Gerrymandering in an Age of Legislative Obstinacy
Gerrymandering is a bane to America’s system of governance at all levels. Gerrymandered districts — purposefully engineered to assure the geographic dominance of faithful party constituencies over multiple elections — distort the political landscape by effectively disenfranchising certain groups. When political parties exercise direct control over the composition of their own voting constituencies, the institution of Congress pays the heaviest price of all in the American system. Members elected from gerrymandered districts tend to only reflect the attitudes espoused by their most dominant constituencies, and display a strong aversion to compromise on national issues.
Yet, though significant grassroots movements have recently arisen seeking to somehow temper or even eliminate gerrymandering, key elements within the Republican and Democratic parties continue to, if furtively, embrace the practice. Party operatives and leaders alike see gerrymandering as a time-honored conventional wisdom and a vital tool to maintain electoral power and stability. When the parties do protest, it is to lament the efficacy of the other’s efforts as “unfair” or “overly partisan.” They otherwise have little appetite to end, or even mitigate, gerrymandering.
But in today’s political climate, does gerrymandering even benefit the parties, as they have believed for so long? Or, has gerrymandering — when combined with prolonged and willful legislative obstinacy — become detrimental to each party’s very stability at the national level? Recent electoral trends seem to indicate that the latter is the case — yet, neither party seems to be cognizant of this.
Insurgencies of Their Own Making
Over the last few decades, each party’s leadership in Congress has come to rely more upon the avoidance of compromise legislation than its achievement to secure election or reelection. Legislative obstinacy has become a tool to unify the parties’ most ardent constituencies, creating an appearance of partywide cohesion. The persistence of this approach from term-to-term, however, has produced an unintended effect: It has increased public appetites for candidates who would agitate only for the purest versions of party ideology, and themselves eschew compromise.
As a result, the Republican and Democratic parties are both facing unanticipated, and substantial, ideological insurgencies, which manifest most conspicuously during primary elections — and play-out most prominently in the day-to-day operations of Congress. Though they are ideological opposites at different stages of development, both insurgencies are mirror-images of one another in two very important ways: as a chief strategy for nomination, most candidates decry their own party’s leadership as deficient, ineffective and as an obstacle to good policy that must be replaced; and, they both have flourished most prolifically in, and risen to power largely out of, “safe districts” where messages of interparty conciliation ring hollow — and draw ire.
The Republican insurgency began in earnest in 2010, adopting a revolutionary moniker: The Tea Party. Though many of the movement’s leaders claimed to be non-party affiliated, Tea Party candidates challenged establishment Republicans in primaries across the nation, offering a “purer” version of Republican Party orthodoxy. They have won stunning victories and have, in many ways, transformed the Republican Party itself.
Donald Trump, it turns out, ascended to power as an outsider on the back of this movement. He has quickly become the party’s standard bearer. The party’s most dedicated constituencies see Trump as the manifestation of a leader who can surmount the inefficiencies of the system and accomplish their goals. These supporters are incredibly devoted, and seem invested in his personality even more than in the party orthodoxy they claim to desire, and which Trump claims to uphold (but regularly violates). Trump’s detractors — both traditional Republicans and Democrats alike — see him as an ill-informed, extremely flawed and reckless demagogue. Yet, their criticisms fall on deaf ears when it comes to the party’s most dedicated constituents; Trump’s ability to drive the party’s direction has become, at present, seemingly unchallengeable.
Meanwhile, the Democratic insurgency comes decidedly from their left. While the success of Bernie Sanders’ grassroots campaign in 2016 shocked the party’s more centrist establishment, the 2018 primary election cycle was downright disturbing to them. Quite a few incumbent or moderate candidates were successfully defeated in safely Democratic districts and regions. Emblematic of such successes is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley. Though she came seemingly from nowhere, it was her adherence to the purest of Democratic policies and her uncompromising attitude toward Republican policies that won her the primary and then the seat. In this sense, her candidacy and behavior in office thus far actually resemble the Tea Party’s strategies.
Ocasio-Cortez, along with the other “upset” Democratic members of the 116th Congress, have become lightning rods. Their party cohorts criticize them only reluctantly in public. But, behind closed doors, the old guard and the new are starting to battle over the purity of policy prescriptions. Ocasio-Cortez went so far as to threaten to put moderates on a “list” to be “primaried” in the next election cycle over a recent vote. (Interestingly, this same electoral strategy was a key component in the rise of the Tea Party.) For their part, Republicans portray this new cadre of legislators as symbolic of the extremist future of the Democratic Party — extremism, of course, is always the other party’s flaw. These new Democrats are convenient foils for Republicans to justify their own continued legislative intractability. Obstinacy begets obstinacy.
Even though they are ideological opposites, the parallels between the two insurgencies are inescapable. Both view their parties’ establishments as adversaries and assure their most dedicated constituencies of their dedication to pure policy solutions to gain power. Thus, the Democrats’ uprising, though undoubtedly inchoate by comparison, is already displaying a strong potential to reorient the party in ways the Tea Party did to the Republican Party.
Of course, it is natural for political parties to evolve ideologically. New ideas speak to a party’s vibrancy. Internecine party competition is healthy; no incumbent has a right to the office he or she holds. However, the elements within these twin insurgencies are less about new ideas than about distilling old ones into their purest form. Such attitudes make legislative progress between the parties much more difficult to achieve in Congress.
Gerrymandering, Legislative Obstinacy and the “Prism of Party”
And here is where gerrymandering becomes so detrimental to the parties themselves: Gerrymandered districts amplify these internecine movements by artificially multiplying the number of safe districts for each party nationwide. When candidates need only cater to their party’s most zealous constituencies, whose power and influence are unnaturally concentrated and exaggerated, only the most zealous candidates win. In such environments, moderate candidates and moderate constituencies are marginalized — and rendered ineffectual.
Legislative obstinacy and gerrymandering have thus turned out to be a dangerous concoction. The hardline ideas that work so well for election within safe districts spread partywide precisely because there are so many safe districts. This pushes the parties themselves to distill their doctrines into ever “purer” forms. Consequently, the parties have been shrinking; people who might be called centrists or moderates have been streaming away from each party, choosing to affiliate with neither — while still having to choose between both during elections.
In truth, America’s parties are stronger when they have to appeal to a broad array of constituencies. That’s how a party becomes a “big tent,” capable of finding acceptable common ground with the political opposition when serving in government. In recent years, however, America’s parties have strayed away from any identity as organizations that seek to appeal to potential supporters; they are instead becoming followers of their most ardent constituencies. They are becoming more completely democratic, and far less republican — a consequence the Framers themselves feared would occur should parties ever develop.
Thus, the parties’ insurgencies are of their own making. The irony is that, in making conscious decisions over the years to eschew cooperation in the legislature on major issues (ostensibly to try to strengthen their positions with their bases), party leaders have generated grassroots desires from among those very bases for their own ouster. And, gerrymandering — perceived as beneficial by party leaders — has not only exaggerated these movements, but facilitated them by increasing the number of districts that embrace only hardline narratives.
The incentives that drive party leaders cause them to favor their party's electoral success over the Congress’ functionality as an institution. When viewing the political system solely through the “prism of party,” the practice of gerrymandering makes sense. But, that very prism is precisely why the disturbing connection between long-term legislative obstinacy and gerrymandering remains today so perplexingly unobvious, and downright counterintuitive, to party leaders. What’s good for the party can actually undermine the intent of the system.
The longer the unawareness of gerrymandering’s true effects persists, the worse its effects will become. If grassroots efforts at redistricting reform are not pursued, and efforts to achieve bipartisan legislative solutions are not embraced by party leaders soon, these hardline movements will become entrenched as the parties’ establishments. That will perpetuate, and intensify, America's divisions even further; public faith in the Framers' system of government will likely deteriorate — and all of that is a very dangerous prospect.
Dennis R. Bullock teaches AP US Government & Politics and AP Macroeconomics in Burbank, CA and publishes frequently on national politics. He was a candidate for the California State Assembly 43rdDistrict seat in 2016.