Most Americans are somewhere in the middle on a lot of the ideas that have infused our recent elections. There was no great groundswell of public support for huge tax cuts, in Florida or nationally.
There are no hordes in the street demanding that we go to war against the heathen masses of the globe. There is no budding uprising if we don’t cease to help the underprivileged of our state or country or world.
Why is it, then, that the people elected don’t seem to share our average views? Why is it that our politicians seem so much more extreme than our voters?
There are psychological reasons played upon by marketers, and there is ignorance and naivete, but mostly this is a tactical question, one of electoral infrastructure.
Congressional and other districts have lately been drawn so that a substantial majority of the voters agree with one party or the other; for the parties to create “safe” seats, we get districts so polarized they no longer reflect the populace.
Such gerrymandered districts allow candidates to take extreme positions with impunity. This will still create an average collective legislative view, but it is an average of endpoints, not the national bell curve.
A slight shift in party power then creates a huge shift in legislative direction. The nation is not so schizophrenic, yet we end up with representatives at war with each other and at odds with the will of the people.
Redistricting has always been political, but recently it has become corruptly so. Both sides are to blame for lopsided districts that elect lopsided politicians. Gone are competitive seats that force candidates to really think about what the other side has to say and what the people want.
Because incumbent politicians want to remain so, it is unlikely we’ll see this change any time soon. Or is it?
We know already that there is significant displeasure among the electorate. It doesn’t always find voice but it is there beneath the surface of every election. It shows itself in lowered turnout, but it also boiled over briefly with the term limits movement. Campaign finance has a similar energy. These efforts fail to ease the malaise, however, so the unrest is still around.
Unlike some of the other thorny issues of the day, redistricting has a handy solution.
Not all electoral units are politically redrawn every census so they serve as examples: The Senate doesn’t suffer these problems and does not show as severe dysfunction. Senate seats are elected statewide, meaning the long-term character of the state is born out through the statistical wash of a broad-based election. To reflect a similar sanity, we could mandate that other districts be drawn to reflect the demographic character of their states.
Gerrymander all you want, but at the end of the day, all representatives will be forced to truly represent their constituencies and will therefore be more amenable to compromise, not confrontation.
They’ll be less able to feed off red-meat issues while quietly catering to the powerful. They’ll have to fight for votes, think like voters, lead even, but only where we’ll wittingly follow. We might even see some actual statesmen.
It all sounds too good, utopian even. But if we can save pregnant pigs, we can save our electoral system.
Paul Swider is a USF firstname.lastname@example.org