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Two Cheers for the Ghost of Elbridge Gerry
The Democrats invented gerrymandering — the Republicans have come close to perfecting it.
Among the Founding Fathers, the name of Elbridge Gerry does not exactly ring out. He was vice president under James Madison and died in office. He was a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, the forerunner of what we now call the Democratic Party. When Thaddeus Stevens spits fire at the “modern travesty of Thomas Jefferson’s political organization [that] has the effrontery to call itself the Democratic Party,” he is referring to Gerry’s gang.
And what Gerry is mainly remembered for is lending his surname to the word “gerrymander.” When Gerry was governor of Massachusetts, the legislature drew up new state senate districts and did so in a cynically partisan manner. The Boston Gazette, a Federalist newspaper, published a cartoon in which one amphibian-shaped district was christened the “Gerry-mander,” and the name stuck. Gerry, according to people close to him, actually opposed the partisan redistricting, but was persuaded to go along with it. Like Neville Chamberlain, a patriot and a capable statesman who made one infamous error in judgment, his name and his reputation will be forever linked to and blackened by a single distasteful episode.
When I was young and ignorant, I had the same dumb opinion about gerrymandering as almost everybody else does: I was shocked by it. The process was politicized, and I was scandalized. As a veteran state legislator in Texas explained it to me, redistricting isn’t politicized — it is political per se, “the most political thing a legislature does,” as he put it. It does not have to be politicized because it is political by nature, and to “depoliticize” it, as some self-serving Democrats and a few callow idealists suggest, would be to change its nature and its character. The Democrats who lecture us about the will of the people would, in this matter, deprive the people’s elected representatives of one of their natural powers.
The gerrymander — like the filibuster, the earmark, the debt ceiling, and other procedural instruments of power — is something that people complain about only when it is being used against them. The Democrats were perfectly happy with gerrymandering for the better part of 200 years, understanding it to be an utterly normal part of the political process. They began to object to it when Republicans got good at it. And, in a refreshing bit of candor, their argument against partisan redistricting is that Republicans are too good at it.
Seriously — that is the Democrats’ argument: that gerrymandering was all good and fine until Republicans figured out how to make the most of it. Republicans, in clear violation of the ancient Republican Party tradition, embraced cutting-edge technology and availed themselves of the best experts’ help in order to methodically and intelligently conduct a long-term program of serious and profitable political action. “Never before have party strategists been armed with sophisticated computer software that can help them carve districts down to the individual street and home,” Hedrick Smith wailed in a 2015 essay.
Detail-oriented Republicans with an attention span exceeding that of a meth-addicted goldfish — angels and ministers of grace, defend us!
This follows a familiar pattern for the Democrats: They discover ways to maximize the political advantages that may be had from applying pressure to sensitive procedural points — or invent new political weapons outright — and then cry foul when Republicans figure out a way to use the same tools, or even to improve on them. When the Democrats began working to turn the Supreme Court confirmation process to their own advantage — a campaign that has been characterized by vicious and often transparent lies about Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and others — they did not imagine that Republicans, dunderheaded as they are, would learn to play the same game, or that such a coldblooded figure as Mitch McConnell would simply drop a Supreme Court nominee into the nearest oubliette, as he did with Merrick Garland. Democrats load left-wing priorities into “must-pass” legislation and then complain when Republicans decline to be buffaloed by the parliamentary maneuver, going as far as temporarily shutting down the federal government when they deem it necessary.
Gerrymandering is the ur-case of this. Go look at an old district map of Texas during that state’s 130 years of Democratic legislative control, and what you will see is not exactly a hard-edged display of Euclidean regularity. Democrats made the most of their redistricting power in the Texas legislature and — bear this in mind, Republicans — it wasn’t enough to save them. Not nearly enough. Once Texans decided they were no longer buying what Democrats were selling, there was no procedural shenanigan that was going to save the “modern travesty of Thomas Jefferson’s political organization that has the effrontery to call itself the Democratic Party.”
Sometimes, when an electorate swings, it swings hard. Consider the history of Texas gubernatorial races. Unlike legislative races, there are no districts for governors — the district is the whole state. And though Texas Democrats were gerrymandering the hell out of the state’s legislative districts, they also enjoyed a nearly unbroken run of power in the governor’s office, which suggests that Democratic support in the state was broad-based and reasonably deep rather than the result of legislative-district manipulation. Excepting the two Republicans who served as governors during Reconstruction, Texas went for all of the 19th century and almost all of the 20th century without electing a Republican governor: Before George W. Bush, only one Republican had held the office of governor since the 1870s. (Republican Bill Clements was elected to two separate terms with a Democrat in the middle.) Greg Abbott is only the sixth Republican governor in the whole of Texas’s history, including Reconstruction.
In those years, Texas was pretty solidly Democratic in presidential elections, too, breaking Democratic ranks only rarely (Hoover in 1928; Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956; and Nixon’s reelection in 1972, after having backed Hubert Humphrey over the Republican in 1968) before settling firmly on the GOP from 1980 onward.
No Democrat has even come close to winning the governorship since Bush defeated the charismatic and cartoonish Ann Richards. Wendy Davis, the last great Democratic hope in Texas, didn’t even break 40 percent in her 2014 race against Abbott. Likewise, no Democratic presidential candidate has come close to winning Texas since Ronald Reagan put his long-lasting stamp on American politics in 1980. Bill Clinton, riding high in 1996, got trounced by Bob Dole; neither Al Gore nor John Kerry broke 40 percent in their respective races against Bush; both Mitt Romney and John McCain easily bested Barack Obama. But Republicans ought to be watching the count: Joe Biden did better in Texas than has any Democratic presidential contender since Jimmy Carter, who beat Gerald Ford 51 percent to 48 percent for Texas’s electoral votes in 1976. And Robert Francis O’Rourke, hero of a million bumper-stickers, came closer than Republicans would like to taking out Ted Cruz.
No amount of artful pie-slicing is going to turn a blueberry pie into a cherry pie.
A party can get a lot of juice out of procedural maximalism — gerrymandering, taking frequent recourse to the filibuster, standing in legislative bottlenecks and grandstanding at confirmations. But if that were enough to keep a party in power, then Texas would be a Democratic state. It isn’t. The Democrats must have felt at one time as though Texas were their citadel — back around the same time that California was a nursery of Republican presidents. Things change. In politics as in many other things, all victories are temporary, as are all defeats: This, too, shall pass.
The New York Times has this headline on its front page today: “Republicans Gain Heavy House Edge in 2022 as Gerrymandered Maps Emerge: On a highly distorted congressional map that is still taking shape, the party has added enough safe House districts to capture control of the chamber based on its redistricting edge alone.” I don’t doubt the accuracy of the psephological analysis, but the Democrats’ real problem right now isn’t Republican cleverness in map-making.
It is high levels of inflation, high levels of crime, and high levels of Kamala Harris.
It is also the residue of Barack Obama. Perhaps because he believed his own messianic press clippings, Barack Obama turned out to be the greatest leader Republicans ever had in their quest to control state legislatures and governorships. During Obama’s presidency, Democrats gave up twelve governorships and nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures, along with 62 U.S. House seats and 11 senators — “a mind-bogglingly large number of races across the country,” as Vox put it. That created a great many opportunities for Republican gerrymandering. But, in spite of Republican manipulation of House districts, the Democrats quickly rebuilt their congressional majorities with the assistance of Donald Trump. They have found it harder going in state legislatures and now face strong headwinds in congressional races, too. It seems likely that this situation will persist for some time.
High levels of inflation, high levels of crime, and high levels of Kamala Harris.
Legislatures draw up legislative districts. If you don’t like the way your legislature does its work, then take Barack Obama’s advice and try winning an election.
In Other News . . .
Over the weekend, NPR ran a long story on union-organizing campaigns. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with Michel Martin’s report, but the questions all came from the same direction; i.e., what will it take for union-organizing drives to be “successful”? There were many questions that Martin might have asked that she didn’t. For example, only one in ten Americans belongs to a labor union, and those are overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector. Why? Why do so many Americans — from Amazon workers to autoworkers in the “transplant” facilities — actively reject labor unions? What good reasons do employers have for preferring not to do business with unions? What role has union corruption played in the rejection of unions by workers and employers alike?
At NPR, it apparently never even occurs to anybody to ask what downsides there are to unionization, what tradeoffs might come into play, etc.
When we talk about media bias, that’s what we are talking about.
Words About Words
Gerrymander, as mentioned above, is an eponym, meaning a word derived from a proper name. Other examples are boycott, from Charles C. Boycott, an English land agent ostracized by his Irish neighbors; saxophone, from musical innovator Adolphe Sax; chauvinist, from Nicholas Chauvin, a possibly fictitious Napoleonic nationalist; nicotine, silhouette, and stentorian are others. And Bluetooth is not a name cooked up by a tech-nerd marketing department — Harald Bluetooth was a king of Denmark.
Another word on my mind: lilt. The Wall Street Journal this week mentions pronouncing a certain Italian word with a “flat American lilt.” But that doesn’t really make sense: A lilt by its nature is a pattern of speech that rises and falls — a lilt is anything but flat.
English has a collection of –ilt words, not obviously related, that all have something to do with lifting or leaning: lilt, meaning to lift up, the origin of which is unknown; tilt, from an Old English word meaning “unsteady”; stilt, a cousin of stall; kilter, originally meaning “good order,” also of unknown origin, but now used almost exclusively in the term “off-kilter,” meaning wobbly.
Since I’ve just been in Scotland, an old joke:
“Why do they call it a kilt?”
“Because that’s what happened to the last man to call one a skirt.”
And Furthermore . . .
Memo to Barack Obama: There is no such place as the “Emerald Isles.” There is the “Emerald Isle,” and that is Ireland, not Scotland — something you might want to get clear on before your next speech in Glasgow.
A reader asks about obviate: “Isn’t ‘obviated the need for’ redundant? Shouldn’t it be, “Venetian blinds obviated curtains”?
Put another way: Doesn’t obviate obviate “the need for”?
There are similar instances where this is true. “Advocate for,” for example, is an inescapable illiteracy. Advocate, from ad vocatus, means “speak for.” The “for” is already in there. So the current issue of National Review does not advocate for overturning Roe v. Wade, it advocates overturning Roe v. Wade.
Obviate means remove. It means to clear away that which is in front of you — and that which is in front of you is obvious. Both words come from the Latin obvius, which is not an eponym, unless there is a forgotten centurion called Dux Obvius, which would be great.
So, Venetian blinds do not obviate curtains — what they remove is the need for them.
Common uses of obviate include “obviate the necessity” and “obviate the risk.” An act of obviating is an obviation, a seldom-seen word.
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Home and Away
Is politicized the dumbest word in politics? I once argued that it is.
Here is my contribution to National Review’s Roe v. Wade issue.
You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Buying the book does not obviate the necessity of subscribing to the magazine.
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You know what is impossible to recommend right now? International air travel. Being a squishy Eisenhower Republican type, I am pretty pliant when it comes to social distancing, vaccination, and the like. If you ask me to wear a mask in your shop, I will, even if I think it is stupid and ritualistic. It’s your shop, after all. But eight hours in an N95 is a long time — long enough to make you order airline food and pretend to be eating it from Newfoundland to Galway.
Also — and I’ll bring this up with Charlie on our next podcast — I was irritated to learn that having eight COVID-19 tests in seven days is not enough to get you onto an airplane from Heathrow to DFW. Madness.
Speaking of Scotland, today is the feast day of St. Margaret of Scotland, who was from the part of Scotland called Hungary. She came from one of those eras of great names: Her father was Edward the Exile (Edward Ætheling) and her grandfather was King Edmund Ironside. Here’s a rather nice stained-glass window depicting her. She was famed for her charity and humility — the saintly basics, as it were. But the basics are worth some attention, too. With Thanksgiving close at hand, we who have been so abundantly blessed, in no small part by lucky accident of the time and place of our birth, should keep both of those in mind. Our charity should be less than exacting — we should be happy to give people not what they deserve but much more than they deserve, mindful that our own blessings so often exceed our own merits.
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