Political Animal


February 04, 2013 1:10 PM Polarization and Gerrymandering

By Ed Kilgore

As he often does, political scientist John Sides has cast an empirical spotlight on a widely held bit of conventional wisdom and found it wanting, this time at Wonkblog with respect to a recent statement by the president suggesting that gerrymandering is at the heart of what he has earlier called the “fever” of GOP partisanship and obstructionism:

Obama expressed a common view: that gerrymandering has created a bunch of safe seats for each party, making representatives responsive only to their partisan base and unwilling to forge bipartisan compromises.
It would be nice if this view were true, because it would suggest a clear solution to our polarized politics: draw more competitive districts. But unfortunately it is not true. The most important influence on how members of Congress vote is not their constituents, but their party. This makes them out-of-step not only with the average American — the “broad-based public opinion” that Obama mentioned — but also, and ironically, with even their base. Members are more partisan than even voters in their party.

Sides proceeds to show that the voting patterns of Members of the House—particularly on the GOP side—are generally uniform whether or not their district is marginal as measured by presidential results. He also notes that the gerrymandering theory is useless as an explanation of polarization in the Senate (particularly with respect to states represent by Senators from both parties, such as Iowa and Louisiana—and one might add Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and several other states).

Does this mean voters have no recourse for dealing with ideologically extreme Members? No—on the contrary, it means Members are willing to run a high risk of losing in the more competitive districts in order to remain faithful to party and ideology.

So if gerrymandering isn’t the cause of polarization (though it may be an effect in many cases), what is? Sides mentions two theories:

One is that polarization has deep roots in fundamental structural transformations of American politics — the realignment of Republican and Democrats on civil rights and even the rise of economic inequality. Another possibility has to do with who controls local and state party organizations, who play a large role in selecting new candidates to run for office. In research on one of the most polarized state legislatures, California’s, Seth Masket finds that local party organizations have been captured by activists for whom ideological fealty is paramount.

Still another possibility, that almost never gets mentioned, is that today’s successful politicians, particularly in the GOP, have extremist views of their own, which is how they got elevated to Congress in the first place.

None of this is to say that gerrymandering isn’t bad or that finding ways to create more competitive districts isn’t a good idea. Just because the threat of general election defeat doesn’t deter a Member from advancing unrepresentative partisan or ideological views doesn’t mean the reality of defeat wouldn’t be beneficial. Additionally, rotten boroughs tend to increase the possibility of rotten, corrupt representatives. But the president’s idea that redistricting reform would break “the fever” is not supported by the available evidence.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • max on February 04, 2013 1:30 PM:

    But the president’s idea that redistricting reform would break “the fever” is not supported by the available evidence.

    Agreed. It might break the stranglehold of the R's on the House which might, in turn, eventually break the conviction that the current R party platform represents the views of a large majority of Americans, which it surely does not.

    Reforming the electoral college, gerrymandering, and voting, might allow D's bigger gains, but if it were done right (that is, democratically) it might allow the emergence of functional third parties that could win elections, which would eventually result in more than a 1 1/2 party system. (And then maybe David Brooks NE R party idea could take off.)

    ['I don't think anyone will do anything - lack of courage, lack of convictions. Nobody but us lefty types believes in democracy.']

  • iyoumeweus on February 04, 2013 2:13 PM:

    Section 1: ARTICLE II, Section 1, Paragraphs 2 and 3 to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed and superseded by this amendment. Henceforth, the President and the Vice President shall be elected directly by a popular vote of all citizens 18 or over on Election Day, as determined by the Congress and approved by the President in accordance with the Constitution.
    Section 2: Amendment XII and Amendment XXIII shall be superseded by this Amendment except for the following sentences of Amendment XII:
    a. The person having the greatest number of votes for President shall be President
    b. The person having the greatest number of votes for Vice President shall be Vice President
    c. No person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice President of the United States.
    d. The President and Vice President shall not be an inhabitant of the same state.
    Section 3: Each member of the House of Representatives shall represent no more then 250,000 +/- 12,500 citizens. As the nation’s population increases or decreases the number of House member will increase or decrease to accommodate this requirement. Congressional Districts shall be compact and drawn along state, country, city, town and village lines wherever possible to accommodate equal representation. In some instances, election district boundaries may have to be used but in no case can election districts be divided except in accordance with state, county and local laws. In cities with a population greater than one million (1,000,000) Congressional Districts need not be compact but drawn in such a manner so as to reflect the various ethnic, cultural and neighborhood interests, differences and diversities residing within our country.
    Section 4: Any state with a population of five million (5,000,000) shall be able to elect another Senator and receive an additional Senator for each additional increase in five million citizens. All Senators shall be elected at large and represent the entire state in Congress.
    Section 5: The Congress shall have the power to establish by law all procedures pertaining to the election of President and Vice President including: the certification and transmission of election results, a sorting and winnowing process of potential candidates, voter identification, guaranteeing each citizen the right to vote in secret and ensuring each vote is counted.
    Section 6: Federal judges shall have the power to review and adjust Congressional District boundaries to better reflect Section 3, but the compliant must come from within the Congressional District(s) with an accompanying petition signed by ten per cent (10%) of those residing within the district(s).
    Section 7: a. Any state having fewer than 250,000 citizens shall be guaranteed one representative and two Senators.
    b. The District of Columbia may elect representatives in accordance with its population and Section 3.
    c. The District of Columbia being once a part of Maryland may take part in electing Senators from Maryland.
    Section 8: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • Zinsky on February 04, 2013 2:38 PM:

    As Slim Pickens famously said in Blazing Saddles, "We need to ride in there just a'whoppin' and a'whumpin'....."

  • golack on February 04, 2013 2:48 PM:

    effect or cause, still locks in the seat...
    that boil needs to be lanced

  • Neil Bates on February 05, 2013 9:29 AM:

    Don't Sides and other simplicitarians realize that factors are each *part* of what goes on? We don't need pickings over false dichotomies that detract from the very real problems caused by given factors such as gerrymandering. Tighten up, John! (Folks, let him know.)

  • Diggle on February 13, 2013 7:28 PM:

    It's a combination of gerrymandering and media deregulation, creating one-sided media outlets that solidify the audiences' ingrained views, that made our polarized environment a reality.