It's inevitable that when you discuss an issue you're probably leaving out some vastly important factor. Counting everything that really counts is so hard, you're bound to miss something. But sometimes it's glaring: no discussion of a piece of music can be complete without at least acknowledging the elements of rhythm, harmony, and melody. (I'm lookin' at you, Rolling Stone.) Sometimes you just have to say you can't talk about this without that.
Politics, for instance. The airwaves are crowded with complaints about our polarized political landscape, this increasingly crazy guy-in-the-middle-gets-shot-from-both-sides situation, in which each party seems to put forward the most caricatured version of itself for the voter to choose between. That is, when those airwaves aren't crowded out with political spokespeople speaking of their opponents as enemies of the state.
Certainly, the Southern Strategy is part of it; certainly, the 24-hour news cycle is part of it. But how is it that, in all of those complaints, all those analyses, all the handwringing about our toxically polarized culture, gerrymandering is hardly mentioned?
We think of ourselves as a nation of voters that, district by district, state by state, choose political candidates, all the while lamenting that there aren't better choices. But that's just not the case: because of gerrymandering, it is our politicians who choose their voters. No other way to put it. It's the truth.
All across the nation, district by district, state by state, voting areas are referred to as R or D, as if each election is a foregone conclusion. It pretty much is. Republicans blame Democrats when Democrats are in power, and Democrats blame Republicans when Republicans are in power, but as long as things keep going the way they are the finger-pointing doesn't matter, mainly because the Republicans are right and the Democrats are right: the party in power, whichever one is in power at the time, is
to blame. They do it, again and again. It's like the Protestants and Catholics in Reformation Europe: everyone sees how horrible it is to be the group that gets beheaded, and then they get in power and behead.
Here's the result: In your district, it's likely that several candidates for several offices, often including Congressional seats, are running, for all practical purposes, unopposed. The real battle, then, is in the primary, where the true believers in a party insist that the candidate conform to an ever-increasing standard of purity. This is how a Democratic candidate who's a little to the left of John Kennedy can be called a spineless sellout and vilified by prominent Democrats; it's how a Republican candidate who's fairly far to the right of Ronald Reagan can be called a RINO — a Republican In Name Only. And, because this is the lay of the land, the people making those criticisms and calling those names own the conversation.
California has taken action by passing an anti-gerrymandering rule and appointing an independent panel to draw the district lines. Who knows whether that will work, or what unintended effects will come of it. But it's something. Meanwhile, there's the rest of the country, which, with increasingly powerful computerized tools of population analysis, is being creatively sliced into bluer and redder areas.
Wouldn't you love to be in a place where a candidate had to appeal to the largest possible votership? Where the margins of a party stayed on the margins? Where not only candidates but public officials once they've been elected felt that they had to answer to more than just their base? You can be in such a place, but not until we make gerrymandering a thing of the past. Other countries have people other than the party in power in the moment drawing the lines; we can too.
Meanwhile, every time you hear a political discussion in which the Red-Blue divide is mentioned, but gerrymandering is not, mention it.