I was a bit annoyed with Robert Draper’s Atlantic article about redistricting. I mean, it does a decent job explaining redistricting’s history, some modern innovations in redistricting technology, and Texas’ recent drama with redistricting. And it nicely describes the confluence of events — a Republican takeover of several statehouses right after a census — that made this most recent round of redistrictings so potentially consequential.

But Draper keeps throwing in scary terms (“league of dangerous mapmakers,” “nastiest form of politics,” “435 impregnable garrisons,” etc.) to explain a routine constitutional requirement that actually isn’t all that scary. And the article seems to gloss over the fact that the style of redistricting typically portrayed as the scariest — when the majority party seeks to seize more seats by marginalizing minority party voters — inevitably creates more moderate, competitive districts. (Jon Winburn, Gerry Wright and I made this point in an article in PS this year. Also see Eric McGhee’s recent post on this topic.)

When the whole effort to paint legal and political battles over a handful of congressional seats fails to actually seem like the undoing of the Republic, the article turns to an interview with former Rep. John Tanner, a Tennessee Blue Dog Democrat. Tanner is one of those moderates who used to be in Congress and now laments the partisanship that has completely polarized the institution. He points out some significant problems with an overly partisan government, such as the failure of Congress to provide adequate oversight of the executive branch when it is controlled by the same party as the president. But then he inexplicably attributes that to redistricting.

Draper asks him if outside group funding of campaigns, rather than redistricting, might be polarizing politics. That’s when Tanner goes off the rails:

“That’s part of the problem,” Tanner conceded when I asked him about the super-PAC ads flooding the airwaves. “But you can trace how the members got here back to gerry­mandering. I don’t give a damn how much money you spend. These guys are gonna be responsive to the people that elected them, to avoid a party primary. And so they come here to represent their political party, not their district or their country. That attitude has infected the Senate, too. Look at Orrin Hatch,” he said, referring to the veteran Utah senator who fought off a primary challenge from an ultra­conservative. “Now you’d think he was an original member of the Tea Party. It makes you sick to see him grovel.”

Yes, Tanner is citing the example of Orrin Hatch to make a point about redistricting’s pernicious effects on partisanship. That would be the Orrin Hatch who’s in the U.S. Senate and who represents the entire state of Utah, whose borders have never been redrawn.

Draper at least throws in a brief acknowledgement that “some redistricting experts” see districts as having largely polarized themselves, but it’s almost a throwaway sentence. The debate toward the end of article is between those who believe redistricting is the source of partisanship and those who believe advertising is, even though neither argument makes much sense.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

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