A ten-parter by David Brin
Part VII. The Problem of Gerrymandering:
...."Solutions" that just won’t work.
Reprise: The deeper, most-cancerous effects of gerrymandering do not cancel out. They 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.
So? What can be done about it?
Well, for starters, don’t come to me for pat answers, prescriptions or painless solutions. Citizenship was never easy, as the Athenians found, as soon as the guidance of Pericles began to falter.
In fact, I do know that some of the more obvious "solutions" just won’t work.
How about those proposals, bills and ballot propositions -- that we see raised occasionally, aimed at eliminating the gerrymandering curse by law? These offer to reform the system by handing over the job of drawing district boundaries to "impartial commissions."
"Efforts to end partisan mapmaking are under way in 14 states, pushed largely by those who contend that new technology allows the party in power to carefully tailor districts to favor as many of its candidates as possible," according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. Ohio and California are two of these states.
"The result: Competition occurs only in primaries, not general elections, leading to polarized legislatures and frustrated voters. While such arcane issues don’t always resonate with voters, the frustration over politics-as-usual can tip the balance in their favor, said political scientist Caroline Tolbert."
Isn’t that hopeful? Can’t we solve this problem one state at a time?
Don’t bet on it.
Look closer and you’ll see that each of these efforts has been pushed by the minority party within the state in question, campaigning to eliminate the majority’s unfair advantage. That’s fine, but few comment on the utter hypocrisy of, say, California Republicans decrying their state’s gerrymandering sins, while their Texas GOP brethren refine the practice to a high art.
Moreover, because this is always a gambit raised by the state’s minority party (sometimes assisted by a minority party governor), how often is it really going to work?
In sum, doing it one state at a time is utter hypocrisy.
In fact, as a citizen of a state that’s controlled by a party I (marginally) prefer, I sure plan to vote against a coming "fairness" referendum! It will churn my guts to do so. But... dang if I’ll drop my guns b’fore they drop thurs!
One might, for example, envision arranging deals that would trade reciprocal reforms among several states at once. Suppose California were to hand over the drawing of district boundaries to an impartial commission... in exchange for an equal number of impartially redrawn districts in, say, Texas and Florida combined?
Boy, I would flat-out love to see that. I am all in favor. Somebody start a campaign and I’ll sign on.
If apolitical redistricting ever did take hold in a big way, there would ensue no end of bickering over how to constitute the "nonpartisan commissions" and what criteria they should use. Certainly some states will draw up rules that preserve the effects of gerrymandering as much as possible. My own favorite approach would help to prevent this in a simple way. One rule should be that the State Senate, Assembly and Congress districts should never overlap each other by more than, say, seventy percent. Make this the prime criterion, so that, no matter how one house is jiggered, it will mess up gerrymandering in the other two. This 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.
Alas, while it may be fun to run mental experiments about how the law could be changed, to fix the gerrymandering mess, there comes a time to admit that it just won’t happen. Not soon, that is, and not in this republic.
Because in order to make such a deal, you will have to get it signed off first by the very people who set up gerrymandering in the first place! The Professional Political Caste. And even if it can be shown that a tradeoff will leave the NET number of Congressional seats per party alone... if you can show that no party will lose... even so, these professionals will be terrified, adamant and unwilling. Because this is not just about two parties jockeying for a little advantage. It never has been.
Think. An end to gerrymandering will:
* make most re-election campaigns competitive
* spread more vigorous accountability
* reduce opportunities for guaranteed patronage (and/or graft)
* empower the "enemy" ... or at least the "customers" (fickle voters)... to exercise their will, or whim, responding to any shift in the political winds.
Do you honestly expect the political caste to put up with something like that?
(There is one more reason for the right wing to support gerrymandering at all costs. The biggest reason - possibly - of all. At present, more than a hundred super-radical GOP congressmen exercise their traditional privilege of appointing one candidate from their district to each of the US Military Academies (e.g. West Point). There is strong anecdotal evidence that these new cadets are being appointed according to social, political and cultural litmus tests, including religious zealotry. This bottom-stocking of the US Officer Corps is symmetric with the ongoing purge of the apolitical and superbly professional flag officer ranks, either forcing retirements, re-assigning, or viciously harrassing any general or admiral who will not toe the line. Of these two trends, the bottom-stocking of zealots has received the least attention, and may do our constitutional civilization the most long-lasting harm.)
Once again, please, do not misconstrue what I am saying. Not all politicians are betraying monsters who do these things with deliberate malice. Many -- perhaps even most -- of them are deeply sincere public servants, who feel that they must use the tools at hand - including gerrymandering - in order to limit ideological foes who are much worse than they are.
(In many cases, actually, I quite agree.)
But this focus on foreground political knife fighting can distract even sincere public servants from ever facing the insidious effects of what they have wrought, year after year, decade after decade. Over time, they have done grievous damage to a system that was supposed to about citizen empowerment and the sovereignty of every individual American.
Again, we are human. Hence, we (including politicians) are all supreme rationalizers. Unless criticism and light and accountability shine, any of us is likely to drift toward the kind of behaviors that have been seen throughout history. For example, coming up with reasons to support our trade or guild against interference from the crass customers or ignorant public.
Or are you claiming that you never came up with a convoluted reason to take advantage, where it could be gotten, later explaining to yourself and others that was all for the common good?
No, we are defending the Enlightenment, boys and girls, during what we hope will be the last generation or two before it takes hold for good. Rationalization is the old way and accountability is the new.
If there is to be any hope, we must be the ones to take responsibility. There will be no help from the politicians. Not in this matter, where their utter self interest is at stake, independent of ideology or party.
This is one problem we are going to have to solve ourselves.
==Continue to Part 8
or return to Part 1 of this series