American Democracy Betrayed

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner with Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, as he passed the speakership to fellow Republican Paul Ryan, Washington, D.C., October 2015
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner with Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, as he passed the speakership to fellow Republican Paul Ryan, Washington, D.C., October 2015

Political paralysis. Hyperpartisanship. Decline of political civility. Denial of voting rights to groups that support the opposition. Low voter turnout. There may be other valid grievances about what’s become of our democracy, but that’s a useful list to start with. To mention them raises the question of where to begin to resolve at least some of our political problems. I’m not alone in thinking that the single problem most worth attacking first, the solution to which could go a long way toward untangling our political morass, is the blatantly partisan manipulation of our system of decennial redistricting by the states.

Redistricting works in a circular fashion by which the states get caught up in an ongoing cycle of self-protecting exploitation of the advantages of incumbency. Thus a party wins control of the legislature of a state that then draws its state and congressional districts in a way that maintains that party in power. (Also winning the governorship helps a lot.) With that power the controlling state party can decide to try to limit the voting rights of groups that might disturb this convenient arrangement and elect a president of the other party.

So much of our political commentary is clouded by a perceived and real need to be “evenhanded” (the pressures, especially on broadcasters, and especially from the right, are real) that the picture of what’s going on in our politics is often distorted. The inescapable fact is that Republicans have historically been more attuned than Democrats to the political advantages of gaining and maintaining power at the state level and more inclined to involve themselves in what might seem unglamorous structural questions.

One result is that the Republicans are overrepresented in Congress. They’ve pulled that off by working to dominate state governments and thereby get themselves in a position to draw most of the congressional districts, which gives them the power to perpetuate themselves in Congress. Thus—if they’re of a mind to—they can block whatever a Democratic president wants to do. As a result, we have a distorted contest for power between the two parties for control of the executive and legislative branches.

As of now, through redistricting, the Republicans have built themselves a bulwark against losing control of at least one of the houses of Congress—barring an unusually strong landslide. So well have the House Republicans protected themselves or been protected from a contest from the other party that, according to the Cook Political Report, only 37 out of 435 seats are being contested this…


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