The Economist squandered precious public attention on the issue of gerrymandering in this week’s edition by bringing it up in a major article (subscription required), and then sloppily dismissing it. The venerable rag’s parting advice to Americans is to stop being so partisan yourselves, and just live with it until one party controls both the legislature and the presidency so something will finally get done. (“Something” is left undefined.)
Where to begin?
The article follows the tone of the standard-issue Economist style guide: stand up a straw man argument, concede its strength, and then with a dash of intellectual panache tack to the opposite argument and bring that argument home before taking leave of the reader with a final smug comment. In this, The Economist can be compared to Mighty Casey taking two strikes before hitting the ball out of the park.
The problem is The Economist never really bothers to examine what to most is the obvious evidence that gerrymandering is driving partisanship in the House. The expected tack to the opposite point of view- even presented nominally as a hypothetical- comes off as a bit of a head-snap: “If gerrymandering is not the main reason for the lack of competition in the House, what is?” Hold on there, cowboy!
The same basic flaw that caused the article to whiff the set-up persists in the remainder of the piece as the author seeks to make contradictory points: the fundamental confusion of cause and effect. Voters have sorted themselves into neat blocks of blues and reds. (Odd that they chose to do that in such weirdly-shaped districts.) Conservatives like to live in the suburbs in big houses, and liberals like to live in smaller urban houses closer to where they can buy tofu*. (Then why do so many urban voters end up getting their votes diluted by being pie-sliced into suburban districts?) The number of “split districts”, defined as districts that voted for one party for President and another for Congress is dwindling. (Of course it is, because the congressional districts are being gerrymandered to be safer for the parties.) The fact that Democrats have recently been significantly out-polling Republicans overall for House races but end up in the minority is only evidence, according to unnamed “political scientists” that the Democrats “waste too many votes in the election of their representatives.” (Whatever that means. And why is it the fault of political parties that they are “wasting” votes, and what is to be done about it?)
But the main sin of the The Economist’s breezy and poorly-thought-out article is that it assumes, unchallenged, the notion that the legitimate arbiters of public opinion are the parties, and these two specific parties at that. Hands-off redistricting takes the view that the arbiters of public opinion are the voters, and that the parties (and the politicians associated with them) need to fear a reasonable ad-mixture of voters in their districts, and therefore deal reasonably with each other.
*Yes, the author actually said that. An attempt to be clever that is revealing.