Congressional Gridlock Due To Hyper-Partisan Districts?

Old political cartoon with distorted map from gerrymandering

1811 political cartoon with map of gerrymandered districts in Massachusetts.

There are all types of speculation as to why Congress is so gridlocked, and everybody appears to enjoy playing the blame game. In fact, while the fiscal cliff looms ever larger on the horizon, politicians are still pointing fingers at each other instead of actually putting out an honest effort to resolve the issue in a way that will benefit the American people. Republicans want more spending cuts and fewer tax hikes. Democrats want more tax hikes and fewer spending cuts. They can’t reach a middle ground; they still have too many specifics that they can’t seem to agree on.

Could the problem be that, rather than politicians not listening to the people, that they instead are listening to the people, but the districts that the people live in have become too polarized?

Nate Silver, of the FiveThirtyEight blog fame, who predicted every national race correctly except for one, says that the number of swing districts in the U.S. has gone down significantly in the last 20 years. Swing districts are districts that are within five percentage points of the nationwide result for a presidential election. In 1992, there were 103 districts that could be considered swing districts. This year, there were only 35.

The first assumption for this is, naturally, gerrymandering: it’s no secret that redistricting includes an awful lot of gerrymandering. In fact, between 2001 and 2011, 78% of the seats in the House did not change parties at all. It exists pretty much everywhere, for a huge variety of reasons. For instance, in Illinois, the 4th District is known as The Horseshoe District, as there is an extremely narrow, U-shaped section that connects what would otherwise be two separate districts. The reasoning behind this may be what’s known as “racial gerrymandering,” as in, the purpose of drawing the lines they way they are is to ensure that minorities make up enough of a district so that their votes count.

However, it’s also a largely Hispanic district, and Hispanics tend to vote Democratic. So the lines of the 4th district likely carry a dual purpose.

On another front, gerrymandering has more or less ended in California thanks to the voters; they passed an amendment to their state’s constitution that took redistricting out of the hands of the state legislature altogether and gave it over to a citizens’ commission. While California’s districts are not a perfect grid (and can’t be due to a variety of factors), California’s district map makes a bit more sense now than it did in 2010.

In 2011, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report said, “In general elections, it’s almost rigged,” referring to how a lot of gerrymandering is intended to keep one party safe and in power over the other.

Silver initially appears to agree by saying,

“But the answer could be this instead: individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives. Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk.”

However, he later says,

“But redistricting alone did not account for the whole of the shift; instead, polarization has increased even after accounting for the change in boundaries.”

According to Silver, fewer districts split tickets than they used to also, meaning that fewer districts will vote for a presidential candidate of one party and a representative from the other.

Also, today, as opposed to 20 years ago or longer, voters consider choosing where to live as partly a political statement or decision. Silver refers to Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s bookThe Big Sort, as another reason for district hyper-partisanship. According to The Big Sort, Americans are increasingly choosing to live near people whose thoughts and beliefs reflect their own. Bishop suggests that the kind of polarization we’re seeing in politics is the result of “way-of-life segregation.”

In other words, while gerrymandering plays a part in district partisanship, redrawing district lines to be more “fair” will ultimately have a limited effect on hyper-partisanship and polarization.

According to a Gallup poll released earlier this month, less than 30% of Americans wanted their politicians to hold out at all costs for the specific deal that they want. Two-thirds, on the other hand, just want a solid deal to be cut, even if it includes policies and plans that they disagree with.

The hyper-partisanship of Congressional districts in this day and age, regardless of the cause, can explain why the politicians of Congress refuse to compromise, despite an overwhelming majority of Americans who wish they would do so for the sake of the country. Simply put, what’s the point of giving up your own values (whether they’re selfish or not) if there’s little chance of you losing your seat?

A possible solution to this increasing polarization may be a combination of new districting laws and term limits for all members of Congress. Amazingly enough, Paul Ryan has expressed support for a constitutional amendment limiting all members of Congress to 12 years of service, stating that doing this state-by-state gives the states that adopt term limits a disadvantage when it comes to seniority.

Fairer district lines in combination with term limits could very well work more in favor of the people, and less in favor of the selfish interests of either party. Like the presidency, which, after a president has served his two terms, is up for grabs entirely, putting Congressional districts up for grabs can help to force each party to listen harder to its people. It may also force the president to pay closer attention.

Because overall, despite hyper-partisan districts, most Americans want to see the two parties work together instead of against each other, as they currently do.