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.
One 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---