Finally: It sure seems as if a few years ago, when people in California tried to make an issue out of gerrymandering, the sophisticated position was to pooh-pooh the harm it causes. After all, nonpartisan line-drawing would only “make a few more legislative seats more competitive,” according to a 2005 NYT op-ed. People were sorting themselves out geographically and there was no way to force them into competitive districts. Give it up, goo-goos!
Could this attitude have had something to do with the support for gerrymandering from Nancy Pelosi and the California Democratic party, which benefitted from the party-manipulated lines in that huge state? Pelosi beat the anti-gerrymandering initiative in 2005, with the help of $4 million from Clinton buddy Steve Bing. Reformers came back with a modified anti-gerrymandering scheme for state offices in 2008. Pelosi fought that too, but it squeaked by with 50.8% of the vote. In 2010 big Democratic donors came out in force to try to prevent nonpartisan redistricting from being extending to Congressional races–even sponsoring a competing initiative designed to confuse the voters. Look at the list of contributors–Soros, Saban, AFSCME. the teachers’ union, they’re all there (except Bing).
Now, of course, gerrymandering (to produce safe seats) is Democrats’ favored villain when it comes to explaining why today’s Congressional Republicans are so wild and fearless about the consequences. “Look no further,” says Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza. Democratic writers turn naturally to gerrymandering as the explanation because it suggests that the Republican House majority is somehow illegitimate, the product of illicit backroom skullduggery rather than elections.
But line-drawing is no more a factor in producing safe seats now than it was in 2005–probably less, since the decades-long process of voluntary sorting into blue and red areas has presumably continued apace. And if the problem is that Dems congregate in urban districts of their own volition, then the fearless Republican majority is only partly the result of partisan line drawing. Ezra Klein has a reasonable, nuanced discussion of the topic today on Wonkblog,** though his site’s new, dumber doppelganger, KnowMore, just blames gerrymandering. (No need for complications when you’re giving your followers the little pat Dem message -of-the-day through viral graphics.)
And to the extent gerrymandering is a factor, which it clearly is … well, maybe if Pelosi and the Dems had made fighting gerrymandering a cause in the years before 2010, instead of protecting their own hides, they (we) wouldn’t be in this mess today.
**–Klein notes that Republicans themselves seem to be very grateful for gerrymandering. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the gerrymandered safe seats they now enjoy are all that different from the safe seats they’d enjoy (thanks to self-sorting geography) if district lines were drawn by a non-partisan body. It might mean mainly that they feel they did better than if they’d lost control of state legislatures to Democrats who would have put through a pro-Dem gerrymander designed to screw them up as much as possible.