Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Elbridge Legacy

The phrase “threat to our Democracy*” has gotten a heavy workout the past few years.

Liberals generally use it to describe things like The Patriot Act, the Bush Administration’s use of intelligence to argue for the Iraq War, and well, just about everything related to what they consider the Imperial Presidency of George W. Bush.

Conservatives will trot it out to describe things like the Nanny State, judicial activism, and billionaire activists like George Soros spending their fortunes on elections.

But all of these things, whatever you may think of them, are the policies of elected officials, or at least the outcomes of policies of elected officials. If we as voters are unhappy, we get to vote for someone else who would conceivably change the policy.

But what if you can't vote for somebody else? What if the system has been rigged so that you are stuck with the incumbent you have? That is a genuine "threat to democracy". I'm referring to something called "gerrymandering".

(I've lost most of you by now anyway, haven't I? If you'd prefer something mindlessly fun over this galactically boring civics lesson, go here).

What is Gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering is defined by FairVote as "the deliberate rearrangement of the boundaries of congressional districts to influence the outcome of elections". For example, if a state legislature was Republican (like in Texas), they could rearrange some districts so that enough Republicans lived in each one, and the incumbent would be ensured reelection every two years. In New York (where I live), the Democrats can do the same.

It's named for Elbridge Gerry, a man who has much to be proud of. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He helped force the Bill of Rights onto the Constitition. He was James Madison's Vice President. But sadly, his legacy came as as governor of Massachussets, when he supported a redistricting bill that gave his party control over numerous Congressional seats. (A Federalist opponent remarked of one district, "It looks like a salamander". No, his friend replied, it's a gerrymander.)

In fact, I live in a gerrymandered district. For years, Rockland County was part of a suburban Congressional District, with bits of other counties tossed in, and was represented by Ben Gilman, a moderate Republican. But in 2003, the gerrymanders swooped in. They carved out two new, funky-looking districts that start in the North Bronx, snake up the eastern shore of the Hudson River, then jump the river to encompass a chunk of Rockland County. The two districts look like a couple of tadpoles having conjugal relations. I share a district with people in the North Bronx, but not with people in the next town.

Eliot Engel, my congressman, represents one of those districts. In the years before the gerrymandering, Engel won elections with nearly 90% of the vote. So they took Engel's overwhelmingly Democratic district, and changed it so that some slightly more Republican areas got encapsulated in it. EE won his last election with 76.4% of the vote. In 2004, he got 76.2%. I think Mr. Engel's seat is safe.

The Death of Moderates
Why does any of this matter? Well, there's the obvious - my vote has been rendered worthless.
But what is far worse is that we have created a U.S. House of Representatives that rewards extreme partisanship. With a 98% reelection rate, and the vast majority of the 435 reps in overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic districts - why would anyone need to compromise? Why would anyone reach across the aisle?

Worst of all, why would anyone hold moderate views? If you are a moderate - but represent an immoderate district - you will be targeted by the other side as vulnerable in the next election.
We should be furious about this. But we're not - and you know why? First, because both parties benefit, so they gleefully carry on with the support of their constituents. Second, the only people who really get hurt, whose views get ignored...are moderates. And moderates, well, we're just not the angry type.

So be ready...the partisanship you see now will not walk out the door with Dubya in January of 2008. It will stay under a Clinton and Giuliani Administration, and yes, it will even stay under an Obama or Thompson Administration, even though they seem like such nice guys.

* The US, incidentally, is not a democracy. In a pure democracy the people (demos in Greek) would rule (kratos). Meaning, we would directly vote on everything: appropriations bills, judicial appointments, whether or not to designate September National Bourbon Heritage Month. In a pure democracy, we'd be voting so often we wouldn't have time to work, play, eat, sleep, or write galactically boring blog posts on the evils of gerrymandering.

So instead, we have a republic (this one comes from Latin; res publica means public thing) . Under a republic, we vote for people to do those things for us. Sometimes they are great, sometimes they are awful, but usually they are average.


Jim K said...

Gerrymandering is one of the worst things that this country has allowed to exist. It happens in every state where there are many congressional districts but also happens within the state legislature which ensures that the state government we have is the one we will keep. Ex. Bruno (R) in the Senate and Silver (D) in the Assembly have been the Majority Leader in their respective houses probably as long as you have been a voter. I do not see it changing anytime in the future for just the reason you stated; no one cares. Good column but most people will ignore it.

Stephen said...

"King Arthur: I am your king.
Woman: Well I didn't vote for you.
King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.
Woman: Well how'd you become king then?
[Angelic music plays... ]
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Dennis: Oh, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you." - Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Anonymous said...

Jimmy Tide for President in '08. That would solve all our probems.