Having a democracy implies having a demos – a population making up a political entity that will guide the direction of the state. Since the primary election in North Carolina (where I am registered to vote) was held a couple months ago, I thought I would reflect upon the state of democracy in this country.
America is a republic, not a full-blown democracy. However, the democratic tradition in America has always been a source of national pride. In order to declare our democratic tradition upheld, I submit that two simple criteria must be met. First, the people (the demos) must have direct control over selecting their political representatives. And secondly, that those representatives must accurately represent the views, values, and interests of as many of their constituents as possible.
The first criterion is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. But does anyone really feel like politicians in Washington D.C. are accurately or even remotely proportionally representing the views and preferences of the American people? I certainly do not.
The increasing polarization of America’s two political parties began with Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the geographical realignment of the parties. The problem only got worse when gerrymandering (the practice of redrawing congressional districts to advantage or disadvantage one party or the other, even if the districts don’t make any geographic sense) became not only tolerable, but practically demanded from both parties when they were in power. Each state legislature gets to divide its state into its allotted number of congressional districts. So whichever party controls the state legislature (in some states congressional redistricting also requires the governor’s signature) gets to draw congressional maps that advantage their party. Admittedly, in principle, it is not unfair to rest the responsibility of redrawing representational maps in the hands of elected representatives.
Diminished democracy arises when state legislatures draw their maps to create nothing but “safe” seats. Safe districts will always exist as a byproduct of geography and natural demographic distribution. And there is nothing wrong with that. But if congressional districts are drawn to look like small intestines so that state legislatures can minimize the number of districts which contain large Republican or Democratic neighborhoods, that’s a problem. Gerrymandering is no longer the exception but the norm in almost every state. This is not democracy; this is cronyism. I’ll give you this district if you give me that one.
For example, North Carolina’s infamous 12th congressional district was drawn to squeeze as many racial minorities, the majority of whom are presumably Democrats, into one district so that they could have their own district and not have as big of an impact on other congressional races. The 12th congressional district contains parts of Charlotte, High Point, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem (If you are not from North Carolina, none of those cities are remotely close to one another).
But who cares if a growing majority of U.S. congressional races are “safe Republican” or “safe Democrat” seats? Is it any less democratic to have races that are contested at the primary stage rather than the general election stage? Yes. Remember the second criterion for a democracy – elected representatives must accurately represent the views of the greatest number of their constituents as possible. When only the primaries count, Congress becomes more polarized and more extreme on both ends of the political spectrum.
In the vast majority of races, primaries are won by appealing to the parties’ bases. Voter turnout is generally lower in primaries than general elections, so voter turnout in primaries is crucial because each vote counts proportionally more. The party base, ideologues, special interests, and the most civically-minded citizens are usually who make up primary voting populations. So it is often the base, the ideologues, and the special interests groups who decide party candidates, and by extension the default general election winner in “safe districts.”
But is it necessarily bad to allow each party’s base and partisan hardliners to have de facto power to determine who will represent the entire district? Not in all cases, but often yes it is bad for the hardliners on either side to have all the say on whom represents an entire city, district, or state. If you have to come across as the most ideologically hard-line conservative or liberal to appease primary voters and ensure your election, it is going to be harder for a congressman to go to Washington and be willing to even occasionally compromise to get things done. When partisan purity is demanded, gridlock ensues (see, D.C. right now).
Compromise is now a dirty word in Washington. But this nation was built on compromise, and the ability of leaders to argue fervently and at the end of the day work together for constructive conclusions that represent as much of the population as feasible. The Constitution itself was an extraordinary exercise in compromise between large states and small states, farmers and merchants, abolitionists and slave-owners. Americans want leaders with principles, but not stubbornness.
Today politicians are finding it increasingly difficult to compromise, or even to give an inch lest they face the wrath of the partisan purists who elected them. If you do not adhere to the party line and ideological orthodoxy you risk facing a primary challenger. Washington would not have to be this way if congressmen and senators had to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats, their party’s base and moderates and independents to get elected, and if general elections mattered and not just primaries. This solution to this problem is most likely technocratic – fix the redistricting system. Some states appoint “independent commissions” to redraw congressional maps every 10 years. That’s not a bad idea; but then again, who appoints the “commissioners”? My proposal is to require that every time a state legislature re-draws the congressional map, a two-thirds supermajority is required to pass it. That would virtually require at least some support from both parties to institute a new layout, the first step towards making bipartisanship possible.
Elected officials represent not only those who voted for them, but everyone living in their district or state, and they would do well to remember that. I am not asking politicians to surrender their principles – far from it. What politicians need to do is merely to understand that achieving 80% of their goal and compromising on 20% is better than compromising on nothing and not getting anything done.
Garrett Jacobs | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill | @GarrettMJacobs