The current state of political strife in the United States is something we should all fear. It is dangerous to our continued mutual welfare and well-being, as well as dangerous to our hoped-for future.
But it is not something that simply arose, not a natural outgrowth of our thinking and feeling. It is a result, carefully built, that points to an incredibly successful, decades-long campaign. It is something from which we can recover, but that will take a lot of effort.
When I was in college, in the 1980s, one of my political science professors described the political spectra here and in the European parliamentary systems. Here, he said, the difference between the liberals and the conservatives is that the liberals want to set Social Security at $3.00, while the conservatives want to set it at $2.00. In Europe, the difference is that the liberals want to set Social Security at $5.00, while the conservatives want to set it at zero. He was teaching us that, though (at the time) we saw vast gulfs of difference between our liberals and conservatives, in comparison to the rest of the world, our extreme wings were so close to the middle of the road as made no real difference.
The reason for that very narrow, very central political spectrum was our electoral system. In the parliaments—and he was thinking more of countries such as Israel and the Netherlands, where members are elected at large from the whole country—a political party only needs to win two or three percent of the vote to earn a seat in the governing body. People can vote for a party that aligns precisely with their views, knowing that they can be represented, even if only by a small party. And in the no-party-with-a-majority outcomes of those elections, even the smallest parties have a chance to be important in the formation of a coalition government.
In the US system, however, our governmental representatives are elected by small geographic districts, each one a winner-take-all election. In such a system, if you don’t get the plurality of the votes, you don’t get a seat in the government. Such a system will naturally and instantaneously devolve into a two-party system. Each election, one wins and one loses. And the way to win elections in such a system is to get as close to the middle as possible. A candidate knows he has the support of the extreme wing of his party, because there’s no chance they’d ever vote for the other party, so he doesn’t have to convince them to vote for him. The votes that are up for grabs are the independents, the undecideds, the middle-of-the-road voters who see some good in each party. In that system, being extreme is a losing strategy. And so, for many years, we had a mostly middle-of-the-road government: perhaps not awe-inspiring, but comfortable.
But there was a snake in that grass: gerrymandering. In the early days of gerrymandering—the first decades of the 1800s—it was a blunt instrument, used to separate towns and communities, or group them together. But in the last two decades, with the growth of ever more powerful computing capabilities and incredibly precise polling data, the people redrawing voting district lines can map them to include and exclude specific houses. And the political parties have taken that ability so far beyond the bounds of reason. A phrase that’s been thrown around the news of late is “the politicians picking their voters, rather than the other way around,” and that really is what’s happening. In a district that is drawn to be “safe” for one party, the general election is a formality, a waste of time. In my own district, for instance, the closest election the incumbent Democrat has fought was in 2020, when she took only 83.1% of the vote. In the past 30 years in my district, there were only two other elections in which the incumbent got less than 90% of the vote. There is no point in a Republican even running in my district, though they usually put up a token sacrificial lamb for appearances’ sake. But that means my Representative doesn’t have to do anything to win except be a loyal Democrat.
U.S. congressional districts covering Travis County, Texas (outlined in red) in 2002, left, and 2004, right. In 2003, the majority of Republicans in the Texas legislature redistricted the state, diluting the voting power of the heavily Democratic county by parceling its residents out to more Republican districts. In 2004 the orange district 25 was intended to elect a Democrat while the yellow and pink district 21 and district 10 were intended to elect Republicans. District 25 was redrawn as the result of a 2006 Supreme Court decision. In the 2011 redistricting, Republicans divided Travis County between five districts, only one of which, extending to San Antonio, elects a Democrat.
It also means that the real election—if there ever is one (which doesn’t happen in my district)—is the primary election, when the Democratic party decides who is going to be their candidate. That’s what we had last year when New York City elected a new mayor. There was no discussion of the general election; everyone knew the Democratic primary was choosing the next mayor; Republicans need not apply.
But this shift means that the electorate a candidate has to convince is no longer the middle-of-the-road, could-vote-Democratic-or-Republican independent voters; they don’t matter, because the stalwart party members are the majority of the district. That means the middle-of-the-road, I-welcome-everyone type of candidate is an automatic loser. Because when the primary is the election, the way to win the primary is to appeal to the most ardent, strident, non-centrist members of the party. The candidate has to convince them that he will represent only their views, and screw the other party. When it’s the primary that matters, running to the extreme is a winning strategy. Because whatever level the election is (primary or general), money talks. And those most willing to donate to a campaign are always the farthest-out fringe members, because they see not just bad ideas, but actual evil in the other party.
In the days when it was the general election that mattered, party leaders were smart enough to know that the way to win was to run to the middle. But now that the general election doesn’t matter, because the party leaders have already rigged the districts to be “safe” for the party, the way to win is to run to the outermost edges to get the funding to win the primary.
And that results in a Congress full of politicians who aren’t working for the common good, but for the party’s good. That’s what gives us a Mitch McConnell, who won’t allow a Supreme Court nominee to be considered because it’s an election year (2016), but will rush through a Supreme Court nominee because it’s an election year (2020), based solely on who put forth the nomination. And that’s what gives us an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won’t vote for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill because it does everything she wants, but she also wants Build Back Better right now at the same time, because she wants what she wants and she wants it all right now. It’s what gives us a country in which the continued health of our democratic republic truly is in jeopardy. It turns a deliberative, thoughtful body of legislators into a raucous madhouse of children trying to score points with “the folks back home” by being as nasty and uncooperative with their fellow members as possible.
I lay these problems squarely at the foot of gerrymandering. But we’ve gerrymandered ourselves into such a deep hole, and the two parties that won have so entrenched themselves in the system, that I fear we’ll never be able to get out of it. Ballotpedia, for instance, shows that in the election of 2020, only 41 of the 435 House districts were “battlegrounds.” That is, 394 of the Representatives knew they were winners as soon as the primary was over, and only 41 had to bother with the general election. (See https://ballotpedia.org/U.S._House_battlegrounds,_2020)
So how do we get out of our gerrymandered quagmire? It’ll take a true statesman. Actually, we’ll need two. Because to get out of it, each of the parties will have to say (of their own polities) “we currently have the majority, and we can redraw the districts to ensure that we always have the majority, but that would be bad. So we’re going to redraw the districts to ensure competition, for the good of the country.” If only one party does it, the other will swoop in and kill them as quickly as possible. Both parties have to do it, and they have to do it together.
And we’re all stuck in it like insects in a pitcher plant, because it feels good to be winning, to be on top, to be a supporter of the candidate and the party that wins. But we have to put aside that good feeling, and adopt a longer-term view that, though we feel good about winning today, if we break the system, we sure won’t feel good in the future.