The electorate should applaud the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision if we genuinely want to “Make America Great Again.” The high court found the state’s GOP-drawn congressional districts violate the state Constitution, and ordered districts redrawn in the next few weeks.
The creation of highly partisan, gerrymandered congressional districts may well be the most pernicious problem plaguing our nation’s democracy today. You can trace nearly every legislative dysfunction to it – from unfixed problems to partisan gridlock to government shutdowns.
The “gerrymandered” district was named for Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who later endorsed an unusual “salamander” shaped district that favored his political party. Today’s high-tech, precision-drawn districts are to Gerry what your iPhone is to Alexander Graham Bell – except they do not empower us. Instead, they empower opportunists on the left and right who do not want to debate and persuade, but would rather win a sure-thing congressional seat through map-making contortion.
Every 10 years, the U.S. Constitution mandates that we undergo a national census. From that sea-to-shining-sea headcount, the nation reorganizes our congressional districts so each state’s districts contain a comparable number of people in order to give meaning to the important “one man, one vote’’ principle.
“Principle,” though, can hardly describe what goes into the modern redistricting process. Pamela Karlan, a professor of Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School, offers this observation: “It used to be that the idea was, once every two years voters elected their representatives, and now, instead, it’s every 10 years the representatives choose their constituents.”
When the time comes for redistricting in Pennsylvania, whichever political party is in power in the statehouse draws new maps, and the only principle that applies is opportunism. How can we gain more power by lumping groups together or splitting groups apart (even if the resulting district bends and twists across the state like a tangle of snakes)? Other states handle it differently, including New Jersey, which has a bipartisan commission draw the maps.
From this comes democracy-wrecking dysfunction. In a district that is overwhelmingly Republican, the GOP candidate will win every November, and only the party primary will matter – in which the most far-right candidate often has the advantage. The exact same formula holds true for overwhelmingly Democratic districts. Those candidates then take their extreme positions to Congress. Their motivation is to be re-elected every two years, which they achieve by sticking with their extreme agendas in order to please the far-left or far-right members of their electorate, who got them there.
Consensus building and compromise – the essential building blocks of democracy – have no place in this equation and opinions of voters outside the dominant extreme have little currency.
Imagine, instead, a congressional district organized around some geographic logic: Say, a handful of neighboring counties or municipalities that share common interests. In addition, say this district divided party affiliation in a 55/45 split. To win in such a district, the Republican candidate would still need to attract Democratic voters, and the Democratic candidate would need to attract Republican voters. The only way to do this would be to listen to everybody; to consider the desires and concerns of all your constituents; to lead by building consensus; and to advocate for compromise when it is in the interest of all.
If you want to “Make America Great Again,” demand redistricting reform.
“What makes mass society so difficult to bear,” wrote the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who understood the roots of authoritarianism as well as anyone, “is not the number of people involved … but the fact that the world between them has lost its ability to gather them together, to relate and separate them.”
Every day it is more apparent that our biggest political hurdle is finding ways to gather together with our fellow citizens and relate to them – all of them, not just those we pick and choose. In this way, our era is witnessing the decay of the public realm, the space in which the habits of democracy are nurtured. Today’s gerrymandered districts amplify the problem, cynically dividing us into partisan interest groups, rather than gathering us together for democratic dialogue and debate.
In Thomas Pynchon’s novel, “Mason & Dixon,” a character declares, “Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line … the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People …”
If our history becomes “Bad History,” the travesty of unprincipled, opportunistic congressional districts will have been a root cause. It is a problem we can fix if we gather enough political will to demand redistricting reform – the creation of districts through a logical, commonsense, nonpartisan process.
First and foremost, our democratic republic is a set of principles. When we cast them aside for partisan gain, we recklessly endanger the greatest political experiment in human history.
Brian Carso, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of history and government at Misericordia University. firstname.lastname@example.org