The Progressive (not Liberal) Majority in the Arizona Redistricting Case

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission saw a pretty familiar divide. The Court’s four liberals were joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote, and were opposed by the four conservatives. It was the same configuration from last week’s epic Obergefell case that recognized same-sex marriage rights.

But while same-sex marriage is generally understood in ideological terms, redistricting commissions aren’t necessarily. The main issue at hand here was whether an independent commission established by voters through the initiative process can take over a state function (redistricting) traditionally performed by the legislature. According to the Constitution’s Elections Clause, the “Legislature” of each state is empowered to set rules for Congressional elections. The question was whether to interpret “legislature” textually (which would mean that voters cannot usurp that power) or more broadly (which would mean state government, of which voters may be a part via the initiative process). The majority ruled for the latter.

Yet the beneficiaries of this ruling are not solely (or even mostly) liberals. The independent commission is seen as a way to mitigate excessive partisanship. State legislators are seen as self-interested actors who create safe districts for themselves and for members of Congress, which is seen as contributing to polarization.

(This view, by the way, is not supported by political science research. Sometimes legislative majorities try to expand their majorities, rather than just make everyone’s seats safer. This necessarily creates more competitive districts. And state legislatures sometimes outsource the job of redistricting to panels of judges or bipartisan commissions. Regardless, no matter who draws the districts, there just isn’t a strong link between gerrymandering and polarization.)

Regardless of whether these arguments are true, they are not automatically liberal or conservative ones. Excessive partisanship is concerning to both liberals and conservatives. What’s more, the initiative process can take other powers away from state legislatures, and conservatives favor many of those moves.

What we saw in the Arizona redistricting case was more of a Progressive/Stalwart divide than a liberal/conservative one. The majority favored a “good government” solution, using the power of direct democracy to mitigate some of the perceived evils of the governing class. There’s a long history of such reforms, all committed to the idea that informed citizens are better at governing than elected officials and that the latter are inherently prone to corruption and abuse.

But the Progressives that spawned these ideas a century ago, and their ideological heirs today, are not exclusively liberals or conservatives. Don’t be fooled by the tally on yesterday’s ruling.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.