For two centuries, the gerrymander was an ordinary part of U.S. politics. And, then, the unthinkable happened: Republicans got really, really good at it.
The gerrymander, named for Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry (he also served as James Madison’s vice president) takes its name from a peculiarly shaped legislative district, thought to resemble a salamander, obviously drawn in such a way as to increase the electoral chances of Gerry’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, to which the modern Democratic party traces its roots.
That was 1812. Some 205 years later, the state legislatures are looking too red for the tastes of modern Democrats, who are going to the Supreme Court to argue that legislative redistricting, an inherently political exercise, is too . . . political.
The Supreme Court should butt right out. Better that it had never butted in.
At issue is the new legislative map of Wisconsin, which, Judge Kenneth Ripple of the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin complains, “was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.” His Honor has a reasonably strong grasp of the obvious: Yes, partisan legislators consider their partisan interests when drawing up electoral districts. They always have. Partisan interests will always be part of the equation: If you believe that those so-called independent commissions dreamed up by our would-be electoral reformers would in fact prove non-partisan, consider how non-partisan and independent our non-partisan and independent media are — or consider how easy it is to predict which justices will vote which way in any politically charged case before our non-partisan and independent Supreme Court.
Rather than having unaccountable panels of phony nonpartisans acting behind the scenes, we are far better off letting our political processes be exactly what they are: political. If Texans don’t like how Texas legislators draw up the state’s electoral maps, then they can kick Republicans out and put Democrats in charge. It is not like this has not happened before: Democrats had a near-monopoly on state-level power for a century after the Civil War but eventually were displaced by Republicans, whose policies and attitudes are more amenable — for now — to Texas voters.
All of the high and mighty love democracy until democracy gets a little too democratic and starts producing results that they do not like, at which point it is time to “rise above politics” and put the like-minded servants of the high and mighty in charge of things.
Why now? After more than a couple of centuries in which gerrymandering — and reactions against gerrymandering — have been an ordinary part of American politics, why this moment to make a federal case out of it?
“Partisan gerrymandering of this kind is worse now than at any time in recent memory,” says Paul Smith, the lawyer for the cheesed-off Wisconsin Democrats. By “worse” he means “better,” i.e., that Republican state legislators have developed sophisticated computer-modeling tools to help them maximize Republican chances when drawing up electoral maps. Which is to say: The problem is that Republicans are doing precisely the same thing Democrats did for so many years, but they’re too good at it. Democrats assure their voters that Republicans are a bunch of knuckle-dragging God-botherers who despise science, but it turns out the GOP can get behind computer science in a big way when given the proper motivation.
Lest you think I am being unfair to the critics, that Republicans are too good at gerrymandering is precisely the argument progressives are making. Hedrick Smith sums up the argument: “Never before in our history has one major party mounted a national campaign to control gerrymandering in state after state, as Republicans did in 2010. And never before have party strategists been armed with sophisticated computer software that can help them carve districts down to the individual street and home.” Which is to say, the Republicans set themselves a political goal, achieved it, set about using the best thinking and tools at their disposal to secure their political agenda, and — here’s the unforgivable part — succeeded.
And Republicans have to some extent been victims of their own success. Gerrymandering is only a minor factor in the polarization of the U.S. political parties — a major factor is the Democrats’ cultural turn to the loopy left — but the creation of safe Republican districts has been a non-trivial factor in the increasing willingness of hard-line conservatives to stage primary challenges to GOP incumbents deemed ideologically limp. Running against a sitting Republican incumbent in Oklahoma or Utah is a great deal more attractive when the primary is a tougher fight than the general election. But the parties are going to be increasingly polarized with or without partisan electoral maps.
If Democrats are unhappy with Republican domination of the state legislatures and governorships — and they should be unhappy — then they have a much more direct option: They can go into the states and ask people for their votes in legislative races and in gubernatorial elections. If they find that route difficult, then maybe the Democrats should be rethinking what they’re trying to sell people in Wisconsin . . . and in Texas, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, New Hampshire, the parts of New York more than 70 miles from Grand Central Terminal . . . .
Redistricting is not politicized. It is political. For the Democrats and the Supreme Court to try to step in and take away from the state legislatures their long-standing right to draw up legislative districts as they see fit is much more deeply undemocratic than anything Republican gerrymanderers ever dreamt up.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its initial posting.