Is this old political trick the root cause of our government's dysfunction?
With congressional approval ratings consistently below 20% and never ending reports about how inefficient our government has become, we always wonder how we got to this point in, as Hamilton put it, our "grand experiment" of democracy.
Partisan gridlock, entrenched incumbents, and the inability of our politicians to compromise are always cited as the main reasons Congress is broken. However, those problems seem to be side effects of what really ails us. I always wonder if there is a simpler solution. Is there a problem that, if fixed, would improve the country and prevent a lot of the issues that we see in today's political climate?
One policy that appears to be at the root at what is wrong with our democracy is gerrymandering: the process of setting electoral districts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries.
Take this pretend state (pictured below) as an example. In this "state", 60% of the voters support the blue party and only 40% of the voters support the red party. If we had a true representative democracy, the state would send 3 blue politicians and 2 red politicians to congress. But, draw the districts a certain way, and the blue party would win all the elections and have 5 congressional seats. However, with a little redrawing of the lines to concentrate a majority of the blue voters into 2 very blue districts, you can change the outcome of an election and send more red party members to congress even if your party is in the minority.
A cool trick if you are a politician but a cruel reality for most Americans.
Both parties in the U.S. are equally guilty of gerrymandering. One might ask, if both political parties participate in gerrymandering, how does it contribute to the problems facing our country today?
Won't both parties just keep redrawing the districts and it will all even out in the end?
The answer is complex, but I think it is more important to look at the negative side effects, or unintended consequences, of gerrymandering.
First, gerrymandering makes congressional districts more extreme. More extreme districts elect extreme (or radical) politicians. Extreme politicians are more prone to shutting down the government, obstructing legislation or political nominees for ideological reasons, appealing to fringe groups within their parties, and even promoting conspiracy theories to appeal to their base.
In extreme districts, there is no room for moderate politicians. Moderate politicians tend to see the merit in both sides of an argument and are willing to compromise for the good of the country.
In gerrymandered districts, however, radical politicians can paint moderates as siding with the opposite party and abandoning their parties values. For example, when moderate Republicans compromise with Democrats, they run the risk of being labeled as RINOs, or "Republicans In Name Only", by their base. It is hard to advocate for bipartisan compromise in an environment like that.
Also in radical districts, politicians who are willing to compromise face serious political challengers when they are up for reelection. Many moderate politicians on both the aisle have lost reelection or have been forced to retire because of challengers from within their party.
These new politicians, who have a mandate from the extreme flank of their base, impose the views of their gerrymandered district on the rest of the country, and ultimately bring Congress to a standstill.
The inefficiency of Congress has led to anger; anger had bred mistrust in politicians; mistrust in politicians has led to a distrust in government, and when most Americans mistrust government, our democracy is at risk.
Percent of Americans Who Trust the U.S. Government
The first gerrymandered district was created in 1812 when the Governor of Massachusetts, Eldridge Gerry, redrew the districts in his state to benefit his own party. It was pointed out by a reporter at the Boston Globe that one of the districts looked like a salamander and the term gerrymandered was born.
Back then, politicians were essentially guessing at who their supporters were and where they lived. While redrawn districts most certainly benefited the incumbents, the politicians in these districts still had to compromise with the other party to please the more moderate constituents.
Today, however, technology has made gerrymandering much more effective. Politicians are able to draw perfect districts by using party registration, income data, race, and even magazine subscriptions to choose who they want as voters. They are able to create their radical district with amazing precision and ensure that they never have to face a challenger as long as they can please the base. No more need to compromise and no more need to get anything done!
So what does this mean? If we end gerrymandering, will our democracy be restored? Will Congress all the sudden start working, be able to pass much needed reforms like Campaign Finance Reform, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in animal agriculture, or legislation on background checks? Can they put aside petty differences and do what is best for the country?
Probably not, but it would be the first place I would start.
Billy DeLancey is the Co-founder and CEO of Lobbyists 4 Good.