Advice and Consent and Gerrymandering

Sometimes, it’s illuminating to connect the dots.

Senate Republicans are refusing to hold hearings to consider a nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, and I have been critical of that refusal (by “strict constructionists,” no less) to discharge their constitutional duty. A reader emailed to say the Democrats would probably do the same if the political roles were reversed; I replied that I hoped they would at least be more subtle about it—go ahead and have hearings, and then reject the nominee.

His essential point, of course, was that both parties’ excessive partisanship and the polarization that characterizes today’s politics threatens our ability to govern ourselves, and he’s right.

One of the reasons for that excessive partisanship is gerrymandering. (And yes, I know that Senate seats cannot be gerrymandered. Bear with me here.)

I have posted for years about the anti-democratic effects of gerrymandering. As I have repeatedly noted, gerrymandering contributes to political polarization and gridlock; in safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left.

Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to appeal to the broader constituency, we get nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

The consequence of ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional gerrymandering has been a growing philosophical gap between the parties and— especially but not exclusively on the Republican side— an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.

In a post to SCOTUSblog considering the current standoff and potential nominees, Tom Goldstein makes two points in passing that illuminate this toxic situation. Noting that the political parties are in “a deadly embrace from which neither will easily budge,” he says

The administration feels a constitutional responsibility to press for the confirmation of a nominee and every political advantage in doing so. Republicans cannot accede to that effort because their base will not permit it.

After suggesting that the GOP will eventually choose to pursue the “slow walk and reject” option, he predicts that Senate Republicans will vote to reject “essentially as a block. Any other course than a decisive vote against the nominee invites a certain primary challenge from conservatives in the next election.” (emphasis mine)

What gerrymandering has done is radicalize the political bases. It is naive to assume that the consequences of that radicalization are confined to carefully-drawn, noncompetitive state legislative districts and House Districts.

Making matters worse, many of the most impassioned members of those radicalized bases—in both parties—have very tenuous understandings of  how American government actually works, let alone the country’s history or constitutional principles. They are ripe for demagoguery and bumper-sticker slogans.

They are the electorate that gerrymandering has helped to create, and they are the electorate to which Senate Republicans are pandering.

Connect the dots.


  1. “Connect the dots.”

    I don’t like taking up so much space. But you must remember that COLLECTING ALL THE DOTS is just as important, maybe more, that connecting the dots.

  2. If the Constitution requires nine sitting members on SCOTUS to assure a fair majority and Republicans are refusing to consider President Obama’s recommended replacement – before it happens – I suggest that all pending cases be held in abeyance until there are nine sitting judges to consider decisions. Let’s see how happy that makes Republicans who are awaiting action before SCOTUS if forced to wait another year.

    A reminder to those who believe President Obama should not be allowed to name Scalia’s successor; they need to be reminded that any president’s last year in office requires all responsibilities be met and he is allowed to use his presidential powers until the end of his term. No president’s final year in office is a phasing-out period regarding the job at hand.

  3. In saner times we would revel in more gentle tension between our Congress and our a President over functions like staffing SCOTUS. The President would aspire to find someone of his political ilk so well qualified as to be flawless to Americans. Take that Congress! Congress in turn would get out the microscope searching for flaws in the President’s judgement. Take that Pres!

    Who benefitted? We did. SCOTUS did. Democratic politics at its best.

    The opposite of democracy is extremism. All of the things that function well under democracy fail under extremism. That’s democracy’s fatal flaw but it’s yet another inevitable result of mass media based politics. Another imposition from the fathers of extremism.

    Thank you Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Grover Norquist, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, NRA and TV evangelists everywhere. Just look at the mess you made!

    Is there now a path to restore democracy?

    IDK, I just don’t, the middle of the road may be a bridge too far.

  4. And as I keep pointing out, there is nothing on the ‘left’ that compares to the Republicans ‘far right .’ even Sanders is pretty much an FDR Democrat. Hardly groundbreaking. And Clinton is much more conservative than Nixon. We haven’t gone anywhere, but both parties have moved to the right to protect the status quo.

  5. Ken; thank you for the correction, mea culpa. Knowing that an uneven number is required to assure a majority vote, I assumed the number 9 was a given.

  6. Thank you for connecting the dots showing how the insidious practice of gerrymandering impacts both chambers and is an attack on our democracy. We are sending a note out to the coalition for redistricting reform and will include a link to this fine commentary. You are a treasure.

  7. Was our country this divided before the civil war? Please history buffs, weigh in on this.

  8. Pete and Girl cousin,

    “…the middle of the road may be a bridge too far.”
    “We haven’t gone anywhere, but both parties have moved to the right to protect the status quo.”

    Sheila has continued to point out the contamination of the political process. Partisan politics can’t at the present time deliver equilibrium.

    For the past five or six years, my website for The Political Epidemiology Institute has displayed Albert Einstein’s quote: “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”

    Equilibrium is possible, but only if we go deeper. During WW II, Germany was holding the “trump card” with submarine warfare until SONAR became highly effective. The Koch Brothers “run deep.” For the most part, they operate sub-surface. However, their activities both surface and SUB-SURFACE have been continually tracked. They can’t escape a barrage of the truth.

    If they are “sunk,” the Tea Party will collapse much like Nazi Germany did from the strategic and tactical efforts of an effective COUNTERVAILING FORCE. And then, and only then, can we move toward any sort of political equilibrium.

  9. Every once in a while I give some thought to conspiracy vs culture as the cause behind the dysfunction that surrounds us here and now. I think now maybe the bottom line is both.

    Not an Illuminati type conspiracy as much the super wealth culture trying to thrive by using their preeminent resource, money, to buy mass media voice in order to create worker class culture that supports their habit. Sort of a pimp/hooker relationship.

    That leaves the question, who’s responsible for this problem, the pimps or the hookers?

    One can certainly argue each and both.

  10. I really am amused that you never seem to find extreme views anywhere except the right. Pete lists a whole slew of radicals but cannot find one single far left liberal in the polarization.

  11. Just the facts Ken. The world is not even though the press often wants to portray it that way in order to maintain readership among all sides of all issues. Political correctness.

    I still believe in right and wrong.

    Here’s what the NYTs has to say.

    Opinion | America’s Stacked Deck – The New York Times

    “It’s a little bizarre this political season to see wealthy candidates in both parties denouncing our political system for representing mostly the interests of, well, wealthy people.”

    “Bizarre, perhaps, and sometimes a tad hypocritical, but also accurate. America’s political system is rigged. The deck is stacked against ordinary people. That’s the frustration that has fueled, in very different ways, the anti-establishment campaigns of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders in particular, and that is leading other candidates, like Hillary Clinton, to grab their pitchforks as well.”

    “Yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top,” Clinton declared in the Democratic debate last week.”

    “One glimpse of the structural unfairness in America is this: A dumb rich kid is now more likely to graduate from college than a smart poor kid, according to Robert Putnam of Harvard University.”

    “Another: The 20 wealthiest Americans, a group that would fit comfortably inside a luxury private jet bound for a private Caribbean island, are worth more than the poorer half of the American population, according to a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies. Forbes’s wealthiest 100 are worth as much as all 42 million African-Americans, the report says.”

    Well written and informative.

    Those 20 people in the plane didn’t work that much harder then the others. In fact it can be argued that pimps don’t do any productive work.

  12. Pete,

    don’t forget Paul Wolfowitz. He goes way, way back in pushing for endless wars in the ME. He was evil before thee snake!

  13. I read an interesting article by Grey Raven on the Smirking Chimp Website, titled The Meaning of “Vichy Democrats”. Vichy France was the puppet government or client state of the Germans after the military defeat on continental Europe of the Benlux, French and British Armies.

    The World War 1 French General Philippe Pétain was called the The Lion of Verdun. Pétain after the French-German armistice became Prime Minister of Vichy France. The author of the article, “During these last eight years, the current U.S. administration and its Democratic Party essentially became America’s equivalent of Vichy France.states. ”

    The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) became the Vichy Democrats. The DLC supported Neo Liberal positions such as NAFTA and CAFTA. The DLC was the Corporate Wing of the Democratic Party. The DLC supported GWB’s invasion of Iraq. Bill Clinton became the Pétain of the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton was the chair of the DLC as Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas (1990–1991). Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (1995–2001) Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana (2001–2005), were also Chairs of the DLC. Lieberman actually endorsed John McCain in the 2008 Election.

    There were 56 Democratic 44 Republican Senators in 1991/93. The House break down was 267 Democrats , 167 Republicans and 1 Independent during this same time frame. Today we have the following in the Senate 44 Democrats, 54 Republicans and 2 Independents, in the House 188 Democrats and 246 Republicans.

    IMHO, it is not the Republicans who have won the Democrats have simply become the Vichy Democrats. The New Democratic party over the past decades except for President Obama’s election in 2008, which was quickly reversed in 2010 has abandoned Main Street for Wall Street.

  14. Louie, it seems to me both Wall St and Main Street are American institutions. I personally have no interest in chosing one over the other.

    Why can’t we have both? Why don’t we need both?

    My agenda is democracy as a path to maximize freedom and give we the people ownership of our government. What’s limiting that now is not Wall St but Main Street undone by propaganda from many sources. Religion, the NRA, yes, some of many industries; commercial banking, fossil fuels, energy, health care, insurance, automobiles, sports, entertainment, the political parties, etc but we need them all.

    We’ve known how to do this but apparently forgot.

    We just need to restore balance that’s been upset.

    Democracy is ours. We don’t need scapegoats we need an informed electorate. That’s us.

  15. When I spoke against Gerrymandering with my State Rep Dave Wolkins last Saturday, he said he had never really given any thought to the suggestion that legislators are ablt to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Maybe because he is a conservative and the current gerrymandered areas have worked to his benefit?

    The current committee studying this (which includes Sheila) was brought up in the conversation and a former state rep in attendance said there was a study years ago that found if districts were redrawn it would not have made much of a difference. I wonder just “who” did that study and how unbiased it was. I tend to think that it may have been just a token study that had no real value.

    Gerrymandering has allowed the Tea party to take as hostages the majority of the sane population of northern Indiana. And to add insult to injury most of those tea partiers are also religious extremists.

    If these extremists keep pushing and pushing the rest of us with their demands to have it ALL their way, they will certainly be responsible for causing a revolution in our state. Personally, I would like to see them all used for target practice by the NRA enthusiasts.

  16. Theresa Bowers, in answer to your question, yes the country was this divided before the civil war and it was this divided before the writing of the constitution. The difference between now and those times was that the people elected men to the convention or congress who held their views, but who would listen to an argument and think about how it would effect his constituents, propose changes, and listen to the other side argue against those changes, etc.

    The media, including the internet, and the importance of money to afford the use of the media, has made this kind of thoughtful give and take nearly impossible. I disagree with Sheila and agree with those above who who say that this has caused a general shift to the right for both the right and the left.

  17. Nancy, don’t you think that even a facetious (I hope) reference to tea partiers as targets for NRA is a bit inappropriate? Gerrymandering has been with us for a long, long time and after a brief review of the Indiana state legislature map, I can assure you that it is not as ridiculous as the North Carolina congressional map I saw 30 years ago when democrats were in control. One of their districts ran the length (north to south) of the state about half a mile on either side of I-95.

  18. Ken, having the NRA use the tea partiers for target practice would be excellent. It would take something like that to (hopefully) knock some sense into their hard heads, especially since the NRA members are mostly from their own party.

    How does comparing Indiana’s gerrymandering to NC’s some 30 years ago make gerrymandering more palatable at any point in time? Ending gerrymandering would go a long way to calm down the extreme views within both parties.

  19. To Ken’s point that extremism occurs on both sides of the political spectrum, I think the serious arguing always takes place at the margins. The worst part is that those discussions usually exclude the opinions of the many closer to the center. There is value to more people by developing coalitions that include the center and incorporating their ideas.

  20. The biggest question is how do we actually get rid of gerrymandering? Kvetching about something without a plan for eliminating it is wasted breath…

  21. “The Constitution places the power to determine the number of Justices in the hands of Congress. The first Judiciary Act, passed in 1789, set the number of Justices at six, one Chief Justice and five Associates. Over the years Congress has passed various acts to change this number, fluctuating from a low of five to a high of ten. The Judiciary Act of 1869 fixed the number of Justices at nine and no subsequent change to the number of Justices has occurred.”….Supreme Court of the United States website

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