When Bill Maher's "Flip-a-District" campaign came to Northfield, MN, it settled in the Grand Events Center, a comfy converted neighborhood theater more used to hosting wedding receptions than political debates. In any case, the theme of the night was splits. There was, of course, Maher's intention to drive a wedge between Minnesota's Second Congressional District and its current representative—six-term Republican John Kline. Even more fundamentally, there was the divide between the kind of representative MN-2 has and the one it deserves. Not as obvious, but still important: The no-contest divorce between Republican talking points and reality.
I was a guest on the six-person panel (three team blue, three team red) there to take account of Kline and his fit for the district. I can attest to a couple of jaw-dropping whoppers told in defense of his record, which is, to paraphrase Maher, anti-worker, anti-women, anti-student and, when it comes to the environment, anti-"breather."
Most of the biggest Kline-covering falsehoods came from one person, young conservative author Katie Kieffer, who claimed, among other things, that you can't believe in man-made climate-change because "a lot of those scientists are on government payrolls" and—I'm afraid I quite literally howled at this one—the Keystone Pipeline needs to be built because rail transportation of fuel is dangerous and "children might die." I like that one. I'm going to use it to stop all arguments in the future, about anything: "Can't make dinner tonight, darling, children might die." (She spells out this argument, such as it is, such it can be spelled out here.)
It's not entirely a joke to make that same argument about re-electing John Kline: children might die. It all depends on what age you call childhood —pre-birth or post-birth—and what you consider to be direct causes—poverty (Kline is anti-minimum wage, pro-repeal of Obamacare)? War (he voted against removing troops from Afghanistan)? Guns more generally (he's got an A rating from the NRA)? What about allowing a school to manually or "mechanically" restrain students? Kline is the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and his refusal to support a federal law banning the use of restraints against special needs students (read this horrifying ProPublica report about why it's a problem) was the eye-popping factoid I dropped on anyone who asked me, prior to the panel, "Why Kline?"
See, prior to being invited to be on the panel, I didn't really know who Kline was, either. I did a little research and now, I mean, yikes, he's the guy that's okay with letting schools forcibly pin down autistic kids. That's in addition to all the other, more familiarly terrible things that some Republican congressmen are in favor of. That such awfulness was just right there, waiting underneath the Google to be found speaks to the brilliant capriciousness of Maher's pet project: You may think the Congressmen most worth getting rid of are your Louie Gohmerts, your Steves Stockman and King—but more dangerous to democracy than those Fox News superstars are guys such as Kline, who toil in the vineyards of horribleness, and do so mostly under the radar of even their constituents.
Kline is, for instance, virulently anti-immigrant, but lives in one of the handful of Republican districts where polling indicates that constituents are not just pro-immigration reform but who say they would vote against the incumbent for not supporting immigration reform. Kline's support of the bogus for-profit college system (a quarter of all his campaign donations come from that sector) and his opposition to student debt forgiveness are at odds with the needs of the thousands of college students (from St. Olaf and Carleton College) who live in MN-2. Those mismatches, plus the disproportionate amount of campaign funds Kline receives from outside the state, are reasons that Maher chose Kline—and the reason that Maher could have chosen dozens of others.
That Kline can't even lay real claim to being the absolute worst congressman, that Maher's pick was more representational than qualitative, is perhaps a worse insult than the perceived one, voiced by another conservative panelist: Maher acting like just another Hollywood liberal, coming to real America with his fancy ideas and big ideas and fancy car—well, with ideas, anyway. The exact quote may have included something like, "Maybe where you're from, Mr. Maher…"
To such insults, Maher mainly mugged and shrugged. The audience—who looked themselves to be very student-loan-aware, if you catch my drift —was enthusiastically on his side, to such a degree that Maher directly acknowledged how difficult it must be to be on the conservative side of the debate. And it's true. There was nothing about the panel's set-up that was fair, exactly. Nothing about coming to a small town and telling them how to behave (or vote) is exactly democratic.
But there's not much about our electoral system acts that's exactly fair, either. The Flip-a-District project is a clown-gloved thumb on the scale. Democracy may deserve better than a publicity stunt disguised as a voting drive, but then again, MN-2 deserves better, too.