DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

American Democracy: More Fragile Than We Think

By David Brin, Ph.D.


Ten Ways that Gerrymandering Feeds a Vicious Cycle of Radicalization

Reprise: We have seen two ways that gerrymandering -- a 19th Century sin that expanded unmercifully into the 21st -- has had dismal effects.

First, it allows one party in a state to rig elections so that it can grab extra seats, not only in Congress but every legislature, from the State Assembly down to cities and counties. While this is done by both the Democrats and Republicans, somewhat canceling each other out in raw numbers of US Representatives, this partial cancellation only masks the deeper sickness.

Second, gerrymandering can be viewed as a process that best serves the interests of an informal guild of professional politicians, by offering incumbents a near guarantee of easy re-election without the muss and fuss of serious opposition, or having to explain themselves to the voters every even numbered year.

So far, so bad. Only it gets worse. Much worse.

We shall see that -- among other horrific ill-effects -- gerrymandering has almost certainly contributed to the rising sense of rancor and "culture war" that infests America these days, a country that should have many reasons to be feeling good, instead of falling into a vicious cycle of relentless indignation.

Consider what this practice does in any given district, say one that has been gerrymandered to have a safe Republican majority of more than 60%. True, a majority of the voters in that district will at least be represented by their preferred party. Isn't that representation? Doesn't that mean their votes matter?

Does it? Let's continue listing the effects of gerrymandering:

(An occasional reminder: almost all of my examples will apply if you replace "Republican" with "Democrat" and vice versa.)

Third, even if a contented 60% are guaranteed perpetual victory for their party in a given district, that leaves a 40% minority who will never, ever feel that they have a chance for Congressional representation. Not only will there never be a representative of their party elected in their district... but thanks to gerrymandering they can't even influence an election at the margins.

For too long we have seen politics expressed in a sense of winners and losers, as if it's all a sporting match, like football. (At least in football, there's a draft to try and shift advantage around a bit.) If you read the Federalist Papers, you will see that partisan winner-takes-all dominance was deeply feared by the Founders. They worried, and hoped that things would not perpetually go that way.

In fact, the whole idea behind modern enlightenment politics has never been strict majority rule. It was citizen empowerment. Indeed, at both the level of legislatures and the level of citizen franchise, the idea has always been that even minority voters should have enough leverage to make bargains, commensurate with the size or vigor of their minority group.

In other words, yes, the majority holds sway... but any minority will always hold some residual power to negotiate, to apply its smaller number of votes where it can count most. Say, when there is disagreement within the majority party, the minority party can strike deals for a few of its highest goals and priorities. This power to dicker and deal, even when you are outnumbered, is the true meaning of democracy, far more deeply than majority rule!

But this is no longer an option in gerrymandered districts and legislatures. Party-line voting robs American politics of its old subtlety, making (as we shall see later) it far more like Parliamentary systems, in all of the worst ways.

Oh, but I can hear the sneers as I speak up for the intrinsic rights of the electoral minority. Nowadays it is considered unseemly and whiney to bemoan the fate of losers. So let's go on to other hidden implications of gerrymandering. For you see, it just keeps getting worse, because --

Fourth, members of the majority party are almost as disenfranchised in a heavily gerrymandered district as the losing minority!

In our example district, Republicans are present in such numbers that the incumbent representative or assemblyman can count on getting enough support just from those who will vote GOP as a reflex. Except in the case of a major scandal, an incumbent needn't worry about national policy trends having much effect locally.

So his or her support drops by a few percent? So a few Republicans desert to the hopeless opposing candidate -- or worse, don't bother to vote at all? Big deal.

He or she barely needs any of the more thoughtful Republicans -- those who picture themselves as somewhat independent-minded. He can take their reflexive support for granted.

Fifth. That is, local moderate Republicans can be taken for granted. Not activists, the passionately committed ones. Or those with lots of money. If any of these get angry, an incumbent can face real trouble. Party activists have a myriad ways to get revenge if they feel neglected; e.g., they can drum up a fresh opponent in the party primary. They might withdraw funds or support for higher office. They can even agitate in the state capital to have districts redrawn, favoring some other, more accommodating representative, and throwing the local guy to the wolves. (All of these things happen, more often than you'd think.)

This would -- all by itself -- have the effect of making your local representative increasingly beholden to those with the most passion and/or money in each district... or even to outsiders who might come at any time with both cash and foot soldiers, changing the local balance of power.

What we are talking about here is the inherent radicalizing result of gerrymandering.

The result is summarized by renowned Goldman-Sachs investment expert, Robert Hormats:

"One of the reasons (for the horrific polarization of politics in America) is that as a result of gerrymandering in the Congress, you don't have to look for the center. All you have do is -- if you're a Republican, you appeal to the Republican right; if you're a Democrat, you appeal to the Democratic left. There's very little incentive to appeal to the middle, because of the way Congressional districts are now allocated. If your district is 80% Republican and 20% Democrat, you don't have to worry about the 20% Democrats; all you have to do is appeal to the hard-core Republicans and you will win. And the same thing with the Democratic districts. So it reduces the incentive of members, in the House at least, to appeal to the middle."

Sixth. As part of a trend going back decades, millions of Americans have taken to registering "independent." This has a flavor of declaring neutral openmindedness, but on a practical level, millions of voters have simply opted out of voting in primaries. Hence, even if a district was gerrymandered to include a clear majority who will lean conservative-GOP in the general election, it is a much smaller group that will vote in the election that really matters -- the primary -- and choose the dominant party's candidate.

Yes, many of those "independents" are conservative in a very general sense. Still their opinions would serve democracy well in a gerrymandered Republican district and they might help to choose a very different style of conservative to represent them. Likewise in a district that has been rigged to have a single party of that district that happens to be the Democrats.

Alas, no nationwide effort has been made to convince these independents that their lack of affiliation is not longer an expression of "independence" at all. It simply guarantees that the last smidgens of validity have vanished from their vote for local legislative representation.

Seventh. Americans are proud of the ways in which their Constitutional approach differs from the various "parliamentary systems" that prevail in most other democratic countries, around the world. Parliaments emphasize a jockeying for power among doctrinally-determined parties, which expect strict discipline among their delegates or deputies, in hewing to a centrally formulated agenda.

For much of our history, in contrast, Americans have felt that a truly representative republic should devote higher priority on the peculiar talents, personalities -- and even eccentricities -- of individual delegates who are accountable first and foremost to their constituents and only secondarily to party affiliation.

This tradition still seems to hold true in the US Senate. Even in the supposedly solid-Republican south, there are many Democratic senators. This happens because extraordinary individual candidates have stepped forward, persuading millions of Republican voters to make an exception to party loyalty, by crossing over and choosing the right woman or man.

Ironically, this is no longer true in the House of Representatives, which demographically should bring delegates much closer to the people. True, the worst aspect of representative (vs. Parliamentary) democracy is still with us. Pork barrel graft has -- if anything -- grown far worse lately.

But that odious relic is an exception. In all other ways, gerrymandering has made our lower house of Congress far more European, in style and structure. It essentially ensures that the party, not the voter, chooses each district's representative. Voters in that district may only choose their general affiliation.

Eighth. Gerrymandering also (naturally) eliminates any chance for the mounting of effective campaigns by any third party candidate, since those candidates will have to attract a lot more votes to defeat the incumbent than in a truly competitive district. This may seem a minor point, since third parties are already perceived at hopeless to most Americans. But isn't this a self-fulfilling situation and yet another explanation for why the big parties have plunged into this practice?

Think. If a third party were ever to begin its rise to challenge the Big Two, would it not be in the very offices that have been gerrymandered away? State Assembly or US Congress seats? Shall we call it a good thing that this can never happen?

I am not one to call the Democrats and Republicans "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." They are very different. But would not even more difference be refreshing, sometimes?

Ninth. It might be argued that gerrymandering reduces the reaction of our system to mercurial public mood swings. Some would even call this a good thing. And it's true, the Founders worried about mob-like surges of passion. This is one reason for the life tenure of judges and the long terms of senators, so they might calmly ride out flashes of passion and respond to the peoples' more considered will.

On the other hand, the House of Representatives was designed to be mercurial and responsive! Hence the short re-election cycle of just two years. Shouldn't at least one of the houses of Congress reflect the public's sovereign right to rapidly change their mind? After all, the Senate and Court are there to damp down harmful passion.

Shall the citizens have no rapid recourse, if the public suddenly wakes up to a pack of scoundrels in charge?

(Of all arguments that might be laid before the Supreme Court, as it considers Texas gerrymandering, I am pretty sure that this one will be overlooked. Which is a pity, because it has unique cogency relating the fundamental reasons that there are two houses, required in the U.S. Constitution.)

As things stand, the House has become the very opposite of its purpose... a stodgy bastion of party conformity, unresponsive to changes in public will. This is not what the founders intended. It is not what the people want.

Tenth. Finally, the attraction of almost perfect job security has lured a new kind of candidate into politics, during recent years.

Look around at the US Congressional Representatives in districts near you. Some are surely skilled politicians of the old school. Whatever their party, they can be relied on to press the flesh, answer mail, address local concerns and be there when major events occur. They may even rise above partisanship, if shown a blatant need and national will. Because it's their job. Some even do it well, with professional skill and pride.

But I'll wager you also know at least one, in your district or another nearby, who is -- well -- how else to describe it? A rich punk who literally bought the position, either for diversion or as a launching pad for a try at higher office.

Yes, this has always happened. Only now, it's easier and more convenient than ever! You have only to sweep into the primary of a safe district -- one with a retiring, or suddenly vulnerable, incumbent in your chosen party -- bearing heaps of cash and a pile of radical promises for local activists. Then it's done.

The general election? A shoe-in? Re-election? No sweat. Opportunities for endless continuing graft? Well, we needn't go there right now. But worries about the Constitutionally-mandated rhythm of bi-annual accountability? Ha.

Suffice it to say that I hope you don't have a nearby example of one of these guys, "representing" your district or one next door. But alas, I fear many of you know exactly what I'm talking about.

What does it add up to?

All ten of these trends feed into the radicalization effect that Robert Hormats referred to. And not just in Republican districts. I perceive less radicalization among Democrats, true. But it's a very real phenomenon on that side, as well. Certainly all of the unreasonable shots taken in our "culture war" have not been fired by just one side.

Is there any hope?

We have come by a long path in order to see that gerrymandering is far more than just a simple game of tit-for-tat, in which a little cheating by Texas Republicans cancels out a similar gambit by California Democrats. We are assured that the overall effects roughly cancel out.

But that is a flat-out lie.

The effects most certainly do not cancel out.

They add together. They build, leverage and multiply against each other. Taken together, they show a dismal picture of one major part of our democracy -- the election of representatives to Congress and other legislatures. A portion that has become warped beyond recognition, justice, or usefulness.

Of our three branches of government, the legislative is deeply, deeply ill. Indeed, I can think of no parallel stronger than that of the Roman Senate, during the later era of the Emperors, where that chamber was made for sinecure and graft and posturing, not for hard work and deliberation.

As citizens, we simply have to do something about it.


[image from dondero.com]

The Dismal Big Picture: Just How Hopeless Is it to Reclaim Constituency Democracy?

We have come by a long path in order to see that gerrymandering is far more than just a simple game of tit-for-tat, in which a little cheating by Texas Republicans cancels out a similar gambit by California Democrats.

The deeper, most-cancerous effects certainly do not cancel out. They add together. They build and leverage and multiply against each other. Taken together, they show how one part of our democracy -- the election of representatives to Congress and other legislatures -- has become warped beyond almost all recognition, justice, or usefulness.

So? Is it hopeless? Or are we ready to take on a real challenge... one that all of the prestigious "electoral reform commissions" have timidly avoided? Shall we start coming up with suggested ways and means for citizens of the United States to start to fighting back?

Not against a foreign power or the hated "other party," across the aisle of an artificial left-right political axis... but against a professional political caste that contains many well-meaning and sincere public servants -- servants who have nevertheless done what no enemy could previously achieve!

Used subtle mind tricks to rob us of the electoral choice that is our sovereign right and duty.

Before talking about solutions -- starting with those that won't work -- let me first clarify one important point.

The disenfranchisement process is uneven.

One of the weirdest things about of gerrymandering is how specific it has been. It applies to the politically unscrupulous re-drawing of district boundaries for the election of legislators, especially US Representatives and delegates to state assemblies.

This specialized application may be one reason why the decay went so far and for so long before attracting serious notice.

There are many flaws in other portions of American democracy. We've talked about the rise in corruption and vote-fraud, during some recent campaigns. Another worrisome trend is the decline of the Fourth Estate, as journalism increasingly becomes a whore-profession, beholden to a narrow range of special interests. And who can deny that Presidential elections are bizarrely warped by the archaic and deliberately abused Electoral College? All of these problems merit the scrutiny of citizens, and soon, lest our citizenship simply cease to matter anymore.

And yet, there is good news. Depending on the office and the type of constituency, your vote still counts for something, here and there. For example, in most municipal and local elections are dynamic and a citizen's franchise can be fractionally pretty potent.

And there is another bright spot, when it comes to offices that are elected statewide. In fact, governorships and US Senate seats may be among the few places where American democracy still truly shines.

Yes, the arrangement of 50 states is, in itself, an absurd hodge-podge, allocating vastly more political power to residents of Wyoming and the Dakotas than to, say New Yorkers. You might even call it "the original gerrymandering." Still, we can play that hand, as we have for generations. And at least nobody can sneakily change state boundaries without notice or discussion.

Indeed, a comparison of two chambers of the US Congress may illustrate how much difference gerrymandering has made. Just observe how radicalized the House of Representatives has become, compared to the Senate, which remains to some extent what it was always meant to be -- a quirky chamber filled with "characters" who often feel free to break with party discipline and vote as individuals.

(Senators do not have to face re-election as often; has that contributed to this sense of collegial calm? Or is part of it the fact that states are large enough to focus the attention of at least a few real journalists and investigators, who aim truth at the worst slime molds who come in with millions to buy themselves some status? Oh, who knows? Let's get back on-topic.)

We've seen how one major effect of gerrymandering has been to empower radical elements in both parties. Within safe districts, even the very worst indignation junky can start with a militant power base, leverage it with cash, seize a Congressional seat and then do whatever he likes (short of blatant scandal) until Judgement Day. No amount of pork, graft, incompetence, or outright maniacal looniness will ever suffice to budge him.


[image from house.gov]

The Problem of Gerrymandering: "Solutions" That Just Won't Work

Reprise: The deeper, most-cancerous effects of gerrymandering do not cancel out. They leverage and multiply against each other. Taken together, they show how one part of our democracy -- the election of representatives to Congress and other legislatures -- has become warped beyond almost all recognition, justice, or usefulness.

So? What can be done about it?

Well, for starters, don't come to me for pat answers, prescriptions or painless solutions. Citizenship was never easy, as the Athenians found, as soon as the guidance of Pericles began to falter.

In fact, I do know that some of the more obvious "solutions" just won't work.

How about those proposals -- a bill or ballot proposition -- that we see raised occasionally, aimed at eliminating the gerrymandering curse by law? These offer to reform the system by handing over the job of drawing district boundaries to "impartial commissions." Isn't that hopeful? Can't we solve this problem one state at a time?

Don't bet on it. Look closer and you'll see that each of these efforts has been pushed by the minority party within the state in question, campaigning to eliminate the majority's unfair advantage. That's fine, but few comment on the utter hypocrisy of, say, California Republicans decrying their state's gerrymandering sins, while their Texas GOP brethren refine the practice to a high art.

Moreover, because this is always a gambit raised by the state's minority party (sometimes assisted by a minority party governor), how often is it really going to work?

In sum, doing it one state at a time is utter hypocrisy.

All right then, what about doing it in a fair and equitable manner?

One might, for example, envision arranging deals that would trade reciprocal reforms among several states at once. Suppose California were to hand over the drawing of district boundaries to an impartial commission... in exchange for an equal number of impartially redrawn districts in, say, Texas and Florida combined?

Boy, I would flat-out love to see that. I am all in favor. Somebody start a campaign and I'll sign on.

Only it won't happen. Not soon, that is. Because in order to make such a deal, you will have to get it signed off first by the very people who set up gerrymandering in the first place! The Professional Political Caste.

Even if it can be shown that a tradeoff will leave the NET number of Congressional seats per party alone... if you can show that no party will lose... even so, these professionals will be terrified, adamant and unwilling. Because this is not just about two parties jockeying for a little advantage. It never has been.

Think! An end to gerrymandering will:

  • Make most re-election campaigns competitive.
  • Spread more vigorous accountability.
  • Reduce opportunities for guaranteed patronage (and/or graft).
  • Empower the "enemy"... or at least the "customers" (in other words, the voters) to exercise their will, or whim, responding to any shift in the political winds.
  • Do you honestly expect the political caste to put up with something like that?

    Once again, please, do not misconstrue what I am saying. Not all politicians are betraying monsters who do these things with deliberate malice.

    Many -- perhaps even most -- of them are deeply sincere public servants, who feel that they must use the tools at hand - including gerrymandering - in order to limit ideological foes who are much worse than they are.

    (In many cases, actually, I quite agree.)

    But this focus on foreground political knife fighting can distract even sincere public servants from ever facing the insidious effects of what they have wrought, year after year, decade after decade. Over time, they have done grievous damage to a system that was supposed to be about citizen empowerment and the sovereignty of every individual American.

    Again, we are human. Hence, we (including politicians) are all supreme rationalizers. Unless criticism and light and accountability shine, any of us is likely to drift toward the kind of behaviors that have been seen throughout history. For example, coming up with reasons to support our trade or guild against interference from the crass customers or ignorant public.

    Or are you claiming that you never came up with a convoluted reason to take advantage, where it could be gotten, later explaining to yourself and others that was all for the common good?

    No, we are defending the Enlightenment, boys and girls, during what we hope will be the last generation or two before it takes hold for good. Rationalization is the old way and accountability is the new.

    If there is to be any hope, we must be the ones to take responsibility. There will be no help from the politicians. Not in this matter, where their utter self interest is at stake, independent of ideology or party.

    This is one problem we are going to have to solve ourselves.

    Next... can this problem be solved?