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Incentivizing Polarization

December 28, 2012

As I’m sure all of you are aware by now, Nate Silver runs an excellent blog for the New York Times over at FiveThirtyEight. Yesterday he posted a blog detailing the increased polarization in the country, and it struck me that this is a natural outcome of the way we allocate districts. The natural instinct for preserving power pushes our leaders to increase polarization and gridlock.

First, let’s start with a couple of assumptions:
– The members of each party believe that their party has the best ideas for the country
– There is a natural tendency to protect what’s yours

From these two assumptions it’s not a stretch to say that elected politicians will act to preserve their power and the power of their party. Let’s see how this plays out in our redistricting process.

First, Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution states, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…” This sections was modified by the 14th Amendment, as the original counted slaves as 3/5 of a person. The updated wording counts all citizens “born and naturalized.” This section also includes a provision to ensure each state receives one representative, and calls for the “Enumeration” to be updated every ten years, hence the 10-year census.

Each Representative is elected based on the district in which he or she lives, with the number of districts being determined by the results of the census. Obviously the district lines will need to be redrawn on some regular interval, as some states will gain Representatives during a census, and others will lose them (in 2010, Texas gained 4 seats, while New York lost 2). The process of setting the boundaries for the districts is left up to the states, which each have their own rules.

In my home state of North Carolina, for example, the state is required to update the district lines after every census, and may not do so ago until the next census. North Carolina’s process is also subject to the Voting Rights Act, which means that careful consideration must be given to ensuring minority voters are given their due in the redistricting process. North Carolina’s Constitution is also somewhat unique in that it does not allow dividing counties during the redistricting process. However, due to the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws, this requirement has been disregarded, but a 2002 State Supreme Court decision has decreed that county division “must be minimized.” Many states do not have this requirement.

OK, so that tells us a little about the requirements of redistricting, what next? An important point to remember about the redistricting process is that it is, like everything else undertaken by the state legislature, a legislative process. This means that the plan, regardless of how it is developed, is subject to a vote. Remembering the assumptions from before, it is reasonable to assume that the controlling party will only approve a plan that at least preserves, and preferably increases, its power.

How is this done? There are a number of ways, but the proclaimed Republican strategy during the most recent round of redistricting was to give the Democrats super majorities in a few districts, and distribute Republican influence across the others, shoring up majorities along the way. The impact of such a move is fairly obvious: with majorities increased in all districts, there is no need to compromise. In fact, there is an increased need for standing your ground. With no serious threat of a challenge during the general election, the most direct challenge to a Representative’s power comes from a primary challenger who appeals more to the district’s base, as demonstrated by the rise of the Tea Party. Republicans have taken note of this result, and many formerly moderate members of the party have taken a hard right turn to keep their seats.

This strategy appears to be playing out on the national stage with the current fiscal cliff debates. John Boehner is up for reelection as Speaker of the House, which is still controlled by the Republicans. While the country would benefit from a fiscal cliff deal, Obama has made clear he will not accept Boehner’s terms. Obama obviously has nothing to lose from an electoral standpoint, as he is doen after this term regardless of what happens. Boehner, on the other hand, stands to lose his Speakership if he “caves” to Obama’s demands. And with such a large majority of Republican lawmakers taking Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, he has little to no wiggle room on Obama’s proposal for increased taxes. So the country suffers for one man.

The only way to correct this imbalance would be for the Republican party to punish Boehner for sending the country over the cliff. I’m not holding my breath on that one.


From → Opinion

  1. Brian cremeansb permalink

    I agree with the overall point of the posting but disagree with allocating all the blame to The speaker. The house Republicans on the hard right have made a deal nearly impossible. He cannot accept the Presidents plan if he cannot garner the votes to pass it. The President on the other hand has taken a back seat and stayed out of negotiations from Thanksgiving until only recently, perfectly content with going over the cliff, as you said above, with nothing to lose. I don’t believe either party has entirely negotiated in good faith. The Republican position is untenable and the President knows this. I don’t think the speaker should be punished for this (even though I don’t believe he has been a good one) because his party refuses to vote for the President’s plan. The party is more to blame than the speaker.

    • I agree that the rest of the party is holding him hostage, and the way they can enforce that is by not reelecting him to a position he clearly enjoys. So perhaps I was being too direct in laying blame on him, but the message is still the same: it’s about power, not what’s best for the country.
      You’re also correct about Obama’s role in this. My biggest complaint about Obama as President is that he has displayed a fairly stunning lack of leadership on anything of substance, like the fiscal cliff issue. I get that he has a House opposed to him, but if his ideas are really that great he should be out front, making his case non-stop until the people force Congress’ hand.
      The bottom line is, politicians need to stop pointing fingers at each other and work together to get something done.

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