The Policy Dilemma

Ever since the Internet displaced slick magazines and daily printed newspapers, wise readers have heeded the warning to avoid the comments.  Something about the anonymity of online responses evidently unleashes some truly hateful impulses. Consequently, except for comments on this blog, I tend not to read the opinions posted by readers of various articles and op-ed pieces. But I do read the “Letters to the Editor” published in the printed magazines I still receive, and I recently read one that deserves wider distribution.

It was printed in the New Yorker, and in a few brief sentences, the writer outlined a central conundrum of policymaking in democratic systems. The letter was a response to an article by Sam Knight about the “uneven performance” of Conservative rule in the United Kingdom. The letter-writer wrote:

But Knight overlooked one force that has shaped the country’s trajectory: the extent to which its government has, since the seventies, transformed from a representative democracy, in which major decisions were made solely by elected officials with support from the civil service, to a popular democracy, in which some of the biggest questions are decided by popular vote rather than by Parliament.

This transformation has created a truly irrational system, which takes important questions influenced by many complicated variables and boils them down to simple binary decisions to be made by people who may not be thoroughly informed. Democracy should remain an ultimate value in the U.K., but, if it is to persist, it must produce positive results for its citizens—something the Brexit referendum clearly has not done. Alas, the supporters of referendums lose track of the ultimate justification for a democracy—namely, that our elected representatives know that we, the voters, can throw them out if we think they are managing the country badly. It is simply wrong to equate this truth with an unproven assumption that voters also have the collective wisdom to regularly make wiser choices about complex issues than our representatives do.

Conservatives in the U.S. have historically insisted–correctly–that this country was not intended to be a pure democracy, but a democratic republic. (I’m not sure everyone making that assertion could have explained the difference, but that’s another issue…) The Founders created a system in which we citizens (granted, then only citizens who were property-owning White guys) democratically elected members of the polity to represent us. The idea was that we would vote for thoughtful, educated, hopefully wise individuals, who would have the time, disposition and mental equipment to analyze complicated issues, deliberate with other, equally-thoughtful Representatives, and negotiate a policy thought likely to address that particular problem.

Direct democracy would put such questions to a popular vote, and complicated issues would be decided based upon the “passions of the majority” that so worried the men who crafted our Constitution.

The Founders’ system makes eminent sense–but it only works when two elements of our electoral system work.

First of all, it absolutely depends upon the qualities of the Senators and Representatives we elect. And second, it depends upon the ability of the voting public to oust lawmakers with whose priorities and decisions they disagree– lawmakers who are not doing what their constituents want.

Those two elements currently do not work, and those electoral dysfunctions explain the inability of our federal legislature (and several state legislatures) to function properly–i.e., to govern, rather than posture. Gerrymandering is at the root of both of these failures, and the reason for the vastly increased resort to popular referenda and initiatives.

Thanks to partisan redistricting, far too many of the people elected to the House of Representatives (Senate elections are statewide and cannot be gerrymandered) are simply embarrassing–ideologues and outright lunatics performing for the base voters of their artificially-constructed districts. People like Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Green, or Indiana’s version of MTG, Jim Banks, all of whom endangered America’s international interests by holding up and then voting against critical aid to Ukraine, among many other things–are examples of the intellectually and emotionally unfit and unserious “look at me” wrecking-ball caucus.

Gerrymandering also limits voters’ ability to rid ourselves of these impediments to rational governance.

There are other aspects of our electoral system that desperately need revision or elimination: the Electoral College comes immediately to mind. But the elimination of gerrymandering–partisan redistricting–would go a very long way to re-centering the system and encouraging thoughtful, reasonable people on both the Left and Right to run for office.


  1. One way to fix it would be to require that all districts must have rectangular boundaries. The exception would be a natural geographic boundary, that is something like the Ohio River. I think this would pass Constitutional muster, unless every Republican state AG files suit that goes to our current SCOTUS, which might never have had the need to read that document.

  2. Equal to gerrymandering (IMO) is dark money and PACS financing elections and influence.

  3. The UK and US are both oligarchies, ruled from the top down. This is why their policies don’t reach the people—they’re not meant to. The press represents the oligarchy as well. Last night during the White House stenographers and presstitutes dinner was a great example of the disconnect. Protesters against genocide and Palestinian rights were outside while the oligarch’s representatives were huddled safely on the inside, cracking jokes and eating fine foods.

    The New York Times editors were caught this week circulating a memo telling the journalists what words they could use and not use to describe the genocide. All the news agencies are doing this, so our reality and what we are being told is disconnected.

    Furthermore, while Biden, safely eating his fine meal, unleashed the hounds on college protesters, Dr. Jill Stein, another candidate for president, was getting a cop’s bicycle shoved in her face and arrested in Washington during a protest.

    Gerrymandering may be a good start, but the US/UK has been fractured for forty years, and the oligarchy has been exposed for all to see. As the policies become more and more reactionary to “halt their demise,” the more exposed it becomes.

    The more protectionist and reactionary they become, the worse it will get for them. The shiny veneer finish called Western Exceptionalism is coming off. Antony Blinken was sent home without a Chinese official yesterday. Only the US/China Diplomat saw him off at the airport. The oligarchy comprising the unipolar world is over. They just haven’t accepted it yet.

  4. Sadly, we are stuck with the present dysfunction since the Supreme Court gave a green light to political gerrymandering.

  5. We have people in government who don’t believe in governing. It couldn’t have come at a worse time in human history and we are running out of opportunities to displace them.

    It will be hard. All revolutions are. This is our turn.

    We can not live with liars.

  6. I agree that gerrymandering is one of the two biggest challenges. I believe the other is the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and the subsequent collapse of the regulation of political contributions.

  7. Gerrymandering is the enemy of majority rule, the key to small d rule, and redistricting should be in the hands of independent commissions, but since politicians and courts are loathe to correct this problem, perhaps we should correct this cancer on our democracy via constitutional amendment.

    Such a possibility is unlikely to be undertaken since those who enjoy minority rule via gerrymandering are in charge of reform and are exponents of the status quo, though some states have done redistricting via commission and provide their voters with the democratic rule the Founders envisioned.

    To do: File a bill calling for redistricting by commission and make it a campaign issue for underrepresented urban voters to understand how their vote is presently undervalued by this Republican tactic, and contemporaneosly file suit alleging, among other charges, that gerrymandering is unconstitutional on its face.

  8. With all the work being done by AI, I cannot imagine why it cannot be used to draw up fair districts in each state. Feed the data both parties have collected in the state’s voter registration files and let AI do its magic.

  9. Whatever works, Todd, but getting the status quo currently in charge via gerrymandering to agree to correct the system that undergirds their power is unlikely. A court order would be helpful if it could survive appeal.

  10. Those in positions of power do not easily let that power slip out of their hands, however the way in which they got to have the power. We have to vote any bastards out, and reconfigure the playing field!
    That MTG was re-elected once is bad enough, and Lauren B. as well, though this latter one may be quite vulnerable, and Gaetz, too. And on, and on.

  11. On the top of your game, Sheila! It is really disappointing that the reforms we need, and understand we need, and what steps are necessary to accomplish them, are not front and center on the legislative agenda and not likely to be as long as those produced by the gerrymandered districts retain their influence.

    They need to be replaced so that essential reforms in our democratic republic can be undertaken; without exaggeration, our survival is at stake.

  12. Redistricting by computer is really quite easy to specify.
    1. Population of State divided by number of districts.
    2. Census database map is divided up into the number of districts with the criteria being that each district has the shortest possible perimeter, and all districts are within + or – 1%.

    In this day and age, it is the logically fair way to do things. “Dr. Spock”

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