Polarization and Gerrymandering

As he often does, political scientist John Sides has cast an empirical spotlight on a widely held bit of conventional wisdom and found it wanting, this time at Wonkblog with respect to a recent statement by the president suggesting that gerrymandering is at the heart of what he has earlier called the “fever” of GOP partisanship and obstructionism:

Obama expressed a common view: that gerrymandering has created a bunch of safe seats for each party, making representatives responsive only to their partisan base and unwilling to forge bipartisan compromises.

It would be nice if this view were true, because it would suggest a clear solution to our polarized politics: draw more competitive districts. But unfortunately it is not true. The most important influence on how members of Congress vote is not their constituents, but their party. This makes them out-of-step not only with the average American — the “broad-based public opinion” that Obama mentioned — but also, and ironically, with even their base. Members are more partisan than even voters in their party.

Sides proceeds to show that the voting patterns of Members of the House–particularly on the GOP side–are generally uniform whether or not their district is marginal as measured by presidential results. He also notes that the gerrymandering theory is useless as an explanation of polarization in the Senate (particularly with respect to states represent by Senators from both parties, such as Iowa and Louisiana–and one might add Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and several other states).

Does this mean voters have no recourse for dealing with ideologically extreme Members? No–on the contrary, it means Members are willing to run a high risk of losing in the more competitive districts in order to remain faithful to party and ideology.

So if gerrymandering isn’t the cause of polarization (though it may be an effect in many cases), what is? Sides mentions two theories:

One is that polarization has deep roots in fundamental structural transformations of American politics — the realignment of Republican and Democrats on civil rights and even the rise of economic inequality. Another possibility has to do with who controls local and state party organizations, who play a large role in selecting new candidates to run for office. In research on one of the most polarized state legislatures, California’s, Seth Masket finds that local party organizations have been captured by activists for whom ideological fealty is paramount.

Still another possibility, that almost never gets mentioned, is that today’s successful politicians, particularly in the GOP, have extremist views of their own, which is how they got elevated to Congress in the first place.

None of this is to say that gerrymandering isn’t bad or that finding ways to create more competitive districts isn’t a good idea. Just because the threat of general election defeat doesn’t deter a Member from advancing unrepresentative partisan or ideological views doesn’t mean the reality of defeat wouldn’t be beneficial. Additionally, rotten boroughs tend to increase the possibility of rotten, corrupt representatives. But the president’s idea that redistricting reform would break “the fever” is not supported by the available evidence.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.