Friday, October 14, 2005

American Democracy ... more fragile than we think

A ten-parter by David Brin

Part VIII. The Problem of Gerrymandering:
....Solutions" that just may work.

Reprise: If there is to be any hope, we must be the ones to take responsibility.
This is one problem we are going to have to solve ourselves.

I mean it. There is no political party that will help us to slay the dragon of gerrymandering. No billionaire is going to come to the rescue with a foundation grant. And do not expect Bigtime Journalism to raise this as a cause celebre.

201817627023164272_JGM4K3RK_cThe parties may not be equal -- morally or in policy -- but they do share blame for this problem. A billionaire will invest where the chances of success are better than nil.

And the press? Their contempt for the public has no bottom. (I come from a long line of journalists.) They will look at the sheer complexity of this issue and despair of ever explaining it to all those dolts out there.

So, is there any hope, short of believing that science will someday come to the rescue with brain pills?

Putting utopian dreams aside, what can we do right now, pragmatically, to change the balance of power, even in districts that twist and writhe like serpents, so that the same party may contrive to dominate utterly, and apparently forever?

Sometimes you must seek inspiration in the most unlikely of places.

Go back in time -- sixty years, seventy, eighty -- to the old post-bellum South, that time of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou," when segregation reigned and the Klan ruled the night. Certainly the land of Faulkner wasn’t all dismal stereotypes. A lot of good and noble things were also going on. But politically it was not the most open and enlightened era. For one thing, a majority of white voters would vote for a "yellow dog" if it were the Democratic nominee.

If Republicans dominated the Union, from the Civil War until FDR, their monopoly on power was nothing compared to the Democratic Party’s lock in the old "Solid South," from Reconstruction until Richard Nixon. In those days, the November election was generally a sham, a mere formality. A coronation of the Democratic nominee, whoever that might be.

A few black citizens who managed to get registered to vote would join some urban intellectuals in casting a smatter of futile dissenting ballots in the fall. Most did not even bother.

Real political fights were reserved for the primaries, when there were sometimes knock down, drag-out battles among candidates for the democratic nomination -- from governor all the way down to mayor or dog catcher. Often local blacks or liberals would seek (when allowed) to re-register as Democrats, so they could vote in the spring, when and where it really counted. When political power was actually apportioned.

Can you see where I am heading with this? Gradually, almost unnoticed, we have been manipulated into becoming a nation of ten thousand little Solid Souths, in almost every state assembly and US Congressional district across the land. Gerrymandering has done to nearly all of America what Jim Crow achieved much earlier, from Texas to the Carolinas. The problem has been seen before. But the past may also tell us what to do.

Thwarted at having anything meaningful to do with their votes, might people find a way to evade this trick of the political pros? The precedent is clear. We have only to follow the wisdom of our ancestors. If we have the guts to rebel against ‘party identity’ and instead maximize our personal access to political power.

Think of it this way. Gerrymandering has given each district a de facto -- if not official -- party of that district. There is no sense whining about it.

If districts have been scornfully reworked in order to make the November general elections worthless, then by all means, everyone in a district should join the party of that district.

Make the primary election the locus of real argument, real campaigning over issues, real voter participation. Real politics.

Clearly, this is the minority's best tactic, when gerrymandered "solid" districts and national division have rendered competitive politics a thing of the past.

==Continue to Part 9

or return to Part 1 of this series


Frank said...

Ha, if you can´t beat ´m, join ´m ! It will create a lot of tension inside the majority party though. But that may not be a bad thing, it will start people thinking about party identity, perhaps even break the party into pieces and create several new parties.

Anonymous said...

Back when media dominated the elections, Robert Heinlein's TAKE BACK YOUR GOVERNMENT was reprinted in paperback, with a foreward by Jerry Pournelle saying that this was only of historical interest these days. Then came the new grassroots movement. I'm going to try to find a copy, if one is available for any sort of price. I think its quite relevant to what you are saying here.


Geoffrey Knobl said...

Which comes first, the primary voter or the primary candidate. The voter obviously, because the candidate will only go where the voters already are.

The next questtions are: Can we get enought democrats to become republican to get the type of candidates we want to see run, actually run as repubs? And, who do you vote for in the interrum, especially when you can't write-in a candidate in many locals, conservative fascist A or conservative fascist B? Neither obviously. You just have to wait until the general election and then vote for the one that isn't a close-minded joke, if you can find him or her.

Nate said...

The problem I see with that theory, at least for people who want to influence the Republicans, is the powerful tools of party loyalty the modern Republican party has at its disposal. Now, this might be a chicken/egg thing, but how many Republicans in Congress, in either house, tend to vote against the party leadership? There's like...two in the Senate, maybe. Depending on the issue. Even if we hypothetically elected a much more moderate/liberal Republican, as the most junior member of Congress, wouldn't the party leadership just lock them out of any positions of any influence and do their best to bend them to their will? (Assuming the Republican Party leadership doesn't end up falling apart/imploding/getting indicted in the next few months/years, anyway.)

I don't think Republicans would have the same problem with getting Democrats they like, for two reasons. One, the Democrats are not organized. At all. Seriously, party discipline is one of their weakest areas. And secodly, the Democratic party, as a whole, is pretty damn moderate, even conservative, already. Despite this, they still get blasted as "liberal elitists" and blah blah blah bullshit by the Republicans. Because it works and because the Democratic party hasn't bothered to fight back against this, either.

Anonymous said...

"I don't belong to any organized political party. I'm a Democrat!" - Will Rogers.

In the past 20 years I've been paying attention, I've watched the Democrats move 'right', and the Republicans move off the map in some weird direction.

David, I don't know if I got the idea from you or somewhere else, but I've been saying this for a couple of years... if you can't beat the Gerrymander, then make the Gerrymander work for you. And if the choice in the primary is Fascist A and Fascist B, well, one of them will be more moderate than the other. And if all else fails, don't be afraid to RUN YOURSELF. How much does it cost to file? Throw your hat in the ring; make the other guy defend his actions. Or do what I did; talk your wife into it (she's the terror of the local PTA, she is). Throwing up your hands and declaring 'nothing can be done' is a self-fulfilling prophecy.


David Brin said...

I appreciate the comments. One thing is that when moderate democrats register as republicans in a gerrymandered GOP district, that will leave the radical dems even more empowered in that district to run total flakes.

But that's fine! The bigger the GOP majority in that district the worse gerrymandering will look

I am now wondering, as I near rthe end of this piece, where you would all recommend I try to publish it? At 9,000 words it is very long. I hoped to serialize it at Worldchanging but they are spooked by things that are outright political. So is wired.

I'll try Salon, but where else?

Oh, For something that will make you both laugh and cry:

Todd said...

"I'll try Salon, but where else?"

Spiked Online? Harpers? The Nation?

I doubt the length of the essay would be a problem for them, but each is questionable on other grounds, hence the chosen punctuation. But maybe those suggestions will spark better ones in someone else's better imagination.

Steve said...

Yeah, it's political, but it doesn't take sides. It points out a flaw in the system, more than the players. (Or, rather, the players equally.) It seems to me that if this is a wonderful piece for some entity that's looking for an entry into the political space.

Of course, my own suggestions are liberal: Utne Reader (though they republish from other sources), or maybe public TV/Radio mags.

David Brin said...

I am having a problem with my web site and wonder if some of you might have an easy answer.

People from Australia and Asia are reporting difficulty accessing my web site It's a very popular site, making me the #12 "David" on the planet.

Alas. My ISP has a blanket block on asian IP sources because of trouble with spam. They will unblock individual IP addresses but this must be done one at a time and many people there use Dynamic IP.

I am seeking a solution well before the run-up to the 2007 world con where I will be Guest of Honor in Japan. Long before that I expect lots of Asian traffic.

One solution might be a mirror site that automatically copies all content offering it in a new place. But that sounds like a lot of work AND storage for a giant site. used to be like this but I cannot blame the owner for turning it into a simple bounce-forward to

Hence my query. I need a simple/small URL to give to Asian and other blocked folks, giving them access to the content at without bugging my ISP. (They give me lots of service for free.) Any ideas? Feel free to contact me offline at


PS -- Stefan offers the following:

"Washington, DC -- The National Park Service has started using a
political loyalty test for picking all its top civil service positions,
according to an agency directive released today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under the new order, all mid-level
managers and above must also be approved by a Bush administration
political appointee."

"Political Appointees Re-Write Commerce Department Report On Offshore
Outsourcing; Original Analysis Is Missing From Final Version"

"Well, at least we have a president who isn't into sailboarding. *That*
would have been intolerable."

Palliard said...

I would think that states that already have things like open or blanket primaries would be a good test case for the idea of crossover voting.

What they have shown is that, in that case, it boils down to a straight popularity contest... and the more outrageous you are, the more attention you get. So you wind up with either actors, professional wrestlers, or the sort of radical politicians you're trying to get rid of.

I don't think strategic cross-registering is liable to produce much in the way of the results you're looking for.

grendelkhan said...

Hey, you were interested in the administration's purge of the nation's officer corps, right? Well, guess what? They're now instituting loyalty tests in the Park Service. Yes, the National Park Service is going to be stocked with ideologically picked bureaucrats.

Man, you just can't parody these people.

Anonymous said...

I sent the link about the gelding of the Park Service (that is what it will amount to) direct to DB because I wasn't sure if it fit into this (very insightful and varied) discussion of Gerrymandering.

But while I'm at it, here's another:

A Commerce Department report on the effects of outsourcing which was supposed to be delivered to Congress before the last election was i) delayed so its contents couldn't harm Bush's chances at election, and ii) ALTERED BY PARTISAN HACK POLITICAL APPOINTEES to reflect the administration's pro-outsourcing bias:

The Commerce Department has responded to a half-year-old request by Manufacturing and Technology News for the release a long-awaited study on the issue of "offshore outsourcing" of IT service-sector jobs and high-tech industries. But the 12-page document represented by the agency as its final report is not what was written by its analysts. Rather, it was crafted by political appointees at Commerce and at the White House, according to those familiar with it.

At an estimated cost of $335,000 -- or $28,000 per page -- the document MTN received from the Commerce Department's Technology Administration contains no original research and forsakes its initial intent of providing a balanced view of outsourcing, according to those inside and outside the agency.

The report was requested by Congress in an appropriations bill in December 2003, with a six-month deadline of June 2004. A 12-page version, entitled "Six-Month Assessment of Workforce Globalization In Certain Knowledge-Based Industries," was released on September 8, 2005, as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request that MTN had filed on March 17, 2005. The report, which carries a July 2004 date, has not been posted on the Technology Administration's Web site and is not available to the public.

According to those who have tracked the report's whereabouts, it was completed well before the November 2004 presidential election but was delayed for clearance by the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress due to the controversial nature of the subject. Outsourcing had become a contentious campaign issue, particularly in the swing states.

Liars. Crooks. Bullies. Sell-outs.


Palliard said...

@ grendelkhan

You should take PEER with a large grain of salt.

I remember their report on my office's new furniture deployment. It basically read: "Furniture... deployed solely to waste taxpayer dollars and enhance someone's ego!"

Meh. It was to replace broken furniture.

So now GS-13s and up, which is another way of saying "State Directors and Up", have to... what do they have to do? "communication, consultation, cooperation, all in the service of conservation"

How HORRIBLE! I also hear they plan to raise Cthulhu from R'lyeh.

If you're going to shoot for public reporting, you should aim higher than something that could have been written by Richard Hoagland.