John Boehner speaks next to Mitch McConnell and other Republican members of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh).
Next year, even if voters cast millions more votes for Democratic candidates, it's likely John Boehner will continue as Speaker of the House, and Republicans will still have a firm grip to determine policy in the waning years of the Obama presidency. In the last campaign for the House, Republicans maintained a comfortable hold on the lower chamber of Congress even though Democrats won at least 1.1 million more votes. That's because over the last few years, GOP state legislators—with help from corporate backers—radically redrew congressional district lines to disadvantage Democrats in over half a dozen states, making representative democracy impossible until the next census in 2020, essentially. (For more on this, see Sam Wang's "The Great Gerrymander of 2012.")
The dismantling of the 'People's House' into a fiefdom for big business-friendly Republicans isn't necessarily a new development. In the late 19th and early 20th century, oligarchs manipulated the voting districts to repress the will, and the votes, of the people — much like the gerrymandering we see today. A century ago, it was the U.S. Senate, not the House, that fell victim to such sordid tricks.
The last time America experienced a vast decline in representative democracy was the Gilded Era, a period where both major parties became consumed by a small number of robber barons — tycoons who monopolized entire industries, bought politicians like cattle, killed striking workers, and manipulated cabinet secretaries and judges alike through a system of graft and petty bribery. In the South, the end of Reconstruction brought a reign of terror against recently enfranchised black citizens, who lost the right to vote — and in some cases, faced re-enslavement — as railroad and timber industry-financed Redeemer Democrat politicians rewrote state constitutions and began Jim Crow voting restrictions.
Another, less well known aspect of this wave of undemocratic action was in the North concerning town-based state legislative districts. Before the 17th Amendment, state legislators elected U.S. Senators. And in northern states like Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey, state legislative districts were drawn based on counties or towns, not people. As hundreds of thousands of European immigrants arrived in these states, Republicans party chiefs, in a bid to suppress the votes of these new Americans, ruthlessly fought to ensure that legislative districts stayed the same, regardless of population. The immigrants could vote, but their votes wouldn't matter much.