Gerrymandering Is Some Bullshit

gerrymandering_cubbs_25
Hey, look—they’re re-drawing districts! Get it? (Image retrieved from thepoliticalspectator.com).

Back in January, I wrote a piece about the Resistance to President Donald Trump and an agenda for his first 100 days in office outlined by Robert Reich and the organization he helped create, Inequality Media. I invoke it not merely to toot my own proverbial horn (though if I were to toot it, I would say it is a phenomenal post), but rather to, a month into Trump’s tenure as President, evaluate where we are regarding the various points set forth by Reich et al:

1. Contact your senators and representatives.

Oh, yeah—people are all over this one. It’s not just members of the Resistance either who are asking their elected officials to affirm their commitment to an agenda which authentically represents their constituents’ needs. Particularly for Republican lawmakers who have been ducking the people they nominally represent, those people have been holding their own town halls and inviting the targets of their events, or simply showing up at their offices and demanding an in-person forum. Especially during the congressional recess, the refusal to see and hear the complaints of the people they serve—and not the other way around—is telling of their cowardice. In short, voters on both sides of the political aisle are mad as hell a mere 30 days into the Trump presidency, and who knows what the mood will be like just after the first 100 days.

2. March and demonstrate.

Ditto. Across the United States, people were demonstrating as part of rallies for “Not My President’s Day,” as it was called, and recently, immigrant workers and, in some cases, the businesses that employ them, protested Pres. Trump’s anti-immigrant policies with A Day Without Immigrants. What’s more, additional rallies are planned, notably those at the behest of concerned citizens about the fate of the Affordable Care Act and their personal health coverage. Trump’s hate and the GOP’s rhetoric have really brought people together. Now let’s just hope we can preserve this momentum when it comes time to vote in 2018 and 2020.

3. Uphold sanctuary cities and states.

For the most part, despite an executive order which specifically targets sanctuary cities and other zones that refuse to aid federal agents in enforcing immigration law, most offices have seemed to confirm their commitment to non-compliance. And then there’s Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami-Dade County in Florida, who rolled over for Trump faster than a trained dog trying to earn a treat. I know I don’t speak for all of the residents within his jurisdiction, and perhaps not even the majority of them, but with all due respect, go f**k yourself, Carlos Gimenez.

4. Boycott Trump real estate, hotels, and brands.

If recent decisions by certain retailers are any indication, the #GrabYourWallet campaign may be having a demonstrable effect. Kmart, Nordstrom and Sears have all indicated their intention to phase out their Ivanka Trump and Trump Home product lines. Obviously, this comes with a risk to these companies, as discontinuing these lines means the reduction of revenue without something immediately to replace them, as well as the danger of alienating certain customers, not to mention pissing off Donald Trump because big, bad Nordstrom was mean to his little girl. Still, one believes the powers-that-be at these organizations made these decisions in a calculated way. Either way, your concern is hitting the Trump Family where it presumably hurts the most—in their bank accounts.

5. Write letters & op-eds to the editor of your local newspaper.
6. Contribute daily to social media with truthful, up-to-date facts and actions relevant to the movement to resisting Trump.
7. Contribute to opposition groups.
8. Make #ResistTrump visible.
12. [YOUR IDEA GOES HERE]

These are all actions that are of an individual and even personal nature (particularly for #12 and at least with respect to financial contributions in #7), so this is on you, though you are highly encouraged to be active about speaking out against President Trump and the GOP, especially for their most egregious actions, comments and policy stances. Speaking specifically to #ResistTrump and other means of self-identification, Indivisible Guide has information in the form of a guide on how to resist, and a locator on its site for local chapters and other related group meetings/actions around the country committed to fighting the Republicans’ regressive agenda.

9. Get involved with and promote progressive politics at the local and state levels.

Beyond simply participating in demonstrations and marches and volunteering for political campaigns, people of all walks of life are being encouraged to run for office themselves, notably progressives, and just from reading stories online, more and more individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten involved with politics are looking into how to raise funds within their communities and organize at the grass-roots level.

10. Abolish the Electoral College.

We’ve unfortunately done more talking about Donald Trump, his electoral win, and Donald Trump talking about his electoral win than we have actually making progress on abolition of what I would argue is an outmoded and pointless institution insofar as the electors fail to use their discretion to prevent a demagogue like Trump from being the ostensible leader of the free world. To her credit, Sen. Barbara Boxer did introduce legislation shortly after the election in November to put an end to the Electoral College. But such a change would require two-thirds approval from both the House and the Senate—unlikely with Republicans in charge of both—and even with Trump discouraging public awareness about the Electoral College’s shittiness and extolling its virtues. You know, after initially saying it was terrible. Welcome to the world of Donald Trump—actual positions may vary from time to time, or from moment to moment, at that. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to raise a stink about it—if for no other reason than to stick it to the likes of South Dakota and Wyoming.

11. Reach out to independents and Trump supporters.

Um, easier said than done. While I’m already tooting my horn, here’s another recent piece encapsulating my thoughts on difficulties the Democratic Party, in particular, faces in trying to reach out to independents and Trump supporters and bring them into the fold, chief among them resistance within its “establishment” ranks to going too far away from center, and the notion some Trump supporters—not all, mind you, but some—may be too far gone if they choose to believe his every word. As with #10, though, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make a concerted effort.


So, after the first 30 days, the above gives you an idea of where the Resistance is at: still with a lot of work in front of it, but showing signs of promise and, in several respects, having a real impact. One specific issue, however, which has seen very little activist attention—and up to now, I admittedly haven’t said much, if anything, about it—is contained within Robert Reich’s enumeration of progressive causes with which to get involved as part of #9 on the First 100 Days Resistance agenda. Like combating climate change, fighting for a $15 minimum wage, pushing for tax reform, and putting a stop to the system of mass incarceration in the United States, this topic addresses a problem that is pernicious in its own right, and especially so for our sense of democracy in America. That topic is gerrymandering, and despite sounding like a link in Charmander’s evolutionary chain from the world of Pokémon, it is way more sinister—and nowhere near as cool as Charizard. Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics (don’t ask me—I don’t know what it is either) at the London School of Economics, recently penned an essay about how gerrymandering is the “biggest obstacle to genuine democracy in the U.S.,” and thus merits more of our attention and protests than it currently is receiving. Klaas, in outlining the nature of the problem, gives a quick history lesson as to the origin of the term and the underlying practice:

The word “gerrymander” comes from an 1812 political cartoon drawn to parody Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s re-drawn senate districts. The cartoon depicts one of the bizarrely shaped districts in the contorted form of a fork-tongued salamander. Since 1812, gerrymandering has been increasingly used as a tool to divide and distort the electorate. More often than not, state legislatures are tasked with drawing district maps, allowing the electoral foxes to draw and defend their henhouse districts.

As Klaas notes, both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, which he defines “as drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain.” This notwithstanding, he also mentions how, according to a 2014 analysis by The Washington Post, eight out of 10 of the most gerrymandered districts in the United States were made as such at the behest of Republicans. Regardless of party affiliation, it’s a pervasive problem in our country, as Brian Klaas details:

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 the 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.

This explanation of the severity of America’s gerrymandering problem is notable because it evokes sentiments expressed repeatedly throughout the campaign season, and often to a fault. Specifically, it speaks to the conception (or in some cases, misconception) that the “system”—broadly defined as that is—is “rigged.” Of course, people have long been saying that “it doesn’t matter” who they vote for, albeit without the requisite evidence or justification as to why. With the specter of gerrymandering hanging over the heads of the American electorate, however, claims of a rigged political system carry decidedly more weight. For the two major parties, ever desperate to expand their ranks and gain the upper hand on the other party, knowledge of the existence of this phenomenon is liable to suppress desire among younger voters of affiliating with either party or, more significantly, coming out for elections at various political levels. Why feed the perception that voting is not worth the time and effort, and risk legitimate supporters of yours failing to come out on your behalf?

Unless, that is, they really don’t give a shit. See, that’s the thing about gerrymandering—evidence suggests that they don’t have to give a shit to get re-elected again and again. Klaas elaborates further:

If you’re elected to represent a district that is 80 percent Republican or 80 percent Democratic, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise. Ever. In fact, there is a strong disincentive to collaboration, because working across the aisle almost certainly means the risk of a primary challenge from the far right or far left of the party. 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.

Moreover, gerrymandering also disempowers and distorts citizen votes, which leads to decreased turnout and a sense of powerlessness. In 2010, droves of tea party activists eager to have their voices heard quickly realized that their own representative was either a solidly liberal Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue district or a solidly conservative Republican in an overwhelmingly red district. Those representatives would not listen because the electoral map meant that they didn’t need to.

Not that it necessarily excuses the representatives who behave in this way, but they are somewhat between a rock and a hard place, politically speaking. On one hand, those elected officials who serve in a certain capacity are almost guaranteed to stay in their current roles, but must likely endure the criticism from angry constituents as they do so, something made infinitely more possible in the digital age. Besides, they actually might have somewhat of a conscience and therefore stand to feel guilty on some level for betraying their beliefs and capitulating to certain factions within the party. On the other hand, these politicians may preserve their ideals, but potentially at the risk of alienating themselves from their parties and their core supporters; in this day and age of black-and-white political thinking where breaking rank with the party establishment is akin to treason, and criticism of public figures is seen as a personal attack to be nullified by more active and fervent defenders, this may be patently suicidal. It is no wonder so many of those who serve in Congress continue to play not to lose rather than to adopt more courageous positions.

Does this mean that all hope is lost, then? Thankfully, no, although it comes with a caveat or two. Brian Klaas cites two big reasons that we should have hope that the tide is turning against gerrymandering nationally. The first is that our courts, much in the way they admirably have stood in the way of President Trump and his blatantly discriminatory Muslim ban, have ruled against gerrymandering purely along racial or partisan lines in a number of state and federal courts. What’s more, the Supreme Court is set to rule on this very subject at a point in 2017. The second is that fixing gerrymandering is getting easier. Computer models can be used to approximate more diverse and, therefore, competitively-drawn districts, not to mention legislators can be stripped of their district-drawing powers in favor of letting bipartisan, citizen-led commissions run the show.

Great! So, what’s the catch? Well, let me preface its reveal by saying it is a big one, and fundamental to the thrust of this piece. To phrase it very simply, people are people. They tend not to give a shit about gerrymandering, and they also tend not to care about living in districts that are more homogeneous in nature. Klaas offers these related sentiments:

Partisan politics is to be exercised within the districts, not during their formation. But gerrymandering intensifies every decade regardless, because it’s not a politically sexy issue. When’s the last time you saw a march against skewed districting? Even if the marches do come someday, the last stubborn barrier to getting reform right is human nature. Many people prefer to be surrounded by like-minded citizens, rather than feeling like a lonely red oasis in a sea of blue or vice versa. Rooting out gerrymandering won’t make San Francisco or rural Texas districts more competitive no matter the computer model used. And, as the urban/rural divide in American politics intensifies, competitive districts will be harder and harder to draw. The more we cluster, the less we find common ground and compromise.

As Klaas suggests, this is not to assign blame to the average voter. We are socially/psychologically primed to coalesce with those like us and to reject those who do not conform. Still, if meaningful change is going to occur, John and Jane Q. Public are the intended audience for this line of thinking. Despite the notion these tactics can, will, and are being used against them, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, by and large, seem content not to try to mess with gerrymandering, especially those who rely on heavily-gerrymandered districts to carry each successive election. At any rate, if you believe the refrain from Bernie Sanders—and let me stress that I, personally, do—such change happens from the bottom-up and not the top-down. Accordingly, while gerrymandering may not be a sexy subject, and while we may enjoy our clustered districts, if we are to move beyond the paradigm of a “rigged” voting process and to authentically encourage citizens to come out to vote not just for the big elections, but for vitally important local, county and state elections as well, we must work to wrest control of district-making away from partisan hacks. Brian Klaas leaves us with these parting words:

We must remember that what truly differentiates democracy from despotism is political competition. The longer we allow our districts to be hijacked by partisans, blue or red, the further we gravitate away from the founding ideals of our republic and the closer we inch toward the death of American democracy.

In summary, gerrymandering is some bullshit, and is a major problem in American politics today. It is also a highly partisan issue, as evidenced by both major parties’ employ of this tactic, but correcting it really shouldn’t be, in the interest of fairness. Ultimately, as much as we might ask our elected representatives to “do their jobs” and to “give us back” our democracy, the reality is we have to come together and take it back. To put it bluntly, we can do better, people. Now is the time.

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