Home > Applying Political Science, Governing, Political Science > Gerrymandering and the Shutdown

Gerrymandering and the Shutdown

Gerrymandering is a popular topic right now. Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal have an important reminder to everyone who wants to blame the current shutdown/debt ceiling on electorally insulated members of Congress: gerrymandering isn’t the cause of the problem.

They write:

What if we told you that the gerrymandering of congressional districts has nothing to do with political polarization in Washington? Gerrymandering didn’t have anything to do with the shutdown, or the battles over the debt ceiling, or Obamacare. In fact, the accepted view that politically based redistricting led to our state of intransigence isn’t just incorrect; it’s silly.

The real reason for our increasingly divided political system is much simpler: The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced a fundamentalist version of free-market capitalism andsucceeded in winning elections. (The Democrats have moved to the left, but less so.)

The Republican shift is the result of several factors. The realignment of Southern white voters into the Republican Party, the branch of conservative activism created by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and the party’s increasingly firm stance on issues such as income inequality and immigration, can all be important to Republicans’ rightward shift.

The “blame it on the gerrymanders” argument mistakenly assumes that because redistricting created more comfortable seats for each party, polarization became inevitable. Our research, however, casts serious doubt on that idea.

Did you hear that: There is no necessary connection between gerrymandering, the creation of safe seats, and polarization.

Still more good stuff:

The most important element affecting polarization in the House of Representatives is the divergent approaches that Democrats and Republicans take to representing districts that are otherwise similar in terms of demographics and presidential voting. Even in moderate districts, Democratic representatives are still very liberal and Republican representatives are very conservative. This reflects a widening ideological gap, not different lines on a map.

If could magically switch the party of the person representing a district, you would observe dramatically different behavior (voting and otherwise) in Congress. It’s not that Congress is polarized because the districts are polarized. The parties have fundamentally different views of governing and seek to act on those views when in Congress. They do so, in some cases, in spite of the district.

One last bit:

There is another distinction. Many districts are safe for one party or the other because of how Americans have sorted themselves geographically — choosing to live closer to people who are politically or culturally like-minded. In Florida, for example, Palm Beach County will be reliably Democratic and the Panhandle will consistently vote for Republicans. These geographic shifts mean that state legislatures, which approve congressional district lines, can tweak but not fundamentally alter the ideological makeup of Congress.

Congress also has a handful of representatives from one-district states such as Vermont and Wyoming that can’t be subject to gerrymandering. Yet they are just as partisan as their colleagues from gerrymandered districts in other states.

See also Seth Masket’s recent post on the subject. Or my earlier post.

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