Tuesday, October 11, 2005

American Democracy ... more fragile than we think

A ten-parter by David Brin
(http://www.davidbrin.com/politics.html October 2005)

VI. The Dismal Big Picture:
... just how hopeless is it to reclaim constituency democracy?

Reprise from last time: We have come by a long path in order to see that gerrymandering is far more than just a simple game of tit-for-tat, in which a little cheating by Texas Republicans cancels out a similar gambit by California Democrats. 

The deeper, most-cancerous effects certainly do not cancel out. They add together. They build and leverage and multiply against each other. Taken together, they show how one part of our democracy -- the election of representatives to Congress and other legislatures -- has become warped beyond almost all recognition, justice, or usefulness.

201817627023164272_JGM4K3RK_cSo? Is it hopeless? Or are we ready to take on a real challenge... one that all of the prestigious "electoral reform commissions" have timidly avoided? Shalll we start coming up with suggested ways and means for citizens of the United States to start to fighting back?

Not against a foreign power or the hated "other party," across the aisle of an artificial left-right political axis... but against a professional political caste that contains many well-meaning and sincere public servants. Servants who have nevertheless done what no enemy could previously achieve!

Using subtle tricks to rob us of the electoral choice that is our sovereign right and duty.

Before talking about solutions -- starting with those that won’t work -- let me first clarify one important point.

The disenfranchisement process is uneven.

One of the weirdest things about of gerrymandering is how specific it has been. It applies to the politically unscrupulous re-drawing of district boundaries for the election of legislators, especially US Representatives and delegates to state assemblies. This specialized application may be one reason why the decay went so far and for so long, before attracting serious notice.

There are many flaws in other portions of American democracy. We’ve talked about the rise in corruption and vote-fraud, during some recent campaigns. Another worrisome trend is the decline of the Fourth Estate, as journalism increasingly becomes a whore-profession, beholden to a narrow range of special interests. And who can deny that Presidential elections are bizarrely warped by the archaic and deliberately abused Electoral College? (See: http://www.davidbrin.com/electoral.html) All of these problems merit the scrutiny of citizens, and soon, lest our citizenship simply cease to matter anymore.

And yet, there is good news. Depending on the office and the type of constituency, your vote still counts for something, here and there. For example, in most municipal and local elections are dynamic and a citizen’s franchise can be fractionally pretty potent.

And there is another bright spot, when it comes to offices that are elected statewide. In fact, governorships and US Senate seats may be among the few places where American democracy still truly shines.

Yes, the arrangement of 50 states is, in itself, an absurd hodge-podge, allocating vastly more political power to residents of Wyoming and the Dakotas than to, say New Yorkers. You might even call it "the original gerrymandering." Still, we can play that hand, as we have for generations. And at least nobody can sneakily change the boundaries without notice or discussion.

Indeed, a comparison of two chambers of the US Congress may illustrate how much difference gerrymandering has made. Just observe how radicalized the House of Representatives has become, compared to the Senate, which remains to some extent what it was always meant to be -- a quirky chamber filled with "characters" who often feel free to break with party discipline and vote as individuals.

(Senators do not have to face re-election as often; has that contributed to this sense of collegial calm? Or is part of it the fact that states are large enough to focus the attention of at least a few real journalists and investigators, who aim truth at the worst slime molds who come in with millions to buy themselves some status? Oh, who knows? Let’s get back on-topic.)

We’ve seen how one major effect of gerrymandering has been to empower radical elements in both parties. Within safe districts, even the very worst indignation junky can start with a militant power base, leverage it with cash, seize a Congressional seat and then do whatever he likes (short of blatant scandal) until Judgement Day. No amount of pork, graft, incompetence, or outright maniacal looniness will ever suffice to budge him.

==Next time: "solutions" that just won’t work.

Or return to Part 1 of this series


Tony Fisk said...

A few typos (and comments):

So? Is it hopeless? ...Shall*l* we start coming up with suggested ways and means for citizens of the United States to start *to* fighting back?

let me first clarify one important point...The disenfranchisement process is uneven.
- You then proceed to waffle a bit (ie *not* clarifying).

One of the weirdest things about *of* gerrymandering is how specific it has been...
- The point of the paragraph could be clearer (ie gerrymandering is an issue in State assemblies, which presumably get less publicity).

There are many flaws in...
- I don't think this paragraph belongs here. Maybe as a conclusion to the part?

And yet, there is good news...For example, *in* most municipal and local elections are dynamic ...
- Delete

Senators do not have to face re-election as often; has that contributed to this sense of collegial calm?
- They are also 'staggered' (at least, they are in Australia. Half the senate get reelected at the same time as the lower house). This has a 'dampening' effect on overall Senate outlook. I've speculated before about what effect staggering lower house elections would have (say one state per month, but nobody's bitten yet ;-)

We’ve seen how one major effect
...leverage it with cash, seize a Congressional seat and then do whatever he likes *(move this)* until Judgement Day. *Short of blatant scandal, no* amount of pork...

- Minor rephrase:

Hope you had fun with the hummers.

Rob Perkins said...

The framers of the Constitution put the small-state advantage in there specifically so that they would have a slight (slight!) advantage in selecting the President, and a larger advantage in the Senate.

If we're gonna talk about that, we ought to include the discussion that that quirky Senate is composed far *more* of delegates from those hinterland minorities than they are of the large-state masses.

And, I contend that that's very desirable.

Madison wrote about it in Federalist 62, naming, among other things, the advantages of obstructionism, by forcing the approval of laws by a Senate overwhelmed by a small state , and of sovereignty, where the nation has a limited authority over the small states; the big ones can't simply run roughshod over them, because of the overbalance in the Senate.

It's a *good* document to include in this discussion, even if we have retreated from it a bit by selecting Senators through a popular vote.

I both do and don't think the State-boundary gerrymander was much of a problem. On a close-up level, when the States were admitted, they were admitted in pairs or foursomes, largely to keep the Senate from becoming unbalanced toward one particular party.

Back up a bit, though, and you see that our two-party system has been propogated through that gerrymander. The best example of that is November, 1889, when Dakota was divided into two States, to double the number of Senators from the Territory for the Republican Party. I think this was balanced by Montana and Washington's admittance, however, just a few days later.

But the main reason, I think, for keeping that small-state advantage is nothing more than that it keeps the small states from approaching rebellion, even when the ideological differences widen as far as they have. It's still a net positive for belligerent heartlanders to participate in *this* federation, than it is to secede and set up balkanized regions. (Why else would Hawaii still be in the Union?)

Sometimes, but rarely, they get the Presidency for their factions, even in spite of the popular vote.

Rob Perkins said...


"obstructionism, by forcing the approval of laws by a Senate overwhelmed by a small state , "

...ought to read:

"obstructionism, by forcing the approval of laws by a Senate overwhelmed by a preponderance of small state representation,"

Anonymous said...

Der Arnold has called for an end to gerrymandering in California, with redistricting to be done by a panel of retired judges (I believe). If this is true and not just a handful of his cronies being picked, I say it's the best thing he's ever done.

I live in New Mexico and can see the benefits of small state advantage clearly. If we're to be overridden by states with a large population, then our voice counts for less than if we were gerrymandered out of existence. Plus - country people and city people see things differently. This usually causes city people to say the country people's ideas aren't worth hearing. (Or else to romanticize them out of all belief; the Marie Antoinette syndrome.)But they should be heard.


michael vassar said...

Err... why should the country people be heard? I mean, it sounds nice on paper and all, and there seems to have been a time when they were often right, but that doesn't ever seem to be the case any more.
Even the "country people" don't live in the country any more. They live in the suburbs, exurbs, industrial parks, etc. Isolation and simple economic relationships used to bring them into better touch with reality. With a cause and effect world rather than one of symbols and memes, but mass media has undone all that. Adam Smith, Jefferson, Tolstoy... these people had a great respect for Yeomanry, and in Tolstoy's case for peasants, but today's country folk aren't any of those things in any respect... and respect is simply not something that today's American country folk deserve. If the coasts succeeded they wouldn't even be "developing nations". They would be closer to the former USSR. Formerly developed territories.

Rob Perkins said...

"respect is simply not something that today's American country folk deserve."

Wow. Just... wow.

Best refrain from consuming their products, then, I guess. Oh, but you can't do that, because you'd starve in a month.

Nate said...

Pay said:
Plus - country people and city people see things differently. This usually causes city people to say the country people's ideas aren't worth hearing.

Michael Vasser said:
and respect is simply not something that today's American country folk deserve.

This is one of those cases when the truth really is somewhere in the middle. Country folk and city folk look at things differently, and face different problems. And you get some "city folk" who look down on "country folk", like Pay said, but you get the same in reverse at least as much.

And Michael did make the point that most of the "country folk" in the US don't actually live in the Country these days. Suburbs and exurbs (What IS an exurb, anyway?) are much more common. And those aren't "country" except in the sense that there's no tall buildings and you have to drive to get anywhere. A tiny percentage of people in the US work on farms or other food production jobs. Many people who live in the "country" commute an hour+ into the city to their jobs. Perhaps the suburbs should be considered a third area, make it a rural/urban/suburban divide.

I can say this from having lived for the past 15 years in the "country", more and more of which keeps turning into badly planned and wasteful subdivisions. I really need to move into the city, if only because I hate driving.

Rob Perkins said...

I live inside an "Urban Growth" boundary in my county, but not inside any city limit.

Exurb/Suburb people are not country, they're urbanites living where cars are required, and where the houses can be largish.

daveawayfromhome said...

@ michael vassar, et al:

your "country mouse/city mouse" arguement has completely missed the point, which is to avoid having the minority oppressed by the majority (i.e. the thinly settled "rural states" dominated by the heavily settled states, or the small states, like New Hampshire, dominated by the large states, like New York). The problem we face here in the U.S. today is nearly the opposite; a minority (neo-cons) dominating the majority, having used clever words and gerrymandering to do so.

Anonymous said...


" . . . having used clever words and gerrymandering to do so . . ."

One issue at a time, dude!

Gerrymandering would still be an issue if the neocons were content with kvetching to each other at think-tank conclaves.

Neither the Texas GOP, nor the California Democrats benefitting from gerrymandering, are neocons.

The Bush administration could self-destruct tomorrow (unlikely, I'd give it a couple more weeks) and we'd still need to deal with gerrymandering and other electoral issues.


Palliard said...

@ michael

respect is simply not something that today's American country folk deserve

Let me paraphrase what you just said: "Anybody who disagrees with me is an ignorant peon." It's this same kind of reasoned debate that has led the national discourse into a screaming match.

So, let me explain to you why they do deserve your respect:
- They work just as hard and arguably produce more per person than anybody in the city. If you enjoy having food, clothing, housing, gasoline, and electricity, then you enjoy having rural america on your side.
- Their opinions are just a valid anybody's. What makes an idea good or bad is whether it stands up to scrutiny, not who came up with it.

So... why do YOU deserve THEIR respect? Hint: arrogance doesn't count, I have that and sadly nobody respects me for it.

michael vassar said...

Palliard: Actually, it's just most people who disagree with me who are ignorant peons. If people are interested in reasoned debate on issues, I'll win, but sadly reasoned debate is simply not a potent force governing societal decisions, so I'm trying something else right now. What do I care whether people I don't respect think I deserve their respect?

The argument over "who produces more" or "they grow your food" bores me to tears. The red staters consume more federal tax revenues than they pay, and there are only a few billion non-US farmerw who would be more than happy to sell me food if we didn't have insane and unfair protectionist agricultural trade policies, also at the behest of the red states. Ditto for all the other physical goods they produce and electricity. I don't need them AT ALL. I wish them no harm. Most of them are no worse as people than most of my urban neighboors, and if they think that they are better, not merely no worse, they may be, by their standards, though they probably aren't. Anyway, I wish them no harm, but I don't think they are to be reasoned with, or that the Islamists are to be reasoned with. Neither are part of Civilization (literally life in cities, figuratively the cultural tradition that traces back to Athens, NOT Jerusalem and Rome) and I think the red staters are marginally the more dangerous of the two.

Oh well... Rant mode off.