Mr. Jerry Mander: Arch-Villain or Innocent Bystander?

October 7th, 2013 at 9:06 am

I’m beginning to see—thankfully—more ink (bytes?) devoted to the critical study of dysfunctionology: the anatomy of how we got into this political mess we’re in and how to get out (see here for example from just this AM, and here for Dean Baker’s rebuttal).

As I’ve noted in recent posts, one of the problems we’re facing now is the inability of the House Republican leadership to mete out effective discipline on the Tea Party, or, if you will, the “shutdown caucus.”  And one reason for that—not the only reason, maybe not even the biggest—is gerrymandering: the creation of districts that are so safe, a member is insulated from external pressure.

Here are some numbers from various sources that explain the extent of the problem:

–in the 1995-96 shutdown, 79 House Republican were from districts won by President Clinton in 1992; in this shutdown, only 17 House R’s are from districts won by President Obama in 2012.

–Obama beat Romney by four percentage points nationally; in the shutdown-caucus districts, Romney beat Obama by an average 23 percentage points.

–Between 2000 and 2010, the country became considerably more racially diverse.  Yet after redistricting, the average Republican district is getting less diverse (i.e., whiter).

–The caucus that is controlling the government, and threatening to deliver a body blow to the global economy through debt default, is especially non-reflective of racial and ethnic change: the average House district is 63% white; for the shutdown caucus, it’s 75% white; Latinos are nine percent of shutdown districts, but 17% overall (see here for a useful analysis of the shutdown caucus).

It should be noted that some political scientists disagree that gerrymandering is much of a problem, and they’ve got two general reasons why not.  First, they note that the Senate—not elected by districts—ain’t exactly so functional either.  But that’s too broad a condemnation.  Even after the recent bloviations of Sen Cruz, 25 Senate R’s just voted for a clean CR (the budget patch that would re-open the government).  So sure, the Senate is no model of compromise, but in this critical case they’ve shown that they won’t follow the Tea Party in lockstep.

Second, and here the critics of the gerrymandering explanation have a strong point, there just aren’t that many competitive districts.  We’re just so damn polarized now that almost no matter how you drew the districts you’d end up in similar straits.

But again, I think that critique is too broad.  Yes, we’re deeply polarized and that, more than gerrymandering, may explain why we’re unable to effectively attack critical problems, like climate change, inequality, middle-class income stagnation, high unemployment, and more.  But polls repeatedly show that by large margins most Americans want the shutdown to end.  I’d wager that if you could analyze those poll results from shutdown-caucus districts you’d find a different result (here’s what I mean).

So yeah, we’re a lot more polarized than in the past, and that’s making compromise a lot tougher in general.  But the gerrymandered districts are hyper-polarized–they exist in a particularly thick political and demographic bubble–such that if it weren’t for them, we might well not be in the particularly deep mess we’re in today.

Why the increase in gerrymandering (note: a key technique in dysfunctionology is always peeling the onion back one more layer)?  Clearly, the sharp partisan results in state legislatures in the 2010 election is one explanation (every year that ends in a zero calls forth a decennial census which triggers redistricting by state legislatures).  Also, legal scholars tell me courts have been increasingly lax in prosecuting the issue.

What to do about it is, predictably, a huge challenge.  The foxes guarding the henhouse tend to be reluctant to upgrade the security system.  Independent commissions could be helpful, and California has gone that route.  As Jon Terbush reports: “Unsurprisingly, studies have found that commission-drawn maps lead to more competitive districts.”  But he also notes that Democrats allegedly stacked the CA commission, so this isn’t a silver bullet either.

I’m sure most of us will breathe a big sigh of relief when the shutdown ends and even more so—we’ll hyperventilate with relief—if we avoid default.  But even if we get clean bills, the chances that we’re back here again way too soon are way too high.  So I encourage all of us thinking and working on this to quickly get PhD’s in dysfunctionology.  We quite desperately need to get back to a politics that tries to solve big problems, not cause them.

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4 comments in reply to "Mr. Jerry Mander: Arch-Villain or Innocent Bystander?"

  1. smith says:

    It’s Not the Gerrymandering

    Maybe the New York Times and Washington Post should feature this news analysis prominently instead of burying the information in blogs.

    From February 2013, the Washington Post reported:
    “2011 redistricting cost Democrats 7 seats in 2012. …once we took incumbency into account, the apparent effect of gerrymandering vanished.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/17/redistricting-didnt-win-republicans-the-house/

    Nate Silver picked that up here:
    “However, much or most of the Republican advantage in the House results from geography rather than deliberate attempts to gerrymander districts.”

    http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/did-democrats-get-lucky-in-the-electoral-college/

    Again, Democrats concentrated in cities, Republicans more spread out.

    Republicans gerrymander with wild abandon, but urban demographics are the overwhelming more important factor, aside from also making the gerrymander easier.

    If Democrats want to win the House, they have to fix the still broken economy. But actually they’re not compelled to really fight the Republicans because the Republicans have placed them in safe districts. Obama’s strategy is wait for events to force Republicans into backing down. He then hopes to bargain with them to pass significant legislation in the remainder of his term. The Democrats had their chance when they controlled the House, the Senate, the Presidency, from 2009 – 2010. We’re still waiting for recovery.


  2. Th says:

    Smith is spot on that we think about this mostly backwards. It is the Democrats who are packed into completely safe, overwhelmingly Democratic districts leaving large numbers of 55% Republican districts. This makes the situation we find ourselves in more likely (majority of voters vote for D’s but R’s elect majority in the House) but makes each R member more vulnerable.

    Two thoughts: it is way past time for some of these safe Dems to step up or step aside. Use your office or let someone else. No coasting allowed. And this is one of those potentially wave elections the Dems need to really work for. If there are people thinking of running for office, what time could be better than right now? Will there be another year that raises as many doubts in voters’ minds as this one?


  3. Chatham says:

    Sam Wang concludes that Gerrymandering has major effects:

    http://election.princeton.edu/2013/02/03/slaying-the-gerrymander/

    The question shouldn’t be “would the Democrats be in control of the House if not for the 2010 redistricting,” but rather “does Gerrymandering make it significantly harder for Democrats to eventually retake the House?” The answer seems to be yes.


    • smith says:

      The Washington Post link directly addressed the Sam Wang claims:
      “Redistricting didn’t win Republicans the House
      By John Sides and Eric McGhee, Published: February 17 In this edition, Sides and coauthor Eric McGhee respond to Sam Wang’s argument about the role gerrymandering played in the 2012 election. For past posts in the series, head here.”
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/17/redistricting-didnt-win-republicans-the-house/

      I would favor a movement to redistrict impartially with a commission as California did, and don’t doubt that gerrymandering has some effect. But it seems obvious the weak economy and weak message of the Democrats predominates. What is the economic Democratic message anyway? We can’t break the stalemate to enact significant recovery measures, but we can prevent the Republicans from making things worse? Not very inspiring.


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