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You do it to yourself, just you and no one else

By Dylan Matthews

Naftali Bendavid at the Wall Street Journal has a hilarious piece on Republican worries that conservative non-participation in the census will cost them at House reapportionment:

In a counter move, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R., N.C.), the top Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees the census, posted a message last week on Redstate.com, a popular conservative Web site, pleading with conservatives to fill out their forms.

The unstated concern: An under-representation of conservatives could mean fewer Republicans in Congress and state legislatures for the next 10 years.

"It's your constitutional duty to respond to this," Mr. McHenry said in an interview. "It's often difficult for conservatives to separate overall government intervention from a question as simple as the census." ...

According to Census Bureau figures, some of the most conservative states have among the lowest response rates so far. About 48% of households in Texas and 53% in Alabama have mailed in their forms so far, for example, while the response rate in Massachusetts, a more-liberal state, is at about 57%.

The national participation rate for the 2010 census is at about 56%.

Once all forms are collected and compiled, I very much doubt any GOP-leaning state is going to lose seats due to activist reluctance to participate in the census. More to the point, state participation rates are determined by a whole number of factors contributing to it, from poverty rates to immigration levels to cultural attitudes older and deeper than tea party pettiness. Still, census non-participation is a uniquely self-defeating form of anti-government protest. Good old-fashioned tax evasion hurts people, but it hurts exactly the people the tax evaders are interested in hurting: poor social service beneficiaries in some cases, defense contractors in others, etc. Census non-participation does exactly nothing to reduce the power of the federal government; its sole real consequence is to increase the chances your political allies will lose seats in Congress. It makes one wonder whether the census alarmists know this and accept it for the larger principle of not giving information to the government, or if they just haven't thought this through.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post editor  |  April 5, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Republicans  
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Comments

As to your final question, the answer is neither. Rather, these nutjobs believe that the government is so corrupt that it will manufacture whatever census figures it likes regardless of the actual results. In the context of such a belief, no possible good can come from returning the census form, and the possible negative consequences of divulging personal information to the government this weigh heavier in the wingnut calculus.

Posted by: charlie14 | April 5, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Ack -- in the last sentence, "this" s/b "thus." Sorries.

Posted by: charlie14 | April 5, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Could you refrain from direct linking to articles that site behind a paywall (such as WSJ)?

If the article is worthwhile, you could describe it but don't drive more visitors to a site that frankly doesn't want them.

Posted by: rpixley220 | April 5, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

You miss an important point. The Census impacts the borders of congressional districts. If fewer right wing nuts in Minnesota file their Census forms, Michele Bachmann might find the lines of her district extended into unfriendly territory to compensate, thus endangering her reelection.

Posted by: bartlettb | April 5, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

So, the better strategy is to move from a district where your political beliefs are the majority to a district where you're in the minority. Then refuse to fill out the census so your political rivals are injured.

Of course, I do believe it's a civic duty to respond to the census anyway, so I'm not advocating that sort of action.

Posted by: MosBen | April 5, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Even if low participation by Republican voters does not cost any state a congressional district, it might reduce the number of Republican-leaning districts within several states. Reapportionment has to give each district close to the same population as others in the state, and if the census undercounts people in more-Republican areas within a state, those regions could get fewer districts.

Posted by: J_Whick | April 5, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Nate Silver had a pretty good debunking of this "conservatives aren't filling out the census" meme a couple of days ago.

Posted by: Quant | April 5, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I haven't heard of this, but I imagine it isn't too wide spread, if it's real at all. I filled out my census form and sent it back several weeks ago.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 5, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Is Dylan Matthews paid by the Post, or the child of rich parents subsidizing his/her "internship"?

Posted by: Egilsson1 | April 5, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

If the lies actually make more people fill out their census forms than I am ok with looking the otherway.

Posted by: schnauzer21 | April 5, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

The problem for right-wingers, of course, is that the census puts a lie to their "big government" scare story.

The federal government sending forms to your house demanding specific information about every member of your family is simply far, far more invasive and scary than the federal government paying your medical bills if you get sick. Or sending you an unemployment check if you lose your job.

It's really hard to argue that the framers would have opposed big government when the framers thought it was crucially important to find out about every single member of your family--so important that if you fail to fill out the forms by letter, they send someone to your house to knock on your door and demand it.

You can't get away from the fact that the census is big, scary, invasive government...and they have to support it.

It's like simpler tax forms--they hate this kind of thing because it shows that a functioning public civic body is not scary or painful, but nerdily helpful and effective.

Posted by: theorajones1 | April 5, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

did what's his name at RedState chase McHenry away with his wife's shotgun?

Posted by: bdballard | April 5, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Nate Silver had a piece that showed that it was a media myth that red states were not sending in their census forms.

I think this is a fictional corporate news story designed to encourage republican voters to be so afraid of being undercounted that in the end they will actually have a better rate of participation than the blue states, and thus gain seats.

Posted by: Lomillialor | April 5, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

@ theorajones1: "It's really hard to argue that the framers would have opposed big government when the framers thought it was crucially important to find out about every single member of your family--so important that if you fail to fill out the forms by letter, they send someone to your house to knock on your door and demand it."

It's easy to argue that some of the framers would have opposed big government, because the wrote as much, and often at length. One of the reasons they opposed "big government" was because they feared a Hamiltonian republican Monarchy, with the President acting as a unitary executive and the rest of the government more resembling 18th century English parliament. But Thomas Jefferson himself said that the government that governs best is the government that governs least.

More to the point, the intrusive public of maintaining an accurate census was specifically about apportioning representation for both electoral votes (for electing the president) and percentages in the House of Representatives. Arguably, the census was a tool to help prevent "big government" (i.e., unitary government), but populating the house with representative congressmen who would help reign in a potentially unitary executive.

Some of the overly specific questions in the long census form may be reasonably regarded as intrusive, but, in the end, the census is not intrusive in a representative government. It's fundamentally necessary, and considering it a "big government" plot is . . . well, it's just not accurate. And I don't think most conservatives look at the census as some sort of Big Brotheresque conspiracy.

"they hate this kind of thing because it shows that a functioning public civic body is not scary or painful"

Strawmen, much? What conservative, anywhere, has an objection to a functioning public civic body? Or thinks it's "scary or painful"? They might think it's a trick, or the product of idealist naiveté, or nice in theory but impossible in practice, or simply that more regulation and greater taxation and wealth redistribution is the exact opposite of a functioning civic body, but nobody opposes a functioning public civil body. That's like saying conservatives oppose pleasant days and sweet music.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 5, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

My elderly father-in-law subsists on a all-day diet of Rush Limbaugh and other right wing talk radio, with a dash of Fox News sprinkled on top.

He returned his census form, but wrote in the word "American," rather than answer the question of his his race. He also added a note, advising the census bureau that their form is "racist" for making that inquiry.

What is funny to me is that he is also quite angry that the form does NOT inquire about marital status. He enjoys doing research on the genealogy of his ancestors, and so he thinks that it is important to future genealogists to be able to track marriages using census data.

Apparently it is ok for Big Brother to know and publish personal information such as one's marital history, but not to gather information about the racial demographics of the society.

Posted by: Patrick_M | April 5, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

---"Census non-participation does exactly nothing to reduce the power of the federal government; its sole real consequence is to increase the chances your political allies will lose seats in Congress. It makes one wonder whether the census alarmists know this and accept it for the larger principle of not giving information to the government, or if they just haven't thought this through."---

I wonder if *you've* thought through what it means to put your freedoms and liberties into the care of one's "political allies" (instead of claiming the right of the dispensation of your own life to yourself) who increasingly sell their power to an increasingly factionalized citizenry. We're verging on a banana republic, and the census (listen to the endless, repetitive, noxious advertisements for it) is no longer about apportionment of representation in service to liberty and justice, but all about selling buses, trains, hospitals, work retraining centers, senior centers, and whole barges of other goodies to the grasping rabble. The modern census is one more symptom of the wasting disease that is eating freedom.

Posted by: msoja | April 5, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

In a country grounded in principles of liberty and justice, one wouldn't have to toss coins and pray for a sizeable block of "political allies". One wouldn't have large factions promising their political supplicants the bounty from new raids on the nation's wealth. The outcome of the 2010 census is meaningless in terms of what has always been the most important part of this country: Individual liberty, and the responsibility that goes with it, neither to suffer the unwarranted claims of others, or to press one's own upon them. Now, it is all about arbitrary law ginned up by the ream, with the power no longer coming from the people, but at the people. The census has become a tool of the collectivists in service to their administration of the growing welfare class. And one no longer has any choice in the matter; one will steal, and be stolen from, as a matter of ordinary economic necessity, until there is nothing left to steal. Whole swaths of the economy will rise and fall on the edicts of one political faction or another, and the only hope for individuals will be to carve out tiny sanctuaries for themselves, and hope to go unnoticed.

Posted by: msoja | April 5, 2010 9:43 PM | Report abuse

msoja,

Great posts. It is just the census, which is a part of the US Constitution, dude. Of course, we all know that you hate the Constitution, and America itself, because you are the Ezra Kelein addicted rural anarchist drama queen.

But I have good news! It is not true that "the only hope for individuals will be to carve out tiny sanctuaries for themselves, and hope to go unnoticed." There are two countries that you would LOVE, where there is no government to make "arbitrary law ginned up by the ream, with the power no longer coming from the people, but at the people." On the contrary, the people there live in complete freedom, in exactly the sort of enlightened paradise you crave!

Somalia and Yemen await an anti-collectivist freedom lover like yourself, with open arms. No pesky census forms with noxious advertising. Don't wait another day to tear off your shackles and live in freedom! Yemen! Somalia!

Posted by: Patrick_M | April 5, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

Patrick: Have you heard the advertisements? The government can't tell how many buses are needed if people don't fill out the census accurately describing the number of people living in their abodes. What kind of morons think that's a legitimate way to provide bus service? Besides you, I mean?

Posted by: msoja | April 6, 2010 12:12 AM | Report abuse

Most opposition I have heard has been to the racist part of the form. Race is a racist concept, particularly so in this post-miscgenation era where so many of us don't fit easily into any of the predefined categories. We shouldn't have that on a census form, or any form, at all, ever again. Figuring out what ratio makes someone belongs to a particular made-up race should be buried with apartheid South Africa.

Posted by: staticvars | April 6, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

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