The Economist Swings and Misses on Redistricting

SWING AND A MISSThe 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?)


I think the yellow district is an example of Democrats being gerrymandered into a weirdly-shaped Congressional district. The Economist thinks they were attracted to this district because it has smaller houses and better access to tofu.

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.

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7 Responses to The Economist Swings and Misses on Redistricting

  1. irmabob says:

    How sad of the Economist to present such a skewed view of the effects of gerrymandering. Have you responded directly to them? They should publish your blog.
    Irma Sheon

    • noahkennedy says:

      Hi Irma- well, I essentially cut/paste yesterday’s entry into the comments section under the online article, several people seemed to like it. Hands-Off would seem to be very appealing to them with their kind of wonkish interest in new market-like mechanisms, which I think you could say HOR is as pertains to the “market” for representative government.

      You don’t know anyone who could illuminate the goings-on with the court case in florida do you? I’d love to follow that more closely but I’m afraid I would mess up the details since I’m not familiar with the background.


      • irmabob says:

        I would recommend Justin Levitt, co-author of The Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting from Brennan Center and professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. 213 736-7417. He tweeted on 7/10 re the FL case, “Very intriguing.” Spoiler Alert! He does not like HOR (12/13) because it “divides communities of interest”. He then referred me to which is strong on independent commissions.

        Have you Googled the FL case for the basics? The decision came down from a circuit court within the last week or two. I will do some searching too. League of Women Voters FL may have more information for us.

  2. irmabob says:

    Good morning, Noah,

    So much for discouraging news. As I commented on your blog, the Economist should publish your response to their article, whether it is your full blog or an edited version. The public needs to see reasoned feedback to their misguided, ridiculous arguments.

    I am heartened by some recent positive developments. As you know, The court decision in Florida is huge. Of course, I agree that HOR would render moot all the machinations that were involved here, but the more state courts rule against gerrymandering, the closer we will get to educating the public on options for various ways to redraw maps.

    Timing is crucial here. Voters will get interested in Sept. when campaigns gear up for the November elections. LWVMD included the issue (I believe for the first time ever in MD) in questions to candidates for Governor in their Voters’ Guide to the June primary. Anthony Brown, the Democratic winner and probable winner in November said he supports the creation of an independent redistricting commission. However, redistricting is a national challenge that require a comprehensive 50-state solution. I would support Congressional action to revise redistricting standards across the country. I spoke to Brown personally at a recent reception and have sent relevant information on alternate routes to fair redistricting to his staff aide. As the campaign gets going , I will continue to check in at every opportunity, especially anytime the average voter will notice. No change is going to happen without the interest of the public.

    The June 24 report of the Bipartisan Policy Center is also encouraging. They boil down a recommendation in their Executive Summary to States should adopt redistricting commissions that have the bipartisan support of the legislature and the electorate. The details in the full 116 page report on pp 31-35 are far broader, and Olympia Snowe even added the words “and other models” in the live-streamed program unveiling the policy paper. I am in touch with her too, via Facebook and Twitter (#Engage USA.) for what that’s worth. If you don’t have copies of the BPC’s two documents, their office 202 204-2400 will mail them to you.

    Feel free to comment wherever you may differ (or approve!) of anything above.

    Best wishes, Irma

  3. jgh94925 says:

    HI, Noah–

    I’m glad to see that you’re still leading the charge on this important political issue!

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