Skip to content

GERRYMANDERING – A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

September 9, 2016

GERRYMANDERING – A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

(I am indebted for research for this essay from the Summer Edition of The American Prospect, my favorite political magazine, in an article by Rachel M. Cohen entitled Liberal Governor, Divided Government. Other than a discussion of Pennsylvania’s problems, the commentary is mine.)

Tom Wolf, the liberal Democratic governor of Pennsylvania who defeated a sitting governor by 10 points in 2014 is rich, holds a doctorate, and when in business paid 20 to 30 percent of his company’s profits to his 600 workers as he single-handedly attacked the scourge of wage inequality all of us are suffering these days. His award-winning doctoral dissertation in political science at MIT was on the structural change in the U.S. House of Representatives. He earlier took some time off from pursuit of his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth to serve in the Peace Corps in India, and his favorite international hero is Mahatma Gandhi (one of my 10 most important people in history – the victim of an assassin’s bullet in 1948). He now donates his governor’s salary to charity. What’s not to like with such a governor?

He is having difficulty in governing his home state of Pennsylvania in pragmatic style because (as in many other states), Pennsylvania is gerrymandered and indeed is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the union. Both the State House and Senate are heavily Republican and the House is especially antagonistic to his calls for reality in budgeting, taxation and the like. Like many Republican-dominated state legislatures with Democratic governors, their leadership presents “smoke and mirrors” budget proposals to their governors which amount to “veto bait” which they can then parade to the “folks back home” in an irresponsible demonstration of ego and power, but which do not serve the folks back home and other Keystone State citizens well, especially in the arenas of budgeting and taxation. Republicans submitted such a “smoke and mirrors” budget to Governor Wolf, and for the first time in history, he vetoed the entire budget, as well he should.

A compromise budget which would have earned the governor’s signature was passed by the Republican Senate by a 43-7 vote but the House refused to even bring it to a vote. Result? Chaos. Reality yielded to ideological purity of Tea Party and other right wing zealots in the gerrymandered House.

How could such things happen among people who were elected to represent the best interests of the people who elected them (as well as those who did not vote for them)? Indeed (as in many states and nationally as well) there were more total votes for Democrats in the House in Pennsylvania than there were Republicans, but yet the House is heavily Republican. How could that be? Aren’t we a democracy where the majority supposedly rules? The culprit is, of course, gerrymandering, where the majority party in state houses around the nation redraws voting district lines to favor election of their own party members every decennial per the Constitution.

Republicans did a good job of gerrymandering in 2010, so good that the minority rather than the majority is now ruling in many state Houses and our federal House as well. Not only is our democracy threatened by such shenanigans, but there is also the problem of unaccountability. Per Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania: “Due to gerrymandering, our districts are not competitive, and so the legislatures are unaccountable – especially the leadership. They don’t feel the voters anymore. They know they will be reelected, and they can be as ideologically pure as they want and refuse to negotiate.”

This, of course, perfectly describes the Pennsylvania House’s refusal to even bring the amended budget agreement (that had already been overwhelmingly voted for by the Republican Senate) up for a vote. While chaos hung in the balance, the right wing zealots in the House went home, and why not? It didn’t matter what they did or didn’t do because they would be reelected anyway, so why bother being accountable? Freedom from accountability to voters can lead to all sorts of undemocratic mischief (cloaked, of course, by high-sounding principles from the stump), but not all the bluster and pretense in the world can balance a budget. It is arithmetic and accountability and pragmatism in making the hard choices imposed by reality that balance budgets, not ideology.

So if gerrymandering is the culprit in maintaining our democracy and holding our representatives accountable to those who elected them, what are we going to do about it? Unfortunately it is the various state legislatures that are in charge of “redistricting,” and they will, of course, draw the redistricting lines to favor their party’s retention of power, whatever damage is done to our democracy as a result. There have been calls for reform in order to prevent sitting legislators from drawing district lines for political gain, but many states do not have voter initiatives in place to facilitate such a process leading to change (and legislators who have benefited from the current anti-democratic situation are unlikely to pass laws to facilitate their own political demise).

Two states (Arizona and California) have come up with model independent commissions that draw state and congressional district lines, and this reform in both cases was won by the voters via statewide initiatives. However, Pennsylvania and many other states have no such process for reform by voters, so those who want such independent redistricting are in for a much longer and tougher fight.

There is another downer to be discussed as a result of unconstrained gerrymandering in addition to the threat to democracy and unaccountability of representatives to those they represent, and it is this: The more that citizens think the system is rigged – either that their votes don’t really count because of gerrymandering or that nothing will ever get done because of ideological gridlock – the greater is the likelihood that voters will disengage entirely, creating a downward spiral of popular engagement. This is the way social cohesion unravels, leading to total loss of democracy and mobs in the street who will support all sorts of ideologues in search of economic and political stability (see Hitler, Mao et al. – or sloganeers who will make America great again).

President Obama in his last State of the Union address had this to say about gerrymandering, among other things: “We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” He is right to a fault, and this should include gerrymandering at the state level as well.

The fate of our democracy, political accountability and civic engagement may well depend upon ridding ourselves of this threat to our continuing existence as a viable state, so let’s agitate for reform of this anti-democratic system of gerrymandering and bring back one of the bedrock premises of our democracy, i.e., majority rule.      GERALD      E

 

 

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: