As of last week 80.2% of America disapproved of Congress. To put that in perspective, if America had an up-or-down vote on whether or not to disband Congress in favor of relegating decisions to a Magic 8-Ball, representatives would spend the next year arguing about who gets the position of National 8-Ball Shaker.
Yet we rarely stop to consider why Congress is so dysfunctional. Most people think that gridlock is due to whichever party they aren’t, or the vague concept of “moral atrophy,” which hinges on the notion that Congress is dysfunctional because we keep electing evil incompetent people to it. Dysfunctional congressmen don’t sneak into Congress under the veil of night; they get elected by dysfunctional electorates.
Part of this breakdown is cognitive dissonance on the part of voters, which I’ll detail in a subsequent post. But a massive factor in America’s systemic failure comes from the unsexy but crucial process of districting.
Congressional districts are mapped out on the state level. With few exceptions, every legislature in America attempts to snuff out the minority party by carving up districts in such a way as to benefit the majority. This means if you live in a city which is predominantly liberal, but your state is conservative overall, your city will be sliced apart to ensure that its Democrats never have enough concentrated numbers to become competitive.
Sometimes legislatures will engage in “packing.” This occurs when there are enough minority party members to make competitive elections, so the legislature lumps them all together in a stronghold they’ve written off. In this instance, there might be enough Republicans in a region that a Democrat-controlled legislature cobbles conservative-leaning neighborhoods together and sacrifices them to the Tea Party.
This also happens with “minority-majority” districts, wherein a racial minority is cut out like a jigsaw to ensure that the dominant ethnicity isn’t marginalized, as required by federal law. However from what I can tell minority-majority districts are just another form of packing, and are still gerrymandering; by concentrating one ethnicity in a single district, it eliminates their clout in surrounding districts.
Either way, the rule of thumb is: 1. Legislatures will always design the system to favor incumbents, and 2. Legislatures abhor politically ambiguous districts (read: competitive democracy).
This process ensure that congressional districts look like cartoon dynamite explosions. In fact a psychiatrist with a political science background could easily make Rorschach tests out of blatant gerrymandering. Here, try out a few yourself:
Illinois 17 – “Rabbit on a Skateboard”
Florida 20 – “The Thinker”
New York 8 – “A Lemur Throwing a Boomerang”
Illinois 19 – “A Mermaid Flipping You Off”
North Carolina 12 – “Man Caught Off-Guard by Lightning Bolt”
Beautiful as all this blatant gerrymandering is, it has a profound effect on American politics. If cities are hacked apart or congressional districts are strings of unrelated suburbs, then majority-elected congressmen have no incentive to take moderate positions.
The result is that, purged of competition, each district elects extremists. Partisan electorates will not send sensible moderates to Washington, they will hoist up ideological firebrands. Thus Congress is brimming with people who all want to be the Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness, frequently incapable of bipartisan thinking or representing the entirety of their constituency.
I rarely say “California had a good idea,” but in this instance the sunshine state is leading America in sensible reform. Its citizens have removed districting powers from their state legislature, realizing that politicians by nature prize electability over fixing the country. California removed districting from the state legislature as a prerogative. Now committees of private citizens convene to draw district lines. Iowa shrewdly allows the non-partisan Legislative Services Bureau to draw its congressional districts.
Conversely, states with unabashed gerrymandering could make communist regimes cream themselves with their transparent attempt to bypass competitive democracy. Sadly, the main reason that there are so few Rockefeller Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats around is because there are so few districts with the composition necessary to sustain them.
I’m a big fan of states’ rights. But this is a right which state legislatures consistently abuse. If you want to help Congress, go to your state capitol with a bullhorn and start screaming about this nonsense.
Remember: if your congressional district looks like a cartoon character screwing a Tetris piece, something is amiss.
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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.