guaranteed to win every general election by 70 points isn't too worried about what her Republican constituents think of her, because there are almost none of them. But a Republican from a rural southern district who knows he's guaranteed to win every race by a mere 20 points can be equally unconcerned about the concerns and interests of the Democrats who live in his district, even if there are quite a few of them.
Let's look at how the current House is distributed. These are the results of the 2012 election, arranged by the margins of each member's victory:
So, with most Democrats in absurdly safe seats—the median Democrat won by 37 points, compared to the median Republican, who won by 24 points—why don't they exercise the same kind of disruptive power over their leaders that the conservative Republicans do? It's here that we get into a cultural difference between the two parties. In Congress, liberal Democrats make requests, while conservative Republicans make demands.
There are multiple factors that produce that difference. The most liberal Democrats are more likely to be members who worked their way up through the Democratic Party over a period of years, and have been in Congress for a long time; they aren't looking to burn the institution down. The most conservative Republicans, in contrast, are more likely to be newer members (many arrived in 2010 or 2012), and got there by mounting a challenge within their party; rebelliousness is part of their political identity. Even more importantly, because Republicans are in the opposition, they're essentially arguing over the best tactics to subvert the Obama administration and disrupt government. The internal debates among Democrats are about accomplishing real goals, a context in which accepting half a loaf can be extremely appealing.
Therefore, even when those liberal Democrats disagree with their party's leadership, everyone knows they'll go along in the end. For instance, during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, they made their preference for a single-payer system clear, and protested when the public option was dropped. But when the vote was taken, they were there to give it the margin of victory it needed. The conservative Republicans, on the other hand, have made it clear that they're more than willing to kill any bill if their demands aren't met.
What we don't yet know is whether the current Republicans in the House would act differently if their party controlled the executive branch. The next time there's a Republican president, he'll be pushing conservative measures and waiting to sign conservative bills. It's one thing to vote against the GOP leadership's extremely conservative immigration bill in favor of the Tea Party's spectacularly conservative immigration bill when you know that Barack Obama would veto either one. But what happens when some of your goals might actually be accomplished by going along with your party?
We'll have to wait to find out for sure, but my guess is that many of those destructive Republicans are going to become a lot more compliant, especially if that Republican president remains popular within their party. They're not going to torpedo legislation, just to make a point, that would actually go some distance toward cutting taxes or restricting abortion or cutting the safety net, even if the bills don't go as far as they'd like. In other words, they'll look more like today's liberal Democrats.