One of the intriguing sub-themes to emerge from the 2016 elections is the news, first reported by Politico, that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder intend to focus their future political efforts on a broad-based Democratic Party program to right the perceived wrongs of Republican Congressional gerrymandering. The donors have been lined up, Super PACs are taking shape, and some new web sites have been soft-launched that highlight the evils of gerrymandering. It’s early days, but the signs point to this being a missed opportunity for American governance. Gerrymandering itself doesn’t seem to be the problem for these Democratic efforts: the problem seems to be that Republicans and not Democrats are doing the gerrymandering.
Being the Aggrieved “Party” doesn’t make you a Legitimate Stakeholder
This is not to say the Democrats shouldn’t be complaining. As many have argued, including me in this blog, the most egregious current examples of Congressional district gerrymandering were brought about via Republican statehouses. Obama is undoubtedly correct and has been remarkably consistent in complaining that House gerrymandering is a driving force behind hyper-partisanship and endless obstructionism. Nobody in their right mind is arguing that the House of Representatives is working well and that no changes are required. It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that the problem is an uneven playing field between Republicans and Democrats about who gets to draw the maps. But that, sadly, seems to be the tack the new Democratic initiative is is taking.
The umbrella group that Eric Holder is set to lead is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Nothing much has been heard from this group but its approach is clear from the few early statements that have been made and by the makeup of its leadership. Alongside Holder at the head of the NDRC is Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, and Alixandria “Ali” Lapp, the founder of House Majority PAC, a Super PAC collecting money from labor unions and individuals focused on achieving a Democratic majority in the House. They have framed the problem as one in which Republicans have captured state house legislatures and governorships to the degree that they get to draw the lines between district boundaries, and the solution as being that Democrats have to organize to win back these state-level offices so that they can draw the lines. Ostensibly, this would result in more “fair” district boundaries.
If, as it appears, this is actually what Obama’s return to his roots in community organizing entails, it is misguided on several levels. First and foremost, it is wrong-headed to assume the Democrats— any more or less than the Republicans— are a legitimate stakeholder in House redistricting. Thinking this way leads to the equally flawed idea that this whole gerrymandering thing can be solved by finding a fair balance between what the Democrats want and what the Republicans want. We all have to remember that the only legitimate stakeholders in this dispute are the citizens of the United States, and their one overriding need is for good governance. Good governance is not the option to have a House representative who looks like you and thinks like you: that is identity politics and simply won’t work in a nation of over 300 million people with ever-changing definitions of “identity” represented by 435 House members. It is also a prescription for partisanship in Washington, which is a poor substitute for engagement and compromise at the local level. House districts should not be drawn by anybody under any mistaken formula for grouping like-minded people (AKA “communities of interest”) in the same district. Districts should be drawn so that people who live near each other vote together, and their representatives should arrive in Washington with the first round of compromise having already happened back home.
This, of course, is the argument for Hands-Off Redistricting. Nobody should be drawing lines at all. Representative government works best when representatives respect and fear the voters in their districts and not the preferences of party leaders. Find a mathematical way to create compact Congressional districts and let the chips fall where they may. That means the political parties respond to political reality rather than creating political reality.
Democrats Need to Decide: Endless Tit-for-Tat Gerrymandering or Sustainable Hands-Off Redistricting?
In a partisan atmosphere, the argument for Hands-Off Redistricting may seem to have little air to breathe. But organizations like the NDRC, the DCA and the House Majority PAC should realize that if they insist on a pitch that boils down to “Democrats Draw Better Maps”, hyper-partisanship will starve them of political oxygen just as completely. If they think hard about what they are trying to do, they have to realize that what seems like an opportunity to run the table is much more likely to result in stalemate and delay. Embracing Hands-Off Redistricting as the Democrat’s call to arms can be a much more effective play for them.
Consider what would happen in the real world if the Democratic Governors Association doubled down on the pitch shown in their website Unrig the Map. Their obvious election-day pitch will be “vote for Joe Democrat for governor to get rid of gerrymandering”. The easy response from Republicans in each gubernatorial race is that a vote for Joe Democrat is a vote for a Democrat-controlled Congress and all the fearful consequences that would entail. Which party controls redistricting becomes a single-issue trigger for partisan fear tactics and a rich vein for special interest fund-raising, just as the selection of Supreme Court justices has become in presidential politics. Especially since Texas has established that redistricting can occur at the whim of statehouse officeholders and doesn’t need to only occur every ten years, how do Democrats imagine that this will lead to a sustainable advantage for them? Or that it will in any way remove the partisan impulses and financial incentives to gerrymandering?
A far more clever strategy would be for the Democratic organizations and Super PACs to fully embrace the advantages of Hands-Off Redistricting as a Democratic talking point. They are much better positioned to win in individual state-house races when they are unequivocally opposed to gerrymandering, no matter who is doing it. That puts them squarely on the side of creative progressive government and inoculates them from charges that they are acting hypocritically. Hands-Off Redistricting, once installed at the state level, would be very difficult to overturn (who, after all, is in favor of gerrymandering?) and would thus be a sustainable fixture of governance.
Do Democrats really think they better represent a broad consensus of America’s values and wants? If so, they should prove it.
Democrats: drop the map-drawing, let the chips fall where they may, and prove to America’s voters you are their best choice up and down the ballot.