Tuesday, October 04, 2005

American Democracy ... more fragile than we think

A ten-parter by David Brin (October 2005)

(This series is now posted on my website: http://www.davidbrin.com/gerrymandering1.html )

IV.-a Five ways that gerrymandering feeds a vicious cycle of radicalization.

We have seen two ways that gerrymandering -- a 19th Century sin that expanded unmercifully into the 21st -- has had dismal effects upon representative democracy.

==First, it allows one party in a state to rig elections so that it can grab extra seats, not only in Congress but every legislature in sight, from the State Assembly down to cities and counties. While this is done by both the Democrats and Republicans, somewhat canceling each other out in raw numbers of US Representatives, this partial cancellation only masks the deeper sickness.

201817627023164272_JGM4K3RK_c==Second, gerrymandering can be viewed as a process that best serves the interests of an informal guild of professional politicians, by offering incumbents a near guarantee of easy re-election without the muss and fuss of serious opposition, or having to explain themselves to the voters every even numbered year.

So far, so bad. Only it gets worse. Much worse.

We shall see that - among other horrific ill-effects - gerrymandering has almost certainly contributed to the rising sense of rancor and "culture war" that infests America these days, a country that should have many reasons to be feeling good, instead of falling into a vicious cycle of relentless indignation.

Consider what this practice does in any given district, say one that has been gerrymandered to have a safe Republican majority of more than 60%. True, a majority of the voters in that district will at least be represented by their preferred party. Isn’t that representation? Doesn’t that mean their votes matter?

(An occasional reminder: almost all of my examples will apply if you replace "Republican" with "Democrat" and vice versa.)

Let’s continue listing the effects of gerrymandering:

==Third, even if a contented 60% are guaranteed perpetual victory, that leaves a 40% minority (in our example, Democrats) who will never, ever feel that they have a chance for Congressional representation. Not only will there never be a Democrat elected from their district... but they can’t even influence an election at the margins. As Robert Hormats was quoted saying, last time, their Congressional representative can safely ignore them all. It’s as if they do not even live there.

For too long we have seen politics expressed in a sense of winners and losers, as if it’s all a sporting match, like football. (At least in football, there’s a draft to try and shift advantage around a bit.) But if you read the Federalist Papers, you will see that partisan winner-takes-all dominance was deeply feared by the Founders. They worried, and hoped that things would not perpetually go that way.

But nowadays it is considered unseemly and whiney to bemoan the fate of losers. So let’s go on to other hidden implications of gerrymandering. For you see, it just keeps getting worse, because --

==Fourth, Members of the majority party are almost as disenfranchised in a heavily gerrymandered district as the losing minority!

In our example district, Republicans are present in such numbers that the incumbent representative or assemblyman can count on getting enough support just from those who will vote GOP as a reflex. Except in the case of a major scandal, the incumbent needn’t worry about national policy trends having much effect locally. So his or her support drops by a few percent? So a few Republicans desert to the hopeless opposing candidate? Big deal.

He or she barely needs any of the more thoughtful Republicans -- those who picture themselves as somewhat independent-minded. He can take their reflexive support for granted.

==Fifth. That is, local moderate Republicans can be taken for granted. Not activists, the passionately committed ones. Or those with lots of money. If any of these get angry, an incumbent can face real trouble. Party activists have a myriad ways to get revenge if they feel neglected., e.g. they can drum up a fresh opponent in the party primary. They might withdraw funds or support for higher office. They can even agitate in the state capital to have districts redrawn, favoring some other, more accommodating representative, and throwing the local guy to the wolves. (All of these things happen, more often than you’d think.)

This would -- all by itself -- have the effect of making your local representative increasingly beholden to those with the most passion and/or money in each district... or even to outsiders who might come at any time with both cash and foot soldiers, changing the local balance of power. The result is summarized by renowned Goldman-Sachs investment expert, Robert Hormats:

"One of the reasons (for the horrific polarization of politics in America) is that as a result of gerrymandering in the Congress, you don't have to look for the center. All you have do is - if you're a Republican, you appeal to the Republican right; if you're a Democrat, you appeal to the Democratic left. There's very little incentive to appeal to the middle, because of the way Congressional districts are now allocated. If your district is 80% Republican and 20% Democrat, you don't have to worry about the 20% Democrats; all you have to do is appeal to the hard core Republicans and you will win. And the same thing with the Democratic districts. So it reduces the incentive of members, in the House at least, to appeal to the middle."

I’m going to end on that note... next time I’ll finish part IV with effects numbered 6-10.

or return to Part 1 of this series


Simon Neville said...

Hey David

I don't know how representitives for each district are selected on a party basis, but up here in Canada locals party members decide who will represent them (mostly mostly) by electing their own representitives.
In fact during the last election traditional conservatives were crying foul because immigrant conservatives were taking over local party groups.
(What happened is East Indian politicians went around and got a large number of their minority group to sign up for the conservative party. Then came time time for local elections and there was 50 traditional (white) part members and around 200 new East Indian party members. Gues who got to represent the district, the traditional or the East Indian canditate?!!)

Anyways what was even funny is there were calls of hijacking the party and such. All they had done was to do the democratic way and take an active role in selecting their representative. very very amusing to watch the traditionalist jump about.

The point is, if this is the same in the States it does allow local people a way to choice who represents them in office.

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth DB:
(An occasional reminder: almost all of my examples will apply if you replace "Republican" with "Democrat" and vice versa.)

I don't this caveat is enough (too easy to miss). As your examples stand, you could be interpreted as railing against the Republican gerrymander. (a la Chris Mooney)

I would suggest that, if you want to appear more even handed, you try to avoid all references to Democrat and Republican in your examples.

...and throwing the local guy to the wolves. (All of these things happen, more often than you’d think.)
- ie the 'branch stacking' I alluded to earlier.

You also have the apathy effect: no point voting if it won't change anything (in Australia, since voting is compulsory, we have the 'donkey' vote: 1, 2, 3, 4: 'informal' votes are surprisingly rare).

There is also a form of 'gerrymander' more subtle than reorganising the boundaries, and that is social engineering: encouraging like minded voters to settle in one place.

Anyway, moving on...

DemetriosX said...

The Hormats quote reminds me of something Nixon once said: to win the party's nomination, you have to run to the right (left if you're a Democrat), but to win the presidency, you have to run to the middle. By logical extension, if you want to be reelected, you also have to govern somewhat to the center, otherwise you won't be able to make anyone buy that run to the center.

What your point five makes clear is that this political truth no longer applies for Congresscritters. Indeed, the run/governance to the center is counterproductive to the goal of reelection. Thus, gerrymandering selects (in an evolutionary sense) for those who do not move to the middle. And these are the people who eventually move up to senatorial races and make up a significant percentage of presidential candidates (with few exceptions anyone who isn't a governor). End result: politicians who are very good at running to the outside, but do not know how to or understand why they should govern towards the middle. Talk about your law of unintended consequences for a system that is usually thought of as simply an expression of a Jacksonian "to the victor go the spoils."

matzebrei said...

Tony Fisk said...

] There is also a form of
] gerrymander' more subtle than
] reorganising the boundaries,
] and that is social engineering:
] encouraging like minded voters
] to settle in one place.

Har! "Come to Democrat Valley, the place to find like-minded people to live with." This reminds me of the parody website Landover Baptist Church, which has some real estate they want to sell to there most devout members. :-)

-- Matt

Anonymous said...

The entire thing reminds me of the English Rotten Boroughs of the early 19th (?) Century.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brin,
Since you're smarter than (being a physics guy), how about proposing a mathematical/geometric "definition" for allocaticing and shaping districts based on population density distribution? (Sounds like it might be a job better suited to graph theory than physics.)

Or are you already headed there in your articles?

Anonymous said...

a reasonable algorithm was put forth in Dr. Dobbs Journal a few months back, using the texas example.

Steve said...

My concern is that any attempt to fix the gerrymandering problem will eventually be corrupted and we will be back in the same situation. Whatever solution needs to be self-reinforcing.

I liked a suggestion by someone to require non-overlapping districts for the H of R and Senate, but this seems like it might lose an ability of an area to work cohesively for some local good.

Perhaps we should consider non-geographic "districts" for one of the Houses? The number of representatives for each "interest district" could be allocated based on membership and no barrier to creating a new bloc and shifting your vote over there. Would the "science bloc" be a major player? How would you provide pork if you had no geographic location to provide it to? Would you have to prevent the interest districts from political part affiliation? Otherwise, we would end up with two big "party" districts again. I kind of like the idea - almost a marketplace of ideas. It seems like there are holes in it, though, so CITOKATE if it seems interesting.

Anonymous said...


Transcript of this morning's speech by Al Gore, on the decline of the press, the coarsening of public discourse, and threats to democracy.


What might have been.


Anonymous said...

U.S. senators are picked in statewide votes, no gerrymandering possible.
H of R is gerrymandered to heck and gone.

David Brin said...

Demetriox wins post-of-the-day. I used the Nixon quote.

As for the mechanics of redistricting, well, I think one rule should be that the state senate and assembly and Congress districts should never overlap by more than - say - 70%. Make that the PRIME criterion, so that, no matter how one house is jiggered, it will mess up gerrymandering in the others.

It would also ensure that both voters and delegates are forced to look to different groups of neighbors, negotiating and (maybe) even listening to a broader set of voices.

Joe said...

Joe "draft" comment gave me an idea - what if, every few years, a random algorithm redraws the boundaries (moving some fixed percentage of each seat into the surrounding ones). After a few goes around, the boundaries will probably be even more lizard like than the original salamanders, but safe seats won't be able to stay safe.

Nate said...

@ Stefan:

That's a good speech. And reminds me why I [heart] Al Gore.

Besides the fact he's, y'know, a nerd. Nerds unite!