We tend to hold our Founding Fathers in high esteem, almost venerating them. That is, except for poor Elbridge Gerry. James Madison’s vice president instead has a bit of infamy attached to his name, because it’s the first part of the portmanteau “gerrymandering,” which refers to the practice of drawing legislative districts in a way that benefits one party or another.
The practice of gerrymandering takes center stage every decade when the census requires state legislatures to redraw district lines to reflect changes in population. The practice got its name when Gerry, then governor of Massachusetts, oversaw redrawing the state’s districts in a way that grossly helped his Democratic-Republican Party at the expense of the rival Federalist Party.
When the lines of one district twisted in such a way that the district looked like a lizard, the Boston Gazette called the district the “Gerry-mander,” and the name stuck.
Now that the history lesson is over, it’s worth noting that the Democratic-Republican Party was the forerunner of today’s Democrats. For generations, the Democrats understood gerrymandering to be a normal part of the political process, largely because it benefited them.
Gerrymandering only became a problem for the Democrats when Republicans started using it to their advantage. And now they want to get rid of it because they don’t benefit from it.
The gerrymander — like the filibuster, the earmark, the debt ceiling, and other procedural instruments of power — is something that people complain about only when it is being used against them. The Democrats were perfectly happy with gerrymandering for the better part of 200 years, understanding it to be an utterly normal part of the political process. They began to object to it when Republicans got good at it. And, in a refreshing bit of candor, their argument against partisan redistricting is that Republicans are too good at it.
Williamson uses Texas as an example. Decades of Democrat dominance in the state led to districts that were drawn in such a way that the party should have decimated the competition. That is, until Texans started to turn away from Democrat policies toward the GOP. Williamson concludes that all the gerrymandering in the world couldn’t stop voters from changing their minds on principles and policy.
This year, GOP-dominated legislatures are putting cutting-edge technology to work to draw districts almost surgically. The new maps in states with Republican legislatures will no doubt help the GOP for the next few election cycles, but that’s not the only thing that will benefit the Republicans.
Voters aren’t buying what the Democrats are selling these days, but they’ll blame it on gerrymandering.
Williamson concludes by invoking the Democrats’ great vaunted hero, the Condescender-in-Chief:
It is also the residue of Barack Obama. Perhaps because he believed his own messianic press clippings, Barack Obama turned out to be the greatest leader Republicans ever had in their quest to control state legislatures and governorships. During Obama’s presidency, Democrats gave up twelve governorships and nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures, along with 62 U.S. House seats and 11 senators — “a mind-bogglingly large number of races across the country,” as Vox put it. That created a great many opportunities for Republican gerrymandering. But, in spite of Republican manipulation of House districts, the Democrats quickly rebuilt their congressional majorities with the assistance of Donald Trump. They have found it harder going in state legislatures and now face strong headwinds in congressional races, too. It seems likely that this situation will persist for some time.
High levels of inflation, high levels of crime, and high levels of Kamala Harris.
Legislatures draw up legislative districts. If you don’t like the way your legislature does its work, then take Barack Obama’s advice and try winning an election.
He’s right. Live by the gerrymander, die by the gerrymander. But in the end, it all comes down to what voters think of your policies.