Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Faustian pact is widening Atlantic rift

US political geography has undergone a seismic change which may force invidious choices upon us all

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER

It was a classic piece of Americana. The Democrats in the Texas state legislature hired a bus and slipped across the border to Oklahoma, so blocking a blatant Republican attempt at electoral gerrymander. If they were outside the state then they couldn't be compelled to attend the legislature to make quorate the redrawing of Texas's Congressional districts which would give Republicans up to seven more seats in the House of Representatives.

So, as the Texas Rangers scoured the state in echoes of a 1950s B-movie, the Democrats were to be found holding court in a motel -- with both sides accusing the other of reaching new lows of political treachery.

For, as the Republicans said, it was not as though Democrats are political innocents at gerrymander. Both sides have long fixed the boundaries of Congressional districts so that they include as many of their own voters and exclude the others -- so that barely 10 percent of Congressional seats have any chance of being won by the other side. Some of the Congressional districts proposed by the Republicans in Texas were so overtly convoluted to keep out Democrats that one stretched 500km in a corridor of middle-class streets sometimes less than 100 metres wide, an echo of the original gerrymander in 1812 when the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, re-drew the boundaries of one area to resemble a salamander.

And it is no more than the Democrats have done in their states. Gerrymandering is as American as pecan pie.

On this occasion tempers boiled over; Democrats believed the Republicans were changing the rules of the political game, revising the electoral map once they had won power rather than waiting 10 years as is custom and practice. The exchanges reached new heights of bitterness. Republicans, who have a majority of votes in the state that is not reflected in Congressional seats, felt they were simply making good the democratic deficit. The Democrats, for their part, felt this was all part of a Republican coup that is reshaping the US to make it impregnably conservative. The divisions and resentments are profound.

They extend well beyond politics. America has always been a nation of churchgoers, with invocations to God part of the national conversation. But over the past 20 years the longstanding American churches -- Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Methodist -- have been haemorrhaging members to the fast growing Pentecostal movement which takes scripture literally as the word of God and believes in salvation earned by individualistic virtue rather than via the mediation of the church.

The Republicans have struck a Faustian pact with the Pentecostal movement; they will concede its arguments that abortion and even stem cell research are against biblical text in return for the church mobilizmobilisinging its members to vote Republican.

Christianity is no longer above politics.

For the Republican high command this is not just a cynical exercise in coalition building. It believes that America is mired in moral decay, and that the character of the nation must be rebuilt, which begins with improving the virtues of individual Americans by celebrating patriotism and religion.

Thus there are prayers before Bush Cabinet meetings. Thus routine meeting by interest groups with the administration are punctuated by calls to praise God and the Bible. And thus one of the great benefits of the war with Iraq; it has made patriotism even more pervasive -- helping to remoralizremoralisee the nation around individualism and self-reliance, banishing to the sidelines the role of the social and the commonwealth in supporting good character. Gerrymander and alliance with Pentecostals alike serve the great cause.

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