Why is everybody so upset about gerrymandering?

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Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens
  • Allison Shelley/Getty Images
  • Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens

John Paul Stevens, the retired Republican Supreme Court Justice who’s remembered as a liberal because the Court turned so conservative while he was on it, has written a book proposing changes to the U.S. Constitution. One would eliminate political gerrymandering, which Stevens, like so many others, regards as a bad thing. He wants the Constitution to demand "compact" districts "composed of contiguous territory"; exceptions could not be made if the reason for them were "enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government."

I just read about Stevens's book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, in a review by Cass Sunstein in the New York Review of Books. Sunstein isn't certain Stevens's changes are all achievable or necessary; but he allows: "Stevens has a good argument that political gerrymandering is creating serious problems for our system of self-government, above all because it allows political parties to entrench themselves, and simultaneously contributes to a high degree of polarization in Washington."

That's what everyone says, isn't it? Gerrymandering is antithetical to good democracy. Maybe it is, but let's not confuse good democracy with our democracy. What's great about our democracy is how much slack it cuts itself—and since the people are responsible for its upkeep, us. When Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, that's what he was getting at. It's the only form of government that finds people dopey but adorable.

Is anything dopier looking than a gerrymandered congressional district? But there's nothing adorable about it! you say. Maybe not. But maybe not not.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, addressed gerrymandering last year in a long article in the Columbia Law Review. "The most glaring problem with gerrymandering—the problem that spawned the term two centuries ago—is the partisan havoc that it may wreak," he wrote. "Clever district configurations may give rise to legislatures whose composition diverges sharply from the will of a majority of voters." Stephanopoulas noted that Justice Stevens, dissenting in a gerrymandering case, observed that Texas's Democrats could have won a majority of the statewide vote and yet captured only 12 of that state's 32 congressional seats.

Stephanopoulos called his article "Elections and Alignment," and his larger point was a troubling one: voters and their elected representatives are out of alignment. Specifically, voters put in office representatives who don't necessarily want what the voters want. Gerrymandering is a cause of this, in his view, and campaign financing is another cause. He wrote, "There is near consensus in the empirical literature that politicians' positions more accurately reflect the views of their donors than those of their constituents."

I found out about Stephanopoulos’s article because the New York Times's Joe Nocera cited it last Saturday in a column bemoaning the "insidious influence of money." But can we complain about gerrymandering in one breath and deep-pocketed donors in the next? After all, in a perfect world—or let's say a perfect congressional district—how can a politician's positions possibly reflect the views of his constituents? His constituents have two sets of views that divide them down the middle—and if one camp has the upper hand today, in two years the other might hold it. His donors have clear and unchanging interests. Even if Congressman Smith would rather take his marching orders from the people, how the hell is he going to do it?

Gerrymandering, as I pointed out in a recent Bleader post, has a lot going for it: "People in gerrymandered districts get what everybody wants: a congressman or an alderman who sees the world as they do, who votes the way they want him or her to vote, and who—thanks to a secure seat—piles up seniority and influence. Who wants to live in a swing district that is constantly changing hands, changing parties, and is represented by somebody with no seniority who might stick it to you at any time on any issue because you're not the only voter out there? Gerrymandering is like a mini secession—it's how people who see the world one way separate themselves from people who see it another."

What I neglected to say is that office holders in gerrymandered districts aren't as vulnerable to the insidious influence of money because they don't have to raise as much—their districts were contoured to guarantee them reelection. Of course, I may have neglected to say that because it's not necessarily true—they're not guaranteed renomination in the primaries, which ideological fringes tend to dominate because they're the only ones who vote in big numbers. (And that's a big reason why so many voters—or should we say nonvoters—and their representatives are out of alignment.)

Another problem with gerrymandering was promptly identified by a reader responding to my first post: "Here in Austin, Texas, America's boomtown with a metro population about to rocket past 2,000,000, we have no congressional seats. Zero. The city is split several ways into districts sprawling across Texas, essentially to disenfranchise Austin (and similarly San Antonio)."

Well, OK, we can agree that gerrymandering to divide and conquer is dishonorable. But gerrymandering to define, unite, and empower majorities where they exist—put it that way and it sounds noble enough to fool me.

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