Tuesday, October 04, 2005

American Democracy... more fragile than we think

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

III. Hidden Goals of Gerrymandering:
...protect politicians from fickle voters.

Reprising from last time: There are other effects of gerrymandering that go far beyond a slight left-or-right shift among the jostling parties on Capitol Hill. Effects that add up to both a disenfranchisement of the average American voter and a steady rise in uncompromising radicalism, not only in Washington but all across America.

I have put forward a proposition that gerrymandering is not only about one party trying to squeeze a few more representatives for its party’s congressional delegation, to compensate for the other party’s similar grab in a state next door. There are other purposes and goals that go much farther and have more debilitating effects upon democracy.

201817627023164272_JGM4K3RK_cOne of these has been the aim of creating as many safe districts as possible. Not only for the majority party in a state, but also for members of the minority party! In effect, the practice creates job security for professional politicians, at the expense of competitive elections all across the United States.

How does this work? Suppose you are a Democratic assemblyman in Florida, or a Republican in California. You may rail against twisted district boundaries that the hated majority drew in your state. Boundaries that reduce your party’s share of the Congressional delegation below what would be fair, if delegates were divided proportional to votes statewide.

Still, despite your protests, there’s a palpable silver lining. You are also likely to benefit from those boundaries!

Take, for example, Florida. In order to craft a maximum number of safe districts for their party, members of the state assembly’s Republican Caucus had to cull out lots of neighborhoods that are loyal to the opposition, bunching them together wherever possible, into a few districts where they will make up Democratic Party super majorities. The essence of gerrymandering is to ensure a lot of districts where the empowered party will get a reliable 55% majority. The best way to do this is by arranging for 70% or greater majorities in the few districts that were left to the other side!

(Illustration: no incumbent Republican congressman is safer than one from a gerrymandered GOP district in California.)

View this from the point of view of an incumbent Representative of a state’s minority or disempowered party. You may feel a bit peeved at gerrymandering -- at one level -- knowing that your party was cheated out of a seat or two. But then, you also benefit from the practice! You get to run for re-election in a district that has been sculpted to ensure that it will be safe for you, forever. So long as you aren’t caught in a toweringly stupid scandal, your re-election is assured.*

(* It can happen, of course, when that arrogant sense of invulnerability breeds towering foolishness. This year, in my own “safe” GOP district, scandal-plagued Representative, Randy “Duke” Cunningham just withdrew from a re-election campaign that had been an easy ‘given’. In such a loyal district, this only shows that his scandal was really, really stupid.)

In order to get a clearer picture of what has happened, step back from partisanship for a minute. Abandon the insipid left-right-political-axis, and try to look at this whole arrangement from a completely different perspective. Let’s view gerrymandering as the natural behavior of a professional guild. Like those old-time trade guilds in history... or what we still see in many modern professions, from doctors and lawyers to teachers, cops and CEOs. Yes, members of a profession compete with each other. But how often have we also seen them close ranks, protecting the common interests of all brothers and sisters in their craft? All members of the profession.

Sound far-fetched? Look, we’re human beings. History shows that this temptation will always arise. I’m not saying this always happens callously, conspiratorially, or even consciously! (Most of the time.) But it clearly does happen, and then rationalizations follow, justifying why the guild-protection is best for everybody.

(This fits into a larger theme - the coming of an “Age of Amateurs” - that I talk about elsewhere.)

As for gerrymandering, try to see all this from the viewpoint of a politician -- a state senator or assemblywoman, or US Congressperson.

You and your comrades - of either party - share many concerns that run much deeper than conflicts over policy and ideology. You know each other well, not only from debates and committees but also countless social occasions, and so do your families.

Your common experiences matter. For example, all of you have faced the capricious voters - those fickle folks back home - who must constantly be appeased and soothed and bribed with heaps of pork. Especially for US Representatives, the bi-annual rhythm of perpetually running for re-election can be both wearing and wearying, a grind of fund-raisers, baby kissing, flattery and heartburn on a campaign trail that seems to resume allmost as soon as it ends.

Is it any wonder if - at some deeper level - you and your colleagues may gravitate toward an easier path? A consensus approach to making life smoother for all of you?

What if nearly all of the districts in a state, from Assembly to US Congress, could be made “safe” for the incumbents? Protecting most guild members from their true worst enemies... the infinitely mercurial and unpredictable voters, who might kick them out at any time, over anything from war to whim?

Anyway, once the districts are safe, all those campaign contributions can be used for “other things.”


Let me close this portion with two items that support the notion of a tacit (perhaps subconscious) agreement among members of the professional political guild.

1) Take a recent example where the genteel arrangement failed. Some of you may recall in August 2003 when Democratic state senators in Texas made a public stink over an attempted coup-by-gerrymandering. Republicans in the Texas Senate voted to fine 11 fugitive Democrats up to $5,000 a day each, forcing them to return from New Mexico to make a quorum, so the Senate could redraw the state's congressional districts from 17 Democrat vs 15 Republican seats to likely 22 Republican vs 10 Democrat, in the next election.

This boundary re-drawing took gerrymandering to wholly new levels of contorted absurdity, in such a sudden and dramatic shift that some of the protestors expressed a sense of personal betrayal, because their GOP colleagues had broken unwritten agreements. The sheer scale of the attempted seat-grab would ruin many of their own safe districts and threaten them with personal political extinction. Dirty pool and a double-cross that broke tacit professional and guild courtesy!

2) Out of 435 seats in the US House of Representatives, only a couple of dozen are considered “open” or truly competitive in Campaign 2006, with both Democrat and Republican starting even, ready to be judged primarily on the basis of policies, politics and personality.

What more proof is needed than that single fact.

(Next time... but wait! It only gets worse.)

==or Return to Part 1 of this series---


Anonymous said...

Ugh. On one level they fight, on anohter they're allies; a cross between a deep strategy gamer and a con artist.

I'm beginning to think that anywhere things are more complex than they really should be, then somebody's making them that way so they can get a free ride.

-- Matt

Rob Perkins said...

Heh. The competition/cooperation thing at work again, David?

A friend of mine and I were talking about this a little bit, when he noted that he considers all federal politicians members of the same socio-economic class. It doesn't at all matter that they squabble, because they'll move to protect their own positions if threatened at a different level.

David Brin said...

This is NOT what I meant by competition->Cooperation, since I am discussing an "emergent property" of competition when it takes place within an Accountability Arena...

...still, Rob, that was a VERY clever dig! It provoked me tho think even deeper about the dynamics of CHEATING, which is the old human vice that Accountability Arenas are designed to prevent.

Aristocracies cooperate to stay on top and only compete when that's assured.

Professional guilds do the same, only from a slightly broader position a bit below the top (though well above the middle.)

Again and again we see how hard the Enlightenmant/modernist task is. To create arenas that apply accountability so well that these bahaviors are converted into fair and productive competition so that the cooperation that emerges is positive sum and cross-generationally beneficial to all.

How can this happen... EVER! We are heirs to geniuses who were able to do this at all!

(And so, Brin reveals how his deep cynicism and paranoia and pessimism about human nature inevitably "emerges" as apparent fizzing optimism. Because he is amazed we even have a snowball's chance.

Anonymous said...

Wow . . . check out this Norman Rockwell painting, titled "The Right to Know:"


John M. Ford comments:

“The painting is from 1968, and was commissioned by Look magazine (now defunct) to accompany an editorial critical of government policy in Vietnam -- particularly the official Defense Department reports, which it had become apparent were a form of swords 'n' sorcery fantasy (with Invincible American Warfighting Technology as the sorcery). The desk is most likely not a specific person's, but represents the government as a whole, being called to answer by the population.”


jomama said...

So many distractions, so little time.

Rob Perkins said...

I'd not intended it as a dig at all, tho it's easy to see why and how it could be taken thusly.

Instead, I had hoped (read the paragraph after the "dig") to point out that the self-renewing of the political class mean that even in their competition with one another, end up cooperating. Over the medium term, the gerrymandering maintains a steady state. Over the long term, it helps not at all; eventually the otherguys re-gerrymander the field, every ten years or twenty years.

But what they're *both* doing is cooperating to keep a third or fourth group from intruding on the established class.

...which kind of makes the political class a *professional guild*. It has its own published and quite byzantine procedural rules.

Think about it. It certain methods for counting coup within the guild, such as scoring ultimately meaningless indictment, impeachments, or media embarrassments (along with the far rarer convictions). The usual sole penalties for those are removal from high positions within the guild. (Nixon resigned and was pardoned.) And there are other methods for awarding position therein, and specific procedures for getting the top job.

And perhaps most importantly, getting in resembles getting membership in a guild: Either you win patronage in selection for the "candidacies" at the lowest level (winning your SAG card by sleeping with the casting director), or entrance to the class by winning an elected position or gaining influence in the caucuses (winning your SAG card by being cast on talent) , or entrance by matriculating as a J.D. (becoming a producer first.)

Once noticed in that way, it becomes easier to move about. I've discussed this sort of thing with people at the lowest levels of the political class, who have been in discussions with the Republican Party for funding for a Congressional seat. Gerrymandering denied them patronage (campaign funding) because the money was better spent on battlegrounds.

I also noticed it in the way the establishment keeps a Commonwealth like Kentucky from publishing a voter pamphlet. And in the way its Statehouse Reps and Senators were the only group to get nominations to the Federal positions.

When I lived there I was astounded at how little information ever got out about candidates. Just: "Choose Republican or Democrat." I had to drive to the county seat to get a sample ballot.

I don't wish to claim that the political class is completely like the Screen Actors' Guild, but I think at least those parallels are there.

Perhaps I'll complete this thought a bit later on...

Anonymous said...

Years ago I found a gem of a quote while reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations to the effect that: Whenever persons of the same profession gather together for whatever reason however innocuous it may seem the public good is harmed. Not an exact quote but it shows how much he did not like trade associations. If you think about it our parties are like those guilds, as you so wisely pointed out. I think what he was railing about was the secrecy of the guilds which allowed the true price of the good or service to be inflated. Same thing with political parties except the votes get inflated.

Author said...

"Aristocracies." "Professional guilds." "Southern elites."

My question: What about labor and trade unions? How do they differ?


Rob Perkins said...

Labor and trade unions are guilds. And their organization is relatively pyramid-based.

David Brin said...

You guys like to think it's so... and it certainly can be so, since labor is made of human beings. And you will hear me rail at lefty pyramidalists, too.

But seriously, except when they are taken over by organized crime, are you REALLY going to contend that associations of people earning $10 an hour are more empowered to manipulate the Big Picture than billionaires, professions and the politician caste?

Jimmy Hoffa needed CITOKATE, badly.

But today's trade union movement... reeling and evaporating while pensions dissolve and WalMart spreads its neo-style of indenture across the land ... if you are actually able to convince yourself that this is a red menace of would be commissars...

(...especially when it was the AFL-CIO that did more than anybody but Marshall and Truman SAVE us from Communism...)

... then you guys have way more imagination than I do. Fer sher.

Rob Perkins said...

You're strawmanning me, David. I didn't say that they were Communist. I said labor unions were trade guilds, and of course they are. Their genesis was the first time any kind of guild formed around more than a shared secret or skill.

The whole point of a labor union is to *be* a trade guild to people who otherwise might have no affiliation open to them. It was a marvelous idea.

And they could have gone on forever representing that otherwise disenfranchised class, had organized crime not taken over its leadership. What you see in how Wal-Mart is organized, (and how Northwest Airlines and other air carriers entered bankruptcy), is a two-sided failure to implement a proper labor union, or to relate properly to a labor union, not a repudiation of the idea.

After all, many of the goals of labor unions from their earliest times are now ensconced in labor laws passed by every one of Western civilization's nation-states. OSHA and health regs were probably not even possible without that movement. Washington's minimum wage law is remarkably progressive, even if it is now an inflation driver.

And they shouldn't go away! When done right they become the opportunity for a good wage and a pension for people who otherwise might not realize that. They provide a simple way for a corporation or government to set wages and control costs within a contract period. They provide the waitlists and the training to people, relieving an employer from needing to exert efforts into hiring or to provide training; all they need do is set the wage and let the union use dues to get them the employees they need.

So many ways for unions to work *for* a corporation, for them to be *part* of a company, instead of an adversary to them.

But it doesn't make them less of a *trade guild*. Nor does it make their organization less pyramid-like and heirarchical than it is.

Hoo! Rant off... I guess. :-)

Author said...

I did not pose a statement in my comment. I asked a question. I come here to increase my exposure to ideas and facts. The more I learn, the more suspiscious I am of my own presuppositions. So, I asked people who seem to be better-informed (if, perhaps, not more intelligent) than I am.

I am opposed to labor/trade unions, but I asked my question in order to see if I had more (or LESS) evidence to support my bias. Still interested in an answer, if anyone has the time.

Anonymous said...

About labor/trade unions...

I have worked in a variety of companies, both with and without unions. They type of thing I do (improve business process efficiency and teach industrial experimentation and statistical analysis) can be quite threatening to unions (especially since they have been abused by management using similar terms for layoffs, etc.)

Once I have a chance to talk with the union members, I have only once had an issue. All the other times, the union saw clearly that it was to their advantage to have a business that used their work efficiently to grow and provide stability, as well as involving them in interesting improvements in their own processes. (The one exception was when the national union decided to use the small company I was consulting for as a demonstration to position themselves for upcoming negotiations with bigger companies in the same industry. The new local union president was not too smart, and the national union callously drove the company out of business and all those guys lost their jobs for their loyalty.)

Anyway, the point of that was to say that I have worked with unions and found the locals to be quite reasonable and attuned to what is best for their people. I try to take the view that Dr. Deming espoused in "Out of the Crises" which is that the goals of the unions and management can be viewed as quite compatible.

Interestingly, it is middle management that I have found to be resistant to change at a company. The big guys and the front-line workers see the benefits of financial and stability improvement, as well as the more interesting jobs that come out of it. Middle management only sees the threat to the status quo that got them where they are.

Author said...

Thanks, Steve.

My view of unions is that they WERE a good idea, now gone bad ... similar to the original American government ... or due for replacement by something better. "Locals" seem to be reasonable to you ... but the ├╝ber-union, out-of-touch, caused trouble locally. (Katrina notwithstanding, local government relief and response is usually much more timely and better coordianted than national government response, and that only makes sense, to me. Not faulting the central authority, per se, just that on-site management is, by nature, quicker and more insightful, most of the time.)

I believe that just the THREAT of union-oid action makes the (expensive) bureaucracy (and breeding ground for organized crime) unnecessary, and actually counter-productive. The Internet alone can replace institutional union management with grass-roots union-oid strength.

The Man wants to keep a certain profession down? Start a blog. Similarly-employed (and related trades) log on and speak out. The Man doesn't listen? Email a work slow-down or stoppage or strike. The Man sees the error of Its ways? Back to work ... and no dues syphoned off to line the pockets of people who only coordinate locals and nationals and "cousin" organizations in related trades. (It seems to me that the people making the bucks in unions don't produce anything but more comfy workers and more expensive production.)

The Man doesn't find a way to get a win-win with the labor? They suffer production woes while a wise competitor amps up ... and probably go out of business, replaced by a hungrier, leaner, savvier new-comer.

I believe in checks and balances ... but the mechanism for watchdogging becomes worse than the peril originally watched for.

Thanks again.