By John O. Sullivan
And I don’t think Americans are tired of partisan politics; I think they’re
tired of hearing career politicians diss partisan politics to get a gig. I’ve tried it before, they ain’t buying it. – The West Wing S4E6, “Game On”
With all the recent attention put on it in the news, you probably already know what Gerrymandering is. If you don’t or you want to see some really sweet hand drawn graphics, you can read our primer from last fall here.
One thing that has struck me in all the coverage is that it doesn’t always explain why Gerrymandering is bad. I mean we all KNOW its bad, but most of the time the news settles for the trusty ole’ “politicians picking their voters instead of the other way around” line and call it a day. Which is why I wanted to write this article about the often unanticipated negative impacts of partisan gerrymandering.
1. Partisanship and Extremism
Partisanship is one of the top examples of an unanticipated impact of Gerrymandering. By making districts less and less politically diverse, they become more and more extreme. In a moderate, true “purple” district, with a balance of Republicans and Democrats, typically one would expect the representative to have political beliefs closer to the center, as candidates running in the district will hope to win by picking up centrist undecided voters (for more on this see Median Voter Theorem).
In a district with a heavy lean towards one party, the “Median Voter” moves further away from center, which allows more extreme candidates to win elections. A perfect example of this is Virginia’s 7th District, which was redrawn after the 2012 election to include less of liberal Richmond and more of suburban and rural Virginia, to protect the seat for then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. What instead happened was that the district became so Red that Cantor lost his seat to a Tea Party challenger, and the general election even featured a Libertarian candidate on the general ballot for the first time since Cantor had held the seat. This is a classic case of gerrymandering leading not just to “fixed” results, but to more and more extreme partisanship.
As a student of politics, there are very few things I care about more than the government working properly, because if it isn’t, why did I blow 3.5 years and 100k on studying it? Recent weeks have been an absolute showcase of federal government dysfunction, with impasse after impasse and multiple government shutdowns. This gridlock goes back to the partisanship in Congress. Partisan elections in gerrymandered districts have lead to elected representatives being more and more divided, which has lead to the current situation.
Due to the widening divide of our elected officials, compromise is harder to reach. The extreme and polarized bases of these elected politicians do not allow them breathing room in which to negotiate policy. Therefore we get two government shutdowns within a one month period and periodic passing of the buck as neither party is allowed to make concessions for long-term policy.
We as Americans are better off with a functioning government, but in a gerrymandered system, politicians know that they can win more votes by playing to the hardliners of their own party rather than compromising.
I’ve heard countless internet keyboard crusaders (on both the left and right) rail against the establishment, and more than a few, even some politicians themselves, have suggested term limits as a solution to what they see as rampant corruption and “insider baseball” among career politicians.
I have always been of the belief that the American people are their own term limits, and that free elections allow us ample opportunity to unseat representatives that are corrupt, out of touch, or we just plain don’t like. But how is that possible in a gerrymandered system? It isn’t. Despite abysmal, near 0% approval ratings for Congress, over 90% of incumbent congresspeople seeking reelection win. And while I think accusations of corruption among career politicians are overblown political bloviating, we still need the ability to rid ourselves of the dead wood, which clearly isn’t always the case at this time.
Really this section should be re-titled “disenfranchisement and disenchantment.” Gerrymandered districts, for obvious reasons, limit the rights of the minority. We live in a Republic, a system designed to allow the minority opinion to be heard, rather than a pure Democracy, which John Adams once famously called “The Tyranny of the Majority.”
But in a system rife with Gerrymandering, the minority opinion is rarely heard. Groups are broken apart to dilute their political power, disenfranchising their voice, and leading so many to believe realize the system is broken, and that their opinion doesn’t matter.
There is plenty that’s bad about gerrymandering, and this is by no means a comprehensive list but this is the worst of the worst. Gerrymandering for political gain is breaking our system of government, leaving it as a partisan, gridlock mess, populated only by extremists from both sides.
There is, however, hope on the horizon. The Supreme Court recently upheld an order forcing Pennsylvania Republicans to re-draw gerrymandered districts, and the court will also be hearing a similar case from Maryland this session. At this point, it doesn’t seem likely that gerrymandering is going anywhere without court action or reform, so hopefully these cases return significant precedent.
Featured Image source: Mother Jones