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.
==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