Home > Applying Political Science > Once more, with feeling

Once more, with feeling

I hate to bring attention to it, because the article is so bad, but Robert Draper in the Atlantic Monthly this month chose to pick a losing fight. In the article, Draper writes about the “dark art” of gerrymandering–the drawing of legislative districts for political purposes–which he claims is used to nefarious purposes to create a Republican majority in the House and source of mass political polarization. Given that political science has written so much about the non-relationship between redistricting and polarization–see here (gated) and here (gated), for example, and those are from my undergraduate syllabus–Draper simply reinforces the image of political reporters as lazy hacks who can’t be bothered because clearly they know better. (Heck, even a simple Google search turns up a number of studies pointing out the problems with the argument.)

Let’s revisit the argument in brief: Map-makers, using high-tech geographic information systems, can draw districts that will be safe for their parties’ members. By creating safe districts, the map-makers free candidates from having to moderate their public pronouncements and voting behavior, thus furthering the high levels of polarization we see today. In doing so, the map-makers also make U.S. elections less democratic by pre-picking the winners. The argument is intuitive and make sense on a primal level, but just about everything in it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

To begin with, it is not empirically true that safer districts give rise to more ideologically extreme candidates. More importantly, the gerrymandering argument misattributes the sources of polarization. The argument assumes that if we drew different, more competitive maps, voters, political parties, political elites, and interest groups–all of which play significant roles in the polarization of American politics–would all suddenly and magically moderate their ideological positions. Interestingly, it is not necessarily the case that making districts more competitive makes elections more democratic. It might make them less democratic (gated).

One thing that I will say for Draper’s article: The illustrations are good. But that’s about it.

  1. Donna
    October 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    In my opinion i feel this article was pointless and stuoid. gerrymandering by far is the worst way to win votes and this one was a waste to read. no offense to anyone

  2. Andrew Merenda
    October 3, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    If gerrymandering has no real effect on the outcome and influence of elections, as well as polarization in politics, then how come there are laws and regulations against it? That is, if it it not truly beneficial to the party redrawing the lines on the map, then why do they do it? If it had no real influence why would they bother in the first place?

    • Prof. Keith Smith
      October 4, 2012 at 5:52 am

      It’s not that there is no effect, but rather that the effect is small relative to a lot of other things. Why do the parties pay so much attention to it? Because like most things in politics, it’s better to pay attention and make the system work to your advantage than not. If you don’t, the other side will. Part of the reason there is so little of an impact, though, is that both sides are doing it. At the national level the efforts cancel each other out. See here: http://bit.ly/VlfGgt.

  3. Melissa Blakemore
    October 4, 2012 at 8:39 am

    After reading this blog I believe it is more a review/summary of Robert Draper’s article in the Atlantic Monthly.

    • Prof. Keith Smith
      October 4, 2012 at 9:52 am


  4. Jordyn Doyle
    October 4, 2012 at 9:16 am

    We were taught about gerrymandering in my government class last year, so I know what it is, but I don’t know exactly why they do it. It’s a bit more clear after reading this. I think competition is essential in human life. It’s what makes people strive to be better; however, I also believe it should be honest competition. If you’re lying and cheating to get ahead, you don’t deserve anything. So if gerrymandering increases competition so be it; I just think it shouldn’t increase the corruption in the political institution. We know politicians lie to get us to like them; it’s all for the goal of presidency, but I think we should strive to have a more honest government as well.

    Well I went off on a tangent… Sorry guys!

  5. Jesus Hernandez
    October 4, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Why win votes like this? Is it really representative of the people’s desires? It only adds on to the dissatisfaction with our government.

    • Prof. Keith Smith
      October 4, 2012 at 9:53 am

      The Buchler and Brunell pieces argue that making districts uncompetitive makes democracy better by, in part, ensuring that voices are hear.

  6. Sam Stodolski
    October 4, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Isn’t gerrymandering a good thing? Shouldn’t the district lines be redrawn frequently to adhere to the will of the people? I know for myself, I enjoy living in a district of likeminded people and I can usually count on the idea that my representative is representing my ideals and interests. Despite the “political purpose” associated with it, it just seems like in today’s stalemate of government, it would be beneficial to shake things up a bit.

  7. Lexa Buerer
    October 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    I agree with gerrymandering because I think that it’s a way for people in a district to vote as a unit. When people in a district have similar political views it is easier to let their voice be heard if there is gerrymandering because the majority of people in that district will vote the same way. However, I do not see how gerrymandering could be viewed as making district elections more democratic.

    • Prof. Keith Smith
      October 4, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      You just made the argument. If we try to make elections more competitive by drawing equally balanced districts, we will ensure that more people are “losers” on election day. If we draw uncompetitive districts, we allow more people to “win.”

  8. L.Hira
    October 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Gerrymandering is definitely essential when running for an official government position because it gives the people a chance to decide what they would rather have and what on thing they can relate to more than another. It allows people to speak out and get their voices across. Although it may not be the most honest way to go it is a way to get ahead in elections and gives the people a reason to vote.

  9. sherie salomonsson
    October 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    I think that gerrymandering undermines the credibility of both parties. If political parties are manipulating geographic boundaries then how are the people supposed to know if we are being represented properly.

  10. Monique
    November 7, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    I feel that it is very hard to chose one side of the argument because they both have valid points. In one hand I see how gerrymandering can be beneficial because it builds stronger units. Those around you have the same views, thus making everyone more likely to stand up for what they believe in. This then causes the elections to be much more competitive. On the other hand, I feel that being able to manipulate or change geographical boundaries in favor of one side is a not right.

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