After the election, I said I’d be pretty quiet on the political front for a while, and I’ve managed to stay true to that for a good six weeks now. To be honest, there hasn’t been a lot going on, politically, that I have very strong feelings about, and I’ve been really busy writing / recovering. So I haven’t really blogged much of anything lately.
I’ve had the documentary Gerrymandering up on my NetFlix queue for a while, but I finally bumped it up to the top this week, because I knew I was getting close to talking politics again, and the issues I want to address are tightly tied to what I already knew about gerrymandering. I wanted to make sure I fully understood the issue before spouting off (or at least understood it as much as I could.)
Gerrymandering, for those of you outside the United States, is named after former Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry, who, way back in 1812, rigged the geography of state districts to benefit his party. One of the districts apparently resembled a salamander. Hence, gerry-mander. Redistricting in the US happens after every census to ensure that congressional (or state senate) districts remain proportional. i.e. every district in a state should have roughly the same number of citizens (though not necessarily the same number of voters). But the redistricting process doesn’t say anything about how those districts should be laid out, and in many states, laying them out is left to the state senate/house—which means that the party in power at the time the redistricting is done can set the boundaries to benefit themselves, at the cost of their opponents. This has led to boundaries of some districts being moved by a block or two (or ten), just to exclude the house their opponents lives in, so they are no longer eligible to run in the election for that district.
The film, Gerrymandering, explains all of this very well, and I recommend everyone watch it. Gerrymandering may be the single most important political issue in America today. It is because of Gerrymandering that we have states like Michigan where the state districts have been set up to confine the large population centers to as few districts as possible. Most of the rest of the state is relatively balanced, but by segregating 12th, 13th, and 14th urban districts (which vote heavily democratic) from the rest of the state, the GOP has been able to control the State House. While this is totally legal, it isn’t necessarily fair.
This type of biased districting is happening in many key “battleground” states in the US (Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas). With the increasing availability of massive warehouses of voting data, these redistricting efforts can be planned with amazing efficiency. It’s not an accident that Nate Silver was able to predict the results of the election so accurately this year. America may be a democracy, but data can, and does, crown kings all the time.
As we’ve seen in Michigan (and Wisconsin), control of the State House may now be more important than control of the US Congress. States are passing more and more laws that fill the gaps, or contradict federal laws. Whether is be so-called Right-To-Work laws or the implementation of Obamacare, there has been considerable effort at the state levels to push from slightly-blue or slighty-red to solidly-blue or solidly-red. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the redder or bluer a state gets, the redder or bluer it will get in after the next redistricting. When a politician knows they don’t have to cater to both sides of the spectrum, they learn they have to cater more to the extremist side of their spectrum. This leads to candidates completely unwilling to compromise, and explains the completely dysfunctional nature of the US Congress at this point. If you think it’s bad now, just wait—it will get worse—unless something is done.
And that something? I think the best solution is for each state to have independent commissions comprised of geographers and political scientists. Politicians should have no sway over setting the boundaries of the districts they represent. They should represent all the people, not just the people who like them already. If we want to see the idea of America continue to succeed, then this has to be done. Anything else is just self-serving and doomed to failure.
When you look at the issues facing the US right now—the fiscal cliff, cabinet appointments, reducing spending, raising taxes—every one of these issues are divisive. And divisive issues mean there are more people in the extreme wings of the spectrum. Because of gerrymandering. every politician has to worry about those extremists, and can’t compromise. And if you think that tax policy causes issues between the right and the left, wait until the issue of gun-control hits the floor of the US Congress and the state houses around the country. All those voters the right picked up by gerrymandering their districts, they’ll come out in force, fearing their second amendment rights. Those politicians who try to compromise will be shot out of a cannon of their own making, and the division will only get deeper.