Gerrymandering is the True Threat to Our Democracy
Our nation stands today as a house divided.
This did not occur on accident. Politicians are increasingly reinforcing the rift by using the antiquated practice of gerrymandering, the term given to the redrawing of electoral maps to favor one party in such a way that distorts their representation in Congress relative to the voters. It is what allowed the Republicans to get only 52% of the popular vote in Congressional races, yet take control of 57% of the seats in the house.
This structure provides little incentive for compromise, given that the districts themselves are increasingly partisan. This is an untenable system.
Divide and Conquer
Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics writes in the Washington Post that gerrymandering is to blame for our current state of division:
There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress. And yet, only eight incumbents were defeated at the polls.
If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering – the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens – Democrat and Republican – should be able to agree on.
He goes into great detail on this:
In the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives, the average electoral margin of victory was 37.1 percent. That’s a figure you’d expect from North Korea, Russia or Zimbabwe – not the United States. But the shocking reality is that the typical race ended with a Democrat or a Republican winning nearly 70 percent of the vote, while their challenger won just 30 percent.
Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less. Just 33 seats in total were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words, more than 9 out of 10 House races were landslides where the campaign was a foregone conclusion before ballots were even cast. In 2016, there were no truly competitive Congressional races in 42 of the 50 states. That is not healthy for a system of government that, at its core, is defined by political competition.
Gerrymandering, in a word, is why American democracy is broken.
It seems shameful that we are being misrepresented so blatantly, especially given that congressional approval ratings are consistently below 20%. Members of congress have managed to create a system that entrenches their hold on power, and it is indeed a self-reinforcing cycle.
Pushing It To the Limit
These echo chambers create an ugly feedback loop. There is zero incentive to play ball with the other side, and in fact doing so can make you look weak to your constituency. Often times candidates face primary challenges from more extreme members of their parties, driving their policy agendas further from the center:
For the overwhelming majority of Congressional representatives, there is no real risk to losing a general election – but there is a very real threat of losing a fiercely contested primary election. Over time, this causes sane people to pursue insane pandering and extreme positions. It is a key, but often overlooked, source of contemporary gridlock and endless bickering.
This is an often overlooked aspect of the bitter division that our country is experiencing, and one that goes largely unreported. Mr. Klaas does a great job of connecting the dots here. This is a massive problem, and the damage it has caused is going to take a long time to undo. We did not just arrive here overnight.
This is fortunately one area where there has been some push-back. The Whitford v. Gill case in Wisconsin established that it was illegal for districts to be drawn for deliberate partisan gain. The issue will be up before the Supreme Court in 2017. There are increasing calls for non-partisan commissions to draw district lines, especially with the level of sophistication achievable through statistical modeling.
Something is going to have to give if democracy is to survive, because a house divided cannot stand.
But it can limp along for quite a while.