A little more than 20 years ago, the Texas legislature was afire with controversy surrounding a redistricting project. Advertising my ignorance of the process, I asked a veteran state legislator at the time whether he thought the redistricting process was “politicized.” No, he explained, it isn’t politicized — it is political. “Redistricting is the most political thing a legislature does,” he said.
And the scales fell from my eyes.
“Politicized” may be the most abused and least understood word in our political lexicon. The New York Times complained that certain policies of the George W. Bush administration “politicized” health care; Nancy Pelosi, whose ability to keep a straight face is not natural, once lamented the “politicization” of the Justice Department; Boyd Matheson, a conservative activist and former chief of staff to Mike Lee, charges that Harry Reid “politicized” the workings of the Senate; Myron Ebell, who oversaw the Trump administration’s EPA transition, says that the agency relies on “politicized” science; Barack Obama, answering critics who accused him of ghoulishly exploiting sensational shootings, said that such episodes are “something we should politicize.” Some of these complaints make sense, and some do not.
The Washington Post reports that Neil Gorsuch has experienced “a highly politicized confirmation hearing,” and Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) joined in, criticizing Democrats for “politicizing” the confirmation process: “We’re taking the nomination process to a place it was never intended to go by the framers of the Constitution,” he said. “Alexander Hamilton would be rolling in his grave.”
But if Mr. Hamilton did not intend for the process to be political, why would he have entrusted it to a bunch of — pardon me for noticing — politicians?
That matters of public concern are politicized is not a defect of democracy — it is part of the design. That is how the democratic process works: Different constituencies within the polity disagree about the best way to regulate health insurance or about how abortion should stand under the law or about what is the best way to raise revenue for the federal government. Elected representatives fight and negotiate and make speeches and politick the issue until some sort of resolution is reached (or isn’t), and then the electorate goes to the polls to render judgment. This is a process that has some problems, to be sure: Ignorance is the natural and rational state of the voter; discrete issues are bundled together in a way that makes disaggregating them difficult or impossible; tribalism is more powerful than analysis; voters are no more likely to be virtuous citizens than are their representatives; opinion changes quickly in response to events that are partly or entirely exogenous to public policy.
The inevitable cliché here, often attributed to Winston Churchill, is: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time.” But that does not get at the whole truth: It is not that there is no alternative to the “politicized” way of doing things — most of the good things we enjoy in this world are the result of markets and other spontaneous orders, not of politics — but there is no alternative to it when relying on the public sector.
That is not a bad thing — not necessarily. The Supreme Court, acting in its role as illegitimate superlegislature and scriptural council, from time to time attempts to remove some item of controversy from the political sphere, as it did when it yanked a constitutional right to abortion out of its penumbra in 1973. That did not neutralize abortion as a political issue or elevate it to some new plane of existence in which it is subject only to a divine wisdom superior to politics — it simply took democratic accountability and the democratic voice out of the equation. Sometimes, that is the right thing to do: Mr. Madison et al. included a Bill of Rights in the Constitution precisely to that end. The Bill of Rights is, properly understood, a List of Stuff You Idiots Cannot Be Trusted to Vote On. (“We want to censor that guy!” “Too bad.” “No, we really, really want to, and there’s a bunch of us!” “Too bad.” “We’re the majority!” “Too bad.” Etc.) But sometimes you need the democratic contest. Knowing what ought to be subject to plebiscitary judgment and what ought to be above or outside of formal democratic processes is a big part of political wisdom, which has not grown plentiful since the 18th century.
At the moment, we’ve stood that wisdom on its head, lamenting the inevitably political actions of the political bodies while accepting — sometimes gleefully, sometimes with despair—the politicization of those institutions that ought to be outside of politics, the Supreme Court and the federal bureaucracies chief among them. Of course the Democrats’ attempt to prevent the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is a political part of a political process; of course the Republican response to this will be political (and, one hopes, entirely ruthless). Presidents politicize everything they touch, every room they enter, and every subject about which they speak: President George H. W. Bush managed to politicize broccoli during his tenure. Of course the Texas legislature will have an eye on politics when it engages in redistricting: Redistricting is a political process, one whose character is the direct result of the ordinary democratic processes by which the members of state legislatures are elected. A politicized House committee is a House committee functioning as intended; a politicized IRS is a menace to liberty and democracy that ought to be handled with the seriousness of a foreign invasion.
The great progressive conceit is that experts can scientifically manage human affairs the way expert managers run a factory. One of the amusing aspects of the current battle over redistricting — Democratic concern about so-called gerrymandering very closely tracks the Republican ascendancy in the state legislatures — is that progressive critics complain that today’s redistricting is different from the redistricting that happened back when Democrats controlled most state legislatures, because Republicans are . . . too good at it. The development of new software tools has been a real boon to the modern psephological engineer. And what is proposed as an alternative? Different software, designed and implemented by experts whose work is not “politicized.”
Part of the problem is that many Americans do not understand the architecture of our constitutional order; another part of the problem is that some Americans do understand the architecture of our constitutional order and hate it, or at least resent the fact that it keeps them from doing what they want. That is why we have so many Democrats at the moment dreaming up ways around the First Amendment, prosecuting those with nonconforming views about climate change under spurious fraud allegations, censoring films critical of Democratic candidates in the name of “campaign finance reform,” and pursuing felony charges against anti-abortion activists engaged in the age-old practice of undercover investigative reporting. (Here, let us praise Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, one of the increasingly rare voices on the left who stands for freedom of speech even for those with whom he disagrees.) It is why Democrats habitually attempt to shut down the inevitably political debate over climate-change policy with high-handed declarations that Science has spoken, capital-S Science having partly displaced the capital-H History of the midcentury Marxists and their epigones, though not so much that Barack Obama did not feel the need to proclaim himself “on the right side of History” when he ran out of arguments.
People tend to complain about things’ being “politicized” most intensely when the politics is going against them, and the Democrats seem to just be getting the news that Barack Obama’s remarkable self-centeredness made him very, very good at winning elections — for himself. The rest of the Democratic party is in pretty poor shape. And the question they face in the immediate future is not whether to politicize the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch but whether to do so in a stupid and self-destructive way, attempting to do from their current minority position what Republicans did to poor old Merrick Garland (for excellent, political reasons) from their majority position. The problem with that isn’t that it is political, but that it is a terrible idea.
People will speechify about “statesmanship,” about high principle and patriotism and “setting aside politics to come together to do the right thing.” When you hear that kind of talk, put on your waders. Say what you will about a bare-knuckles political fight, it is more honest than the alternative.