Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Passivity in the face of democratic decay

Despite all the talk about the possibility of change in the make-up of our national legislature, the reality is unless there is a tidal wave of disaffected voters appearing at the polls there will be only marginal change at best. There are 435 seats in Congress and 33 in the Senate up for re-election today. The fact that only about a tenth of them is considered competitive says a lot. The reality is the system is only marginally responsive to the people of this country. (This blog has raised this issue before here.)

This assessment is from the editors of the New Republic:

In the olden days of politics, electoral wipeouts were great pectacles to behold. When Democrats or Republicans slipped on the political banana peel, they would tumble, arms flailing like Chevy Chase, into congressional defeat. In the 1894 election, Democrats squandered 125 seats; in 1922, Republicans endured a loss of 77 seats. This year, for the first time in over a decade, there's talk of a wipeout. But this wipeout, should it occur, would entail Republicans losing a mere 30 seats--and only in the unlikely event that every Bible-beating, gun-toting rural district breaks in the Democrats' direction.

When we wax nostalgic for the bygone era of true electoral catastrophes, it's not just out of a hunger for more enjoyable political theater. We're pining for elections that reflect public will. And such an outcome is not likely this year. Take a look at recent opinion surveys, such as the one Newsweek released on October 28. Democrats have run up double-digit advantages on major issues from Iraq to the economy. When voters are presented with a generic congressional ballot, Democrats win 53-39. But there's simply no way that this will translate. Virginia, Missouri, and Tennessee, for instance, are hosting three of the nation's tightest Senate races. But travel a step down the ballot, and you will find only one close contest in those states' combined 29 house races. The entire state of California has only two somewhat tight contests--and it wouldn't even have those, except for a pair of GOP incumbents' associations with Jack Abramoff.

All this is the legacy of our least favorite Founding Father, Elbridge Gerry, and the formula for rigging congressional elections that bears his name. Not that it's all Gerry's fault. The redistricting plan he signed in 1812--and the hundreds that have followed--merely exploited a massive flaw in our electoral system. When you have congressional districts, those districts will have boundaries, and those boundaries will inevitably rebound to one party's favor. Unless we remake our system of government in the image of Germany or New Zealand, most American voters are going to be stuck with the annoying fact that their congressional vote doesn't much matter; their incumbent will win, no matter which lever they pull.

… the problem of gerrymandering is now as much cultural as constitutional. The fact that our system of government has such a massive flaw at its center elicits almost no political passion. You'll only find complaints in the corners of goo-goo think tanks. And such passivity in the face of democratic decay is itself a depressing sign of disrepair.

No comments: