Are ‘safe’ seats to blame for the shutdown in Washington?

Luiza Ch. Savage explains why constantly redrawn electoral district lines may be responsible for the U.S. government shutdown

Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post / Getty Images

How did it get so bad? The U.S. government shutdown and potential debt default is just the latest crisis of political dysfunction. Congress hasn’t passed a proper federal budget since 2009, and the last standoff over raising the limit on federal borrowing resulted in a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating. This time it could lead to a default. Standoff after standoff is leaving Americans asking what happened to make their politics so polarized.

Most of the blame falls on an electoral system that has been producing lawmakers averse to the kind of co-operation necessary for basic governance. “We are a complex country,” but the current electoral system creates “a funhouse mirror distortion of who we are that channels us into two narrow, doctrinaire groupings,” says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a non-partisan group that advocates for electoral reform. Not that any fix would be easy. After all, the gridlock was caused by a confluence of factors—both cultural and political—that, over the years, gradually seized up the machinery of the state.

Some critics blame political geography. Years of redrawing boundaries of electoral districts to create “safe” seats for Democrats and Republicans have taken a toll. Lawmakers no longer need to appeal to the political “middle” to try to win general elections, but must instead deliver only to their own party’s true believers. This process of redistricting, normally of interest only to political wonks, has been taking a lot of blame as a deep cause of the current polarization.

U.S. electoral districts are generally adjusted every 10 years, after a national census–the last in 2010. The process is controlled by state legislatures that often engage in aggressively partisan map-making—resulting in bizarrely-shaped ridings.

Take North Carolina’s 4th District—“the Hanging Claw,” whose curves and kinks meander through college towns and liberal neighbourhoods to pack in as many of the state’s Democrats and African-American voters as possible, earning it the distinction of America’s “ugliest gerrymandered district” from Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, which noted that the district’s shape was “more like an archipelago than a contiguous land mass.” Other offenders included the “Pinwheel of Death,” a collection of barely-connected blotches otherwise known as Maryland’s 3rd District; and the ethnically homogeneous C-shaped “Latino Ear Muffs” of the 4th District of Illinois.

Such partisan “gerrymandering” is named for Elbridge Gerry, the fifth vice-president and a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, who, while governor of Massachusetts, created a partisan district that looked conspicuously like a salamander. The “Gerry-mander” was born.

The practice was once used to dilute African-American voting power in the South by spreading their votes across districts. The 1960s then saw the creation of the opposite approach: “majority minority” districts aimed at increasing black representation in Congress. Gerrymandering on purely racial grounds was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the practice effectively continues. Meanwhile, the rise of sophisticated mapping software has allowed legislators to draw ever more refined district lines.

But is it responsible for today’s mess?

The House of Representatives certainly looks more deeply and solidly polarized than when Newt Gingrich led a government shutdown during the Clinton administration. According to the Cook Political Report, which tracks Congressional races, in 1995, 79 House Republicans (33 per cent) came from districts won by Clinton. Today, just 17 House Republicans (seven per cent) hail from districts won by Obama in 2012. In 1995, there were 44 Republicans sitting in Democratic-leaning seats, according to a Cook analysis. Today, there are just five Republicans sitting in Democratic-leaning seats. And more than half of Republicans in the House today come from districts that are “very solid” Republican.

But for all the weight that conventional wisdom gives to gerrymandering, some political scientists say that polarization’s roots are deeper.

“Redistricting has little or nothing to do with how we got here,” said Princeton politics professor Nolan McCarty, a co-author of a study that analyzed the link between gerrymandering and polarization. Larger forces are at work, he contends. For one thing, he notes, the U.S. Senate, which is not subject to district boundaries because senators are elected by entire states, is also polarized—it’s home to some of the most ideological politicians on Capitol Hill, including senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, leaders of the latest government shutdown effort.

And polarization has been increasing since the 1970s, McCarty said, because of long-term social changes that have clarified once-muddy political parties.

“We now find ourselves on the extreme point of the continuum,” says McCarty. For example, many Southerners once refused to vote Republican, no matter how conservative they were, because Abraham Lincoln, the leader of the Union in the Civil War, was a Republican. As a result, there were many conservative Democrats in the South and many liberal Republicans in the northeast, making cross-party deal-making more possible.

But as the South became more Republican, and moderate northeastern Republicans gave way to Democrats, both parties became more ideologically unified, with fewer members willing to compromise across the aisle.

Meanwhile, another fundamental change took hold as part of this decades-long transition: the end of an era in which party leaders chose candidates in smoke-filled rooms based on what they perceived would be wide appeal to the general electorate, and the rise of primary elections in which the party faithful chose their own representation. “The ones who turn out to vote are the ones who drive the process—and there is evidence to suggest that it’s the most ideological voters who show up to vote,” says Jamie Carson, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who has studied polarization.

The polarization train that would bring Washington to the peak of partisanship now had two powerful engines: the parties were losing their moderate lawmakers, and the remaining members were being pulled to ideological extremes by primary voters who rewarded purity and punished heretics. The ideological intensity of primaries has also been fuelled by well-financed outside groups that prop up like-minded candidates, threatening incumbents with primary challenges if they vote against the groups’ agenda. “Those threats are really a reflection of the organizational weakness of the Republican and Democratic parties–their primary elections have been hijacked by outside groups,” says McCarty.

Moreover, the party leaders have lost leverage over their caucus in other ways, too. For example, in 2010 the House banned “earmarks”—the power of Congress to lard up bills with special projects such as roads or buildings in specific districts—which has left fewer “carrots” for congressional leaders to hand out to backbenchers in return for their compliance.

The combination has been a weakening of the power of the party leadership—and an empowerment of back-benchers who have promised their constituents to not back down on promises, such as cutting off funding for Obama’s health care reform, the issue that launched this month’s government shutdown.

The result of all these trends? “We are now the most polarized since the 1850s,” says Carson.

The standoff in Congress has caused an uptick of interest in change, with proponents such as FairVote’s Rob Richie expecting legislation proposing changes to the way representatives are elected to be introduced in the House of Representatives. Still, if any change is to happen, it is more likely to be on a ballot initiative in one of the states. After all, politicians in Washington are in no mood to agree on anything—let alone on reforming themselves.