Minority Rule, Courtesy of Gerrymandering

In addition to its website, Talking Points Memo sends out a morning newsletter to subscribers. A few days ago, that newsletter (paywall) included two paragraphs that sum up the single biggest challenge facing American democracy.

The success of the abortion rights coalition in ballot initiatives from Kentucky to Michigan showed that abortion can be just as powerful an incentive to vote for those who support abortion access as for those who oppose it.

For many House Republicans, that shift would, in another world, alter their behavior. With majorities in even deeply red states supporting abortion access, you’d expect these lawmakers to moderate their position. But thanks to the dearth of competitive House districts due to cumulative years of gerrymandering, many of them have more to fear from a primary challenge from the right than a general election against a Democrat.

I have frequently posted about the effects of gerrymandering. Probably the most damaging consequence is voter suppression; as I have often noted, people who live in a district considered “safe” for the party they don’t support lack an incentive to vote. When the disfavored party doesn’t turn out, that also depresses the votes for that party’s  candidates for statewide office.

Here in Indiana–a state that has been identified as one of the five most gerrymandered states in the country–our legislature is beginning a session in which the Republican super-majority continues to disregard the demonstrated priorities of its Hoosier constituents.

Several Republican lawmakers appear to oppose the Governor’s call to invest in the Hoosier state’s inadequate, struggling public health system. For that matter, there appears to be no appetite for confronting Indiana’s dismal ratings in a wide variety of quality of life indicators. As Hoosier Democrats recently pointed out: 

Hoosiers have a F rated quality-of-life and the state has a D- rated workforce, a C- rated education system, the third worst maternal mortality rate in the nation, and the country’s most polluted waterways. It appears Republicans will once again ignore the warning signs from Indiana’s top business leaders and their taxpayer-funded reports and instead choose to focus on their extreme agenda.

CNBC lists Indiana as one of the ten worst states in which to live.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve posted on just one part of that extreme agenda, the GOP’s war on public education. Other efforts include our lawmakers’ continuing war on LGBTQ Hoosiers– especially on  trans kids and anyone in the medical community who dares to serves them.

Indiana isn’t alone, unfortunately.

In 2015, two political scientists– Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern–published a study concluding that the preferences of US voters barely matter. Or as they put it, “economic elites and organized interest groups play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.”…

Gilens and “a small army of research assistants” compiled nearly 2,000 polls and surveys that asked for opinions about a proposed policy change. Since he wanted to separate out the preferences of economic elites and average citizens, he only used surveys that asked about respondents’ income. He found 1,779 poll results that fit that description, spanning from 1981 to 2002. Then he took the answers of median-income voters to represent what average voters think, and the answers of respondents at the 90th income percentile to represent what economic elites think.

Next, the authors had to measure what interest groups thought about all of those issues. They decided to use Fortune magazine’s yearly “Power 25” lists of the most influential lobbying groups, but since it “seemed to neglect certain major business interests,” they added the ten industries that had reported the most spending on lobbying. Their final list includes 29 business groups, several major unions, and other well-known interest groups like the AARP, the Christian Coalition, the NRA, the American Legion, and AIPAC. Each interest group’s position on those 1,779 policy change proposals were coded, along with how strongly each group felt about each proposal. The results were combined to assess how interest groups in general, felt.

The study found that average citizens only get what they want if economic elites or organized interest groups also want it…

In contrast, the preferences of economic elites and interest groups — especially economic elites — are each quite influential.

In dramatically gerrymandered Indiana, the clear preferences/warnings of the state’s largest businesses and growing tech sector are routinely disregarded in favor of  the “influential elites” who evidently believe that low taxes are a more attractive economic development tool than a reasonable quality of life–a belief with which CNBC begs to differ.

Indiana’s super-majority does listen to the well-organized religious fundamentalists whose policy preferences repel the high-skilled workers our economy needs. 

As long as they can gerrymander, our unrepresentative representatives are safe from democracy– and their constituents.


  1. While it has been a while in the Hoosier State, I remember a time in the 90’s when I worked for the Department of Correction and with the Indiana Legislature on criminal justice issues. I recall the GOP’s Senator Les Duvall (whom I greatly respected and admired) had the same complaint about the Democratic Party’s then-majority and gerrymandering. It can be equally corrosive to democracy and majority rule no matter which partisans carry it out.

  2. Excellent analysis. This is the end product of decades of long-term thinking from the likes of the Koch brothers and other conservative thinkers. You have to admire their effectiveness, even though their evil intentions are prominent.
    Long-term thinking is not something the liberals are accustomed to in any meaningful way, but they need to begin looking down the road to have an effect in 10 or 20 years.

  3. Kevin McCarthy and Netanyahu were both denied breast feeding in infancy and now be damned if lust for power requires lurching to the far right now shriveled teat.

  4. James Todd … excellent point. Sheila, once again, you make a compelling argument.

  5. How have other states fought gerrymandering? What can we learn from their successes? Are there any organizations in Indiana working on this problem that we can support?

  6. Every time I vote, I feel like it’s an effort in futility. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to vote if for no reason other than an act of defiance. It seems like we could get 100% of Hoosier Democrats out to the polls and it still wouldn’t make a difference, due to gerrymandering. We all know the problem; I wish we could identify a solution.

  7. Having fired a few Federal Government employees (a task I was advised repeatedly, was impossible), I can say that nothing is impossible, if you are willing to put in the work required to make it happen. Indiana Dems need to work all 92 counties. They need to go door to door and talk with the people who don’t vote. Give them a reason to believe that something might just change if they did. STOP putting up re-treads for public office. STOP ignoring everything outside of Marion, Allen, Monroe, and Lake counties. I’ve said this before so many times, I feel like a broken record START talking about policies that help people with everyone you meet. NEVER label any policy or candidate by anything other than their name. Register everyone who isn’t when you visit whether Democrat, Republican, or Independent. It is very hard work, but it must be done.

  8. Gerrymander a district to be either DEM or GOP. Put big money (“white” and dark) to elect a trustworthy “pol” who will support corporate interests. BINGO – good to go for years – in ’22, incumbents for state/federal offices won 96% of the time. Been there – tried to overcome that…

  9. Correct Terry. It was early 90s. Of course Senator Duvall had a partisan perspective as you would expect. Either party taking partisan advantage and drafting political maps is not good for our democracy. History has clearly proven this.

  10. Educated parents know better than to think they are qualified to teach their children. If they opt out of public schools they will instead send their children to private schools, ones NOT attached to a fundamentalist/evangelical cult. They will send them to a boarding school if necessary run by the Episcopal, or Lutheran, Methodist, etc if necessary.

    Todd this once again demonstrates your complete and total lack of understanding, AKA ignorance.

  11. Sharon, the reason other states, such as Michigan, could end gerrymandering is that they have the “initiative”. Citizens signed petitions and the question was placed on the ballot. Michigan, being basically “blue” passed the ballot initiative and subsequently broke the GOP stranglehold on their state legislature.

    Peggy, exactly. I remember hearing this from some rural Democrats in the “senior caucus” (an unofficial caucus within the party). Their simple complaint was the Democrats don’t show up.

    Dr. Stan – Yes! You are completely correct.
    As for religious private schools, there are secular private schools for the rich as well. Detroit had at least two, when I was growing up, neither of which my family could afford, and Cranbrook, which started as an Episcopal school became complete secular in the ’70s. It is considered one of the finest schools in the state (and probably most expensive) having both boarding and day students. Some of there students come from the surrounding suburbs which have excellent school systems, but not the “top”. Money confers advantage at every level of education.

    Back to gerrymandering – it will exist (and the GOP is better at it) until there is national legislation. Something to do with deviation from a benchmark might work. Average party vote for Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Treasure (usually party line votes) and see if the allotted seats differ from that percentage by some percent. It is does, that is defined as illegal gerrymandering. It would have to be “loose” enough to allow for real variations (and thus some small amount of gerrymandering), but it would eliminate the extremes that exist today. Easy, fair, and probably not going to happen anytime soon.

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