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December 28, 2013 9:40 AM Redistricting Reform Should Be Priority Number One

By Martin Longman

I became political aware at a young age and took a keen interest in the 1980 Republican primaries when I was only nine and ten years old. I still have cartoons I drew at the time that depicted Ronald Reagan as a warmonger intent on blowing up the world with nuclear weapons. This wasn’t something I learned from my parents. It was my own opinion. In retrospect, it was a little bit alarmist. I should have been worried about other things, like the long-term destruction of the middle class or a propensity to sell TOW missiles to Iran to pay a ransom for hostages held by Hizbollah in order to illegally transfer the proceeds to the Contras in Nicaragua. But, a nine year old’s capacity to imagine evil only goes so far.

When I see a book title like Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, I want to claw my eyeballs out. Yet, I do understand what Chris Matthews is pining for, and it isn’t the fjords. However much Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan disagreed, they were civil to each other, and they knew how to strike a deal without threatening to default on the country’s debts. For Washington insiders of a certain age, there is a keen sense of nostalgia for the old days when politicians didn’t go home to their districts every weekend but stayed in town and socialized with each other.

Perhaps no one represents this group better than Cokie Roberts, who was almost literally raised in the Capitol Building. Her father, Hale Boggs, represented Louisiana’s 2nd District in 1941-43 and then from 1947 to 1972, when his plane disappeared in Alaska. By the time of his death, he had risen to be the Majority Leader, the same position held today by Eric Cantor. By that time, Cokie Roberts was an adult, but her mother, Liddy Boggs, went on to represent the New Orleans-based district until she retired to look after her dying daughter (Cokie’s sister) in 1990. I found a set of interviews that Ms. Roberts did with the Office of the Historian of the House of Representatives in 2007 and 2008, (you can read the interviews here in .pdf form) in which she describes her life growing up in the corridors of power and how things have changed.

In the following excerpt, she laments the use of the gerrymander, which she calls “picking your own voters.” In her opinion, the increasing efficiency with which the political parties draw the congressional maps is one of the main reasons why Congress is so deadlocked. Keep in mind that she said this in 2008, before things got even worse after the 2010 census and subsequent redrawing of district maps.

ROBERTS: I think that what this business of picking your voters—first of all, is so anti-democratic—it does a few very, very bad things. It creates a far more partisan chamber because you only worry about getting attacked from the true believers of your own party in a primary rather than a general election. Look what just happened to Chris [Christopher B.] Cannon as a perfect example of that.
You do only represent people who are just like you, so that your desire or even ability to compromise is far less that it used to be. I’ll give you an example. Bob Livingston used to represent a district that was 30- percent black. So he voted for fair housing, he voted for Martin Luther King holiday, he voted for a variety of things that were not the things that people whose representative in the state legislature was David Duke expected him to do. But he could explain to the yahoos in his district that he had to do it because of the black constituency when it was actually stuff that he wanted to do. Then it was redistricted to be lily-white conservative Republicans, and, you know, it’s almost impossible for that person—it was [David] Vitter, I don’t know who it is now—to do that. You just have to be fighting your constituency all the time to do something that would be a sort of national interest thing to do. And that’s true on both sides. It just makes legislating and governing much, much harder.
The President [George W. Bush], actually, was talking to me—I don’t often get to say, “The President was talking to me about it,” {laughter}—when I went with him to meet the Pope. We were talking about immigration, and he’s, you know, he’s basically just furious about immigration, about the failure of the bill, and he said, “It’s all about the way districts are drawn.” And it is fundamentally anti-democratic because the whole idea is you get to throw these people out. In 2006, I must say I was heartened, not for partisan reasons, but I thought they had drawn the districts so cleverly that you’d never be able to register that vote of no confidence, which an off-year election is—it’s either a vote of confidence or no confidence—I was afraid that that had been taken away from the voters, which would really be different from what the Founders had in mind. So the fact that even with that, you were able to change parties and register that vote was heartening, but it’s much harder than it should be.

There has been some debate recently about whether or not Justice Ginsburg should strategically retire from the Supreme Court to prevent a Republican president from appointing her successor. Ginsburg defends her continued presence of the Court by arguing that President Obama will be succeeded by a Democrat because “The Democrats do fine in presidential elections; their problem is they can’t get out the vote in the midterm elections.” She’s probably right in her prediction about Obama’s successor, but she is definitely correct that the Democrats have trouble getting out their vote in midterm elections. With the districts drawn the way there are, this threatens to prevent the people from expressing their vote of confidence or no confidence.

According to the Cook Political Report, the Democrats should have won the 2012 House elections.

By Cook’s calculations, House Democrats out-earned their Republican counterparts by 1.17 million votes. Read another way, Democrats won 50.59 percent of the two-party vote. Still, they won just 46.21 percent of seats, leaving the Republicans with 234 seats and Democrats with 201.
It was the second time in 70 years that a party won the majority of the vote but didn’t win a majority of the House seats, according to the analysis.

So, there are really two things here worthy of consideration. The first is that the gerrymander has the effect of artificially polarizing the country by creating districts that are only really contestable in primary, rather than general elections. Politicians are punished for cooperating more than they should be.

The second problem is a partisan one that only hurts the left. Democrats get less seats than they should have.

Yet, the first problem hurts the left, too, because it leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to a general disdain of government in the populace, which creates distrust about the government’s ability to do big things.

For these reasons, I believe that progressives should consider redistricting reform their top priority. Unless we can solve this problem, we will never be competing on a level playing field, and our ability to do great things will continue to erode.

Unlike Chris Matthews and Cokie Roberts, I don’t want to go back to some idyllic time of bipartisan cooperation that barely existed in reality, but I do want a fair shake and a government that works again.

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