The coverage arc of the 2020 congressional redistricting went from speculation that Republicans would end up with a massive advantage — because they controlled far more state legislatures — to surprising that Democrats managed to fight their way to roughly the same number of seats as Republicans. This result was considered good news, as announced for example in this new “analysis” from the New York Times (3/10/22): “A Potential Rarity in American Politics: A Fair Congressional Map”.
Along the way, articles generally noted in passing the overall decrease in competitive elections resulting from aggressive partisan gerrymandering, but to the extent that this raised concerns, it was not about disenfranchising voters.
“Gerrymandering is about elected officials who attempt to retain power by manipulating the composition of the population they represent, thereby making it easier for their party to win,” CNN accurately explained (1/25/22) in a “Gerrymandering 101 ” room. “The consequences are serious.” So far, so good.
What are these consequences, you ask?
The rise in partisanship, the “growing polarization” and the resulting “impasse” in Congress. This concern over “an even more divisive Congress,” as USA Today put it (2/21/22), was a recurring theme in the corporate media. In both of these stories, increased ideological diversity was the main problem identified with gerrymandering. (In fairness to CNN, the headline here, “How Gerrymandering Is Making the American House Intensely Partisan”, leaves open the possibility that there are other gerrymandering issues to cover in other articles, though a search on the CNN site did not yield mention of other problems.)
But even when they’ve found the right headline—as The New York Times (2/6/22) did with “‘Taking Voters Out of the Equation’: How Parties Kill Competition”—the articles n haven’t explained either how voters are “taken out of the equation” or why that’s a problem. Here, The Times called the current round of gerrymandering “the latest worrying sign of dysfunction in the American political system”, and later identified that worry as the “lack of competition in the general election“. [that] can widen the ideological gap between parties.
“Bright Spot for Democracy”
Ideological polarization was not the only threat identified by the corporate media stemming from gerrymandering. They also feared that gerrymandered maps would lead to an unbalanced distribution of power between the two main political parties.
A case in point was Ohio, where The Washington Post’s The Fix (1/13/22) explained that Republicans redrew the maps of Congress in a way that turned 64% of them into safe Republican districts in “a particularly brazen attempt…to circumvent the will of the voters.” That plan was struck down by the state Supreme Court because it violated the state’s constitutional requirement that redistricting reflect the “relative preference of statewide voters,” and Republicans average 54% of the vote in statewide elections. of safe neighborhoods for his party instead of 64%, all would have been well off as far as the Washington Post (and the state Supreme Court) were concerned.
But what if voters have a preference for something other than single-party constituencies? What if they really wanted to have a choice on election day? This problem is not even on the radar.
The focus on party over voter representation reached its absurd logical conclusion in the March 10 Times article quoted above (“A Potential Rarity in American Politics: A Fair Map of Congress”) . The premise here is simple: Because Democrats have managed to squeeze their way into roughly the same number of districts as Republicans, all is well with American democracy. Of course, the article admits:
Both Democrats and Republicans … have attracted extreme gerrymanders with winding, rotating district lines, denying many communities representation in Congress. Dozens of incumbents have been shielded from serious challenges. The number of competitive districts has decreased. Corn, Dunlike previous cycles, extreme gerrymanders from both sides effectively canceled each other out.
Ergo, no problem! The article actually says, I don’t shit on you, that the result is “a surprisingly fair map” and a “bright spot for American democracy.” I don’t think that word means what you think it means. Democracy is a form of government based on popular sovereignty, in which the people choose their leaders and participate in the decisions that determine their social and economic conditions. Note: people, not political parties.
All of these articles lack a rudimentary understanding of what uncompetitive ridings, that is, one-party ridings, actually mean to voters. Which makes them useless.
The media understands this when looking at authoritarian regimes elsewhere (or at least those that are not client states of the United States): when there is only one party on the ballot, or ‘only one party has a chance to win, voting is meaningless activity, and is not proof of democratic decision-making.
Moreover, the one-party rule in the United States is also the rule in place. In 2020, congressional incumbents had a 96% win rate. Lest you be lulled into thinking – as the corporate media would have you believe – that uncompetitive ridings simply shift the site of political dissent from the general election to the primary election, know that the incumbents win the primary races at an even higher rate. In 2020, more starters lost primary races than any year since 1974, and the win rate was still 98%. As noted by Maddow Blog (8/19/20), “The number of congressional incumbents losing primary campaigns is, in general, extremely low.”
These numbers took me a few minutes to google, which is to say they are readily available and should be known to political journalists. Still, articles that worry about the growing ideological divide keep coming back claiming that the main threats lead to a hardening of partisan positions. Here’s CNN (1/25/22):
When the results of a general election are inescapable, the primary race is what counts. A threat from within the party, whether Republican or Democratic, can draw candidates to the extremes of their party.
And the New York Times (“‘Blood Red’: How Lopside New District Lines Are Deepening America’s Divide,” 02/27/22):
When primaries are the only campaigns that matter, candidates are often punished for compromising. Already polarized parties are further apart. Governance becomes more difficult.
While neither article makes it clear that primaries are meaningful political contests, these statements certainly imply that they are — and the argument that one-party constituencies lead to political polarization hinges on this fiction.
In fact, one-party rule, whether divided district by district equally between two parties or not, is exactly as undemocratic as that term sounds; and it is journalistic malpractice not to report it. Especially when you report that the percentage of competitive districts in Congress is expected to drop from an already abysmal 17% after the 2010 redistricting to a truly deplorable 9% after the 2020 redistricting (New York Times, 2/6/22).
Given this political reality, it is not at all surprising that there is no relationship between popular political opinion and congressional action. Or, in the words of the reform group Represent US, “The number of Americans for or against an idea has no bearing on the likelihood that Congress will make it law.
This is what I would call a “serious consequence” of gerrymandering (and other undemocratic dimensions of American electoral systems, primarily campaign finance and voter suppression). But I could find only one brief reference to this, a quote from Joshua Graham Lynn of Represent US in the USA Today article (2/21/22): that non-competitive districts “are root of the lack of action on issues that many Americans really care about.
There is a word for this reality, but it is not democracy: it is oligarchy. Don’t look for that word in the media that is owned and run by American oligarchs.
This content comes from media monitoring group FAIR and was written by Dorothee Benz.