The Kids on the Hill (or How Gerrymandering is the Single Largest Barrier to Citizens’ Right and Responsibility to Participation)
The debate about the fiscal cliff is the latest Federal political crisis which is a product of a deeper problem: a vicious circle of the American public’s failure to meaningfully participate in how we order our common life, which reinforces and is reinforced by the old political practice of gerrymandering.
At base, Congress is debating whether there exists a direct corollary between the level of taxes, government regulation, and the dynamism of the economy to produce wealth. The World Economic Forum’s most recent global competitiveness report points to the complicated truth which, unsurprisingly, defies ideology. The list of the world’s most competitive developed economies most hospitable for business generally feature countries with higher taxes and strongly interventionist governments as much as, perhaps more so than those with lower taxes and less government intervention. This is not an ideologically biased statement. Conservative business publications, such as Forbes, report similar findings. This suggests that too many of our members of Congress are asking the wrong questions, using the wrong information or misusing correct information, confusing ideological talking points with political principle, confusing the common good of the nation with the interests of the minority of people who finance their campaigns and work to elect them to the House or Senate.
Despite record low poll ratings of Congress as an institution for their inability to do their constitutional duty to help govern the nation (to the point that people resort to questioning their maturity), despite evidence of ideological blindness, political sycophancy to narrow political interests, a lack of political courage and even incompetence, the majority of members of Congress are returned to their office unchallenged. The reason is that most Congressional House races are noncompetitive. The 2012 election was no different, with the overwhelming majority of Congressional seats remaining safe seats benefiting both parties. This has been the case over the past thirty years or so, even in election years featuring close presidential contests. The cause? I invite the readers of this blog to take a look at the shape of their respective congressional districts. Except for low-population states with a congressman-at-large whose district covers the entire state, does one’s congressional district consistently conform to any existing political boundary – municipal or county? Most do not.
Gerrymandering, a term whose 200th anniversary was this year (having been coined in Massachusetts in 1812), is arguably the greatest structural barrier to the people’s right and responsibility to participate in politics in a meaningful and impactful manner. Congressional districts are redrawn by state legislatures. Inevitably, the political party in power works to redraw districts to maximize its power and minimize the power of the opposition. While benefiting the dominant political parties and the interests they represent, the people in general get marginalized. The reason for this is a gerrymandered district is one designed to have a population made as politically homogeneous as possible. This often translates to a district made as racially, ethnically, even religiously homogeneous as possible too. This is why district boundaries often do not conform to political boundaries generally. The direct consequence is that politicians need not work to build coalitions across a diverse electorate to win and hold office. Coalition building in a diverse, non-gerrymandered district would force politicians to have their political principles and ideologies tested by all their constituents as well as the socio-political realities of their respective localities and the nation. It would make politicians less dependent on narrow political interests and their campaign donations too, because fundraising in one’s diverse constituency would depend on a wider pool of support. This, in turn, would encourage greater participation by citizens across the political spectrum because they’d know their views would be heard and have an effect.
One obvious solution to gerrymandering would be that the work of drawing Congressional districts be done by a multipartisan legislative commission, who would be bound by law to have these districts conform to existing municipal boundaries in metropolitan areas and town and county boundaries in rural areas. Unfortunately, implementing even the most basic solutions to gerrymandering may not be easy. Last November, for example, a majority of Ohio voters defeated a proposal to set up a non-partisan congressional redistricting commission to make my state’s races more competitive. Change will come when the people regain confidence that their right and responsibility to participate in how we order our common life together matters. This can be motivated by the political vision and courage to redistrict our congressional (and state legislative districts) to encompass the natural pluralism of the majority of America’s communities, and elect representatives who have the maturity to balance representing the legitimate needs of all their constituents with exercising the best judgment with their Congressional colleagues for the good of the nation.