Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hidden Fault Lines - Gerrymandering and The Dividing of America

Americans like to look up. We admire those who have reached the top of just about anything - income, power, celebrity, fame and performance. To win is very American. Even in politics, we've turned government into something of a celebrity sport filled with ideological contests fought by our favorite partisan gladiators. Yet, while we were looking up the political and social ground beneath us was carved-up, divided and parceled in ways that have worked to insidiously divide us. And, its happening again.

In the wake of the 2010 Census, states are working to reapportion their congressional districts based on population changes to ensure fair representation. Although it may go largely unnoticed by the general public, the mundane, boring and decidedly un-sexy topic of redistricting has probably done more to divide our nation than anything else.

There's More Agreement Than You think (or what you're told to believe)

Based on recent scientific polls it would appear that there is agreement among Americans on a variety of issues, despite the rhetoric, shouting and finger-pointing by some politicians and media commentators.

Here's an example. A recent CNN poll indicated that a full 72% of adult Americans are in agreement that those making more than $250,000 annually should pay more taxes to help balance the federal budget. What is surprising is that of the respondents, 55% of Republicans, 74% of Independents and 83% of Democrats are in favor of the tax hike. That is a broad consensus by just about any measure.

The lend more credibility to the result, an ABC/Washington Post poll found essentially the same sentiment - 72% of respondents would support tax hikes on those making $250,000 or more to reduce the national debt.

Still not convinced? A McClatchy-Marist poll found that 64% of Americans are in favor of raising taxes on those making $250,000 or more to reduce the national debt. I am not suggesting that tax hikes on the "rich" are the only solution or the best for reducing the national debt. What is significant, however, is that there is fairly broad support for at least including some form of modest tax increase on the wealthiest Americans as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce the national debt. Similar sentiment is evident with respect to making modest changes to entitlement plans, such as Medicare and Social Security, to keep them strong for current and future generations.

If there is such agreement among Americans and how to reduce the national debt, then why are issues like restoring tax rates on the wealthy to where they were under president Clinton so divisive in the media and Congress?

All Politics Are Local - What Me Worry?

The answer is that all politics are local - meaning, that elected officials only have to worry about their home districts. When districts are engineered essentially to guarantee reelection of politicians of a certain party, then legislators have no incentive to compromise. In fact, it encourages separatism and partisanship, because a member of Congress can come back to his or her home office and brag that he or she "fought" for what they wanted, even though nothing was achieved for the nation.

Politicians are then free to be extremists and profit from it. In fact, the politically polarized society that we live in has given rise to a new crop of professional shouters and finger-pointers. Gerrymandering has made shock talk in politics a business model, because both conservative and progressive fire-breathing talk show hosts, commentators and politicians can grab eyeballs and ears so they can sell billions in advertising. There is a market for the extreme rhetoric, because there are no negative consequences for using and promoting it. A politician can willingly lie and distort the facts, so long as he/she is perceived to be with the majority political affiliation of his/her district.

Gerrymandered voting districts encourage extremists in both major parties, as they are the ones who are the most vocal, the most likely to get involved at the grass roots and the most willing to open that all-important check book for candidates pushing their special interests.

The Comedy District

Here are some brazen examples of gerrymandering at its finest, or worst, depending on your point of view.

District 7 in Tennessee looks like some sort of strange squeezed tube of toothpaste in order to get enough of the "right" voters inside the boundaries.

District 12 in North Carolina is another district engineered to grab a specific voting group. Take a closer look at District 3 - it contains weird polygons on land and sea, again designed to protect a seat for one of the major political parties.

There's more, as Illinois, Texas and other states are carved-up in even stranger shapes, but California is perhaps the gerrymandering king. According to

"In 2004, not one of CA's 173 state legislative and federal congressional seats changed party-hands. In 2002, every incumbent won re-election, on average with 69% of the vote. California may be the new gerrymandering champion, perhaps even worse than Illinois and Texas, but unlike them its gerrymandering is 'bipartisan' that is, arranged by agreement among the Democrats and Republicans to 'design their own districts' to make every office holder 'safe.'"
Colorado Redistricting - Rocky Mountain Low

Here in Colorado, the primary redistricting fight is centered on the Democrats' plan to create a new district that puts liberal Boulder in the same district as Grand Junction, located on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

Even more wacky is the Republican's proposal to package right-leaning suburban areas into a safe haven for the right. Look at the GOP - McNulty "Plan B" with metro-area detail and see how the Republican's idea of a district completely carves-out the Democratic stronghold of the City of Denver from surrounding communities.

The net effect of these proposals is to create districts that emphasize differences and provide safe havens for the two major political parties.

The Status Quo is Built-In

The root of the problem is the soil of the grass roots. There is nothing wrong with our system of representative government, but there is something wrong with the way partisans have engineered voting districts to perpetuate the status quo and encourage the the political polarization that stands in the way of unity and cooperation in order to solve our nation's urgent problems.

Veteran reporter Dan Meisler from Livingston County, Michigan wrote on the subject of Gerrymandering:

"The result is a system in which politicians have absolutely no incentive to appeal to the center. That’s because in a safe district, all a candidate has to do is win the primary, and he or she is virtually guaranteed to win the general election. So all they have to do is win over their party’s primary voters, generally a more hard-line group than the electorate as a whole, at least in my experience."

That means Senator Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who hails from Minnesota's District 6 and is the new Tea Party favorite, doesn't need to compromise on any issue with her fellow Americans in the Democrat party. In fact, the way her district is drawn, only 43% of voters are registered as Democrats. That number is sourced from the website of Maureen Reed, Bachmann's 2010 mid-term opponent, because after much searching, I couldn't find voter registration by district on the Minnesota Secretary of State's website.

That means Bachmann is almost guaranteed to win reelection every year, whether she represents the interests of all her constituents or not. In fact, because the Republican base tends to be far more right-wing than the nation, she actually scores points with them with divisive rhetoric.

Looking on the progressive side of the same coin, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) from California's 8th District also enjoys a similar assured outcome. According to records of California's Secretary of State, Pelosi's district is composed of approximately 57% Democrats and Republicans account for only 8.8% of all voters! Consequently, Pelosi has no incentive to work with her fellow Americans in Congress serving as Republicans. Like Bachmann, Pelosi probably has more to gain by being divisive and partisan than forging common interests.

Rise of the Independents (No Wonder)

That is why making change through elections is becoming increasingly difficult. Even the "transformational figure" that was Barack Obama has to play to the far-left to keep his base of extremists writing checks for his next election campaign. Worse, the Congress has no incentive to work together and compromise for the same reason. The result is stagnation and too little compromise to make a difference on the big issues. In fact, in the current environment, cooperation is a political liability to officials who have to return to extremist districts.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that most people I speak with are fiscally conservative and socially liberal (using today's buzzwords to explain political sensibilities). That means neither major political party truly represents their interests. If this fiscal conservative/socially liberal group represents the mainstream, then that explains why an increasing number of American voters are disgusted with the system and changing their affiliations to Independent.

In the Wall Street Journal (October 2008), John Avlon wrote about What Independent Voters Want. Importantly, he wrote about the rise of the Independent voter:

"Back in 1954, only 22% of voters identified themselves as independents, according to the American National Election Survey. Fifty years later the number was nearly double. Now, two out of five Americans can't name anything they like about the Democrats, and 50% say the same about Republicans."
Avlon attributes the winnowing influence of the Republicans and Democrats to the increased political polarization of the two parties to their extremes, leaving centrists out in the cold without representation. As a result, elections tend to be more volatile because Independents are usually "against" whichever party is currently in power.

Holding Our Noses - Change through Elections or Culture?

So, what is a centrist or "Mainstreamist" supposed to do? Hold his or her nose every election and vote for the least offensive candidate? In the short run, yes.

In the long-run, however, lasting change that can endure the cycles must come from a change in the culture - the way Americans think and speak and the values we hold. We shouldn't expect our politicians, who are products of the current system, to lead the change. If anything, most officeholders will resist change that diminishes the power and influence they have worked to so hard to acquire in their long careers.

But, if enough minds are changed to support pragmatic centrist goals, then there will be opportunities to establish greater unity among Americans, which will only help us make better and more balanced decisions for solving our nation's pressing issues.