Repeat After Me: Gerrymandering Is Not to Blame

Pundits and talking heads really like to blame gerrymandering -- here's a short history of the term -- as a/the reason for political polarization. This CNN news report blames gerrymandering for some of our political ills. Liberal media watch-dog Media Matters partially blames gerrymandering for the tea party. Even President Obama has bought into the "redistricting" argument:

A big chunk of the Republican Party right now is -- are in gerrymandered districts where there's no competition, and those folks are much more worried about a tea party challenger than they are about a general election where they've got to compete against a Democrat or go after independent votes. And in that environment, it's a lot harder for them to compromise


Well, as seductive and logical as President Obama makes it sounds, gerrymandering is simply not to blame for our current political ills. Indeed, political scientists will tell that the notion is "silly." The answer is much simpler:

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 and succeeded 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.

The problem with the gerrymandering argument is not "lines on a map" but the fact that our political elites and elected representatives -- both conservative and liberal -- are simply more conservative (or liberal) than the voters they ostensibly represent. This makes sense: to run for office in the modern political environment you have to really, really care about politics and really, really believe that your political "team" is right.

The authors also point out that the ramifications of this is that when a House seat changes hands, e.g., a conservative defeats a liberal, you are going to get reliably conservative voting, whereas before the same district would have had reliably liberal votes on legislation. Again, gerrymandering fails to explain this.

Want more? The divergent interests of urban versus rural voters is also to blame for political polarization. Finally, research has shown that Americans have self-sorted into living in communities with the politically like-minded (think Seattle or Madison, Wisconsin versus North Texas or Central Florida).

The current state of politics has many ills, but gerrymandering is not one of them. Let's put this one to bed.

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