Depressing Thoughts for the 4th

Today, as we celebrate the birthday of our country, we might take a few moments to consider our polarized and paralyzed legislative process.

To take just one example, the odds are high that the GOP-controlled House will block immigration reform. Wonder why?

Blame gerrymandering.

Jared Bernstein laid it out recently in the Washington Post:

First, “only 38 of the House’s 234 Republicans, or 16%, represent districts in which Latinos account for 20% or more of the population.” Second, “only 28 Republican-held districts are considered even remotely at risk of being contested by a Democratic challenger, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.”

So for about 200 of the House’s Republicans, a primary challenge by conservatives angry over “amnesty” is probably a more realistic threat than defeat at the hands of angry Hispanic voters, or even angry Democrats.

This state of affairs is pernicious, but it is also difficult to change. Thanks to partisan redistricting and the precision of modern computer programs, voters no longer choose their representatives.  Representatives choose their voters. And as I have previously noted–and Bernstein’s article amply documents-gerrymandering exacerbates political polarization and gridlock.

In competitive districts, nominees know they have to run to the middle to win in the fall. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who tend to be much more ideological.  Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they are a powerful incentive for the incumbent to protect his flank. So we elect nominees beholden to the political extremes, who are unwilling or unable to compromise.

Since both parties gerrymander when they are in power, it has been virtually impossible to replace the current corrupt system with nonpartisan redistricting. We are stuck with the crazies for the foreseeable future.

Of course, so is the GOP.

Happy 4th.


  1. The paralysis and polarization you mention is another gift to our democracy from the Roberts-Scalia-Alito-Thomas-Kennedy cabal on the Supreme Court. They abdicated any role in regulating gerrymandering by holding a few years ago that such challenges are no longer “justiciable” because they involve “political questions.” Thus the message to the lower courts: anything goes.

  2. Here is where I show my ignorance but…how and why is gerrymandering allowed? There is no way to keep up with the changing face of residency in any area of any city and the population numbers change randomly. Immigration pro/con issue is a major factor in current partisan redistricting. Jim Merritt had the nerve to write a lengthy op ed article regarding abandoned buildings in this city in the Star this morning. He had the perfect opportunity in 1991 to actually accomplish something to begin resolving this problem but the issue was dropped when Goldsmith took office. Merritt spoke at the Mayor’s Conference on Abandoned Buildings regarding Unsafe Building Amendments in the 1991 General Assembly. This is an issue that effects gerrymandering while doing next to nothing to resolve the problem of current 10,000-12,000 abandoned buildings in Marion County. In 1991, when he spoke at the Conference, there were 4,500 – 5,000 abandoned buildings. This was an issue that resulted in the all day Conference due to demands from the public to do something after Mayor Hudnut requested a study be done regarding the problem. It isn’t only the numbers and skin tones that cause gerrymandering, it is the condition of the areas involved in these changes. The fact that next to nothing has been done in 22 years, except politicians occasionally voicing concerns about the problem, should be a major concern to all of us. The elected officials need to maintain their standing in their currently gerrymandered neighborhoods and begin resolving on-going problems rather than seeking fewer issues and more votes. Dream on, JoAnn, dream on. And Happy July 4th to all!

  3. I suggest gerrymandering is a well-used tool in both parties’ toolboxes. Also that the Democrats could have fixed immigration during 2009-2010 when they had 60 votes in the Senate.

    JoAnn raises an issue that I too am very concerned about, that of the abandoned houses in Marion County. This situation is not being covered well by media, and not being handled well by government. In the spirit of the 4th I’d like to cut thru the fuzziness. Off the cuff I see 3 types of neighborhoods with abandoned or repossessed houses.

    (1) Areas like mine on the east side – average house value is $90-$110K – we have 2-3 repo’s (aka REO’s) out of a couple hundred homes. The two I know of are beat up former rental units, listed at about $40,000. That price point screws up anyone else trying to sell a house, which isn’t easy in the first place.

    (2) Areas like Tuxedo Park, where there can be 2-3 empty houses per block. I ‘think’ (not claiming to know) that at that saturation rate, the problems are about the rundown appearance, graffiti, and the depressing effect on the neighbors. Plus the problem mentioned above, that a wreck of a house drags down property values.

    (3) Areas like (iirc) West 26th, a few small stretches in 46201, etc, where there’s more unoccupied houses than occupied. Dodge City. These areas are impossible to live in safely.

    The fuzz to cut through IMO is that these conditions have been created by government, and now government wants more government to ‘fix the problem’. State and local government have proposed solutions that involve illegally ‘taking’ properties without due process; requiring a $10,000 bond to own an empty house; allowing non-profits to fix empty houses and bill the owner, which would then be paid out of the bond. These machinations miss the point. Empty houses occur where people no longer want to live, it’s that simple. People are rational, they don’t want to live where there’s bad schools and high crime.

    But we have bad schools and high crime primarily because there ain’t no jobs! Most big factories in Indy have closed in the past generation, and then NAFTA made this worse. There used to be a Mallory (electronics) plant near Sherman and Washington, that’s gone. Mexicans come here and work ten times harder than the average US citizen, for much less pay, which drives down hourly rates for casual labor like construction go-fers. Construction unions are infamous for excluding black workers, which I see daily at the road construction site near my home. So the abandoned house thing is a mess, yes, but it’s a symptom of a much bigger problem – that much of the US has been sinking into depression for the past generation.

  4. I would point out that when Republicans draw the maps, districts that are drawn to be Democratic are even less competitive in the general election than in the Republican districts. In a gerrymander they don’t draw competitive districts unless there is no other possibility. Sheila is right that computer programs have made it easier to accomplish this.

    Not quite sure how abandoned homes enters into this discussion, but I’m a big believer that many abandoned homes are best bulldozed and turned into green space. But Eugene correctly notes there are legal problems with doing this. I have written about bulldozing abandoned buildings before, of course at the time I didn’t know the shenanigans going on with Indy’s abandoned housing program.

    I don’t buy Eugene claim though that NAFTA is responsible for the abandoned homes. NAFTA is the single best thing Bill Clinton did while in office. It made the US a better player in the world economy. The technological revolution and free trade are what fueled the longest economic expansion in our nation’s history. We had strong economic growth for about 18 of the 20 years from 1982 through about 2002.

  5. Umm, Paul, NAFTA, wasn’t signed into law until 1993 and didn’t become effective until 1994. Before it became law, the US had a small trade surplus with Mexico that has turned into large trade deficits as manufacturers have relocated south of the border to take advantage of lower wages and fewer regulations. Our trade deficit with Canada has grown dramatically. If losing more than one million jobs has been economically beneficially, then I suppose NAFTA was a good thing. Every trade agreement the U.S. has entered into in the past 50 years has had one-sided benefits for our trading partners.

    Explain, Sheila, what is in this immigration bill that constitutes “reform.” It gives amnesty to tens of millions of people who ignored our immigration laws. It rewards law-breaking immigrants at the expense of law-abiding immigrants. It gives preferential treatment to employers who employ people who entered this country illegally over those who entered the country legally or are native to this country. This bullshit of lambasting everyone who opposes whatever you support as a bigot is getting really old. If you don’t like gerrymandering, blame your own party. The Democratic Party is the party that mastered and used gerrymandering endlessly to dominate Congress for 50 years.

  6. Really Gary, you think that paying several thousand dollar fines, paying backed taxes, passing background checks, waiting 13 years, and meeting work and English tests all the while to attain something means you get that something for FREE? How about you take a second to sit in the corner and think about what you just said. We’re practically profiteering off this group of people.

  7. RR, I’ll bet there are a lot of hidden costs for those folks, and a lot of benefits for us. Right now, illegals pay Social Security tax, but never collect. The SS Administration takes that into account when they calculate the expected outflow.

  8. Ogden said: “NAFTA is the single best thing Bill Clinton did while in office. It made the US a better player in the world economy.”
    …I strongly disagree with Mr. Ogden on this. We did have prosperity with the Clinton administration but the affects of NAFTA were taking their toll. Though NAFTA wasn’t signed into law until 1994 it took years for many US companies to make their move out of the country.
    While assisting in a project at a small community college in rural Southern Illinois in 2000, I came across a group of 8-10 students in their 40’s from a small town called Fairview. They said they were being retrained because the town’s largest employer, a picture frame manufacturing plant, had picked up and moved to Mexico thanks to NAFTA. They also told me that a few years earlier and to the west in Mount Vernon, Illinois a large printing corp called “World Color Press” left town thanks to NAFTA leaving hundreds, maybe thousands, unemployed. When management demanded a cut in pay to the already underpaid workers, and the workers refused, World Color moved their huge presses to Mexico. The effects were that many moved to St. Louis to find work.
    Another large employer in Mount Vernon is a General Tire manufacturing plant, and easily the largest in the area. General Tire used the same tactics as World Color to keep wages low with threats of moving to Mexico due to NAFTA. The reason the workers were demanding better wages at General Tire is because their parent company is German owned and some of the Germans were at the plant to help in setting up another assembly line and were laughing at the locals for working so cheep and without many benefits…they called them 3rd world hillbillies. Very offensive to the locals!
    I also worked on a project with the National Guard in Southern Illinois right after 9-11 and the local artillery unit was being deployed. I talked to the young soldiers and most said they joined the Guard because the area lacked opportunity, except for the military.
    I also worked on projects further south at SIU, Carbondale. There also locals were being retrained due to NAFTA.

    I suggest Mr. Ogden travel to some of these small rural communities and associate with the locals…go to their corner bars and local diners, understand how these trade agreements affect them

  9. CORRECTION : The small town I wrote about is named “Fairfield”…not Fairview. This was 13 years ago and It took a rereading to find my error.

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