Striking Down Gerrymandering

There's a good line in the campy sci-fi horror flick The Return of Swamp Thing from 1989.  Appalled to discover that her diabolical scientist father is – surprise! –  hatching an evil plot to live forever, the heroine asks: "Immortality?  Yuk!  What did you do, sell your soul to the devil?"  "More like a lease with an option to buy," her father replies.

Few loaded euphemisms better sum up the goings-on in the sprawling, drain-proof swamp that is Washington, D.C.  But now, the worst thing the swamp has produced is on trial for its life, and it will take far more than devilish doublespeak to save it.

In a matter of weeks or days, the U.S. Supreme Court will render a decision on gerrymandering, the dark art where politicians draw political district boundaries to choose their voters instead of the other way around.

Should the high court decide to outlaw gerrymandering, Americans of all stripes should cheer, but conservatives in particular should be leading the cheers – that is, if they believe protecting the Constitution from political perversion is still a cause worth fighting for.  At a time when political allegiances are variable and volatile, the founding idea of the Constitution, and public allegiance to it, should always be a North Star.

With Congress and 33 state Legislatures under Republican control, it's easy to see why the GOP is so needy on gerrymandering.  Given the gains, and a fundraising machine kicking into overdrive to raise more than $125 million by 2022, some Republicans may question the value of criticizing a tool that gives Republicans a winning hand and puts Democrats on full tilt.

For starters, corruption always finds a way.

Not unlike Jeff Goldblum's character's warning of the perils of bringing dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic Park, corruption tends to crash through barriers and debase the person seeking or holding power.  The jury is out on gerrymandering's legality and whether it actually causes polarization, but experts agree that it is "an invitation to overt corruption," especially when power is unearned through uncompetitive elections.  (In the 2016 election cycle, 97 percent of U.S. House incumbents were re-elected, while 42 percent of state legislative elections were no-contest races.)

What's stopping a politician, once ensconced in a safe district, from submitting to human nature, which more or less has stayed constant for hundreds of thousands of years?  With all the deep-pocketed donors teeming on the swamp's shores, why not legislate government largess (if you're a Democrat) or crony capitalism (if you're a Republican), especially if there's a financial gain and no consequence of electoral expulsion?

It's exactly this slippery, self-justifying logic that gerrymandering breeds that should keep conservatives up at night.  Gerrymandering ultimately creates democratically dysfunctional behaviors in legislators and those whom they represent – dysfunctional behaviors that the Constitution was designed to minimize and avoid.

When the framers of the Constitution sat down to write a founding document, they had a truly revolutionary aim in mind: make democratic behavior the basis for citizenship instead of singular identity.  As long as people live by the rights enumerated in the Constitution, they have an equal claim to and were guaranteed those rights –  no matter their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin.  In America, what you do matters more than who you are.

By enshrining this idea, the framers made a clean break from the old world, which demanded fealty to blood and soil.  The framers also recognized that government power in the hands of factions (or tribes) posed a threat to their revolutionary idea.  So they ensured that citizens could exercise their rights by dividing, checking, and balancing government power.  When the Constitution was ratified and citizens embraced it, American exceptionalism was born.

Gerrymandering puts the founding idea on its head by incentivizing the worst behaviors in individuals.  By equalizing Republicans and Democrats and uniting them on the same side as one monolithic political class, individual rights take a back seat to politicians' interest in gaining and keeping power.  Play this out over time, and the majority party inevitably becomes effete, uninterested in constituent needs, and seemingly unable to run competitive races to get re-elected.  The minority party winds up obsessed with the power it doesn't have and eyes the next election like a recidivist prisoner who longs for parole.

Worst of all, citizens are reduced to apathy.  As academic Sheila Kennedy wondered, why turn out to vote in an uncompetitive district?  Why volunteer for a sure loser?  Why contribute money to a sure winner?  Why exercise your rights in a system that repeatedly marginalizes them?  In the end, the notion of "big government" winds up redefined.  Tenure of office becomes an obstacle to the exercise of rights in the same way that massive budgets and onerous rules do.

Just like the casual user who starts with a gateway drug and moves on to the harder stuff, gerrymandering tempts politicians into self-destructive behavior while the citizenry literally and figuratively pays the consequences.

Admittedly, prohibiting gerrymandering won't end political mischief-making.  Nor will it provide a backbone transplant to politicians to make tough decisions.  But getting rid of gerrymandering will deprive the political class of a tool that rigs the system for personal gain by undermining America's founding idea.

Conservatives expect the Supreme Court to interpret the original intent of the Constitution and leave the legislating to Congress.  They also are forever vigilant against any attempt, subtle or overt, to weaken individual freedom.  Striking down gerrymandering is consistent with those aims.  It also would send a message to all politicians to serve through the spirit of the Constitution, do the hard job they were elected to do and let citizens do theirs.  Nothing could be more exceptional, or more American.

Chris Varones is founder and principal of Aesop Communications Group, a communications consulting firm based in Chicago.

There's a good line in the campy sci-fi horror flick The Return of Swamp Thing from 1989.  Appalled to discover that her diabolical scientist father is – surprise! –  hatching an evil plot to live forever, the heroine asks: "Immortality?  Yuk!  What did you do, sell your soul to the devil?"  "More like a lease with an option to buy," her father replies.

Few loaded euphemisms better sum up the goings-on in the sprawling, drain-proof swamp that is Washington, D.C.  But now, the worst thing the swamp has produced is on trial for its life, and it will take far more than devilish doublespeak to save it.

In a matter of weeks or days, the U.S. Supreme Court will render a decision on gerrymandering, the dark art where politicians draw political district boundaries to choose their voters instead of the other way around.

Should the high court decide to outlaw gerrymandering, Americans of all stripes should cheer, but conservatives in particular should be leading the cheers – that is, if they believe protecting the Constitution from political perversion is still a cause worth fighting for.  At a time when political allegiances are variable and volatile, the founding idea of the Constitution, and public allegiance to it, should always be a North Star.

With Congress and 33 state Legislatures under Republican control, it's easy to see why the GOP is so needy on gerrymandering.  Given the gains, and a fundraising machine kicking into overdrive to raise more than $125 million by 2022, some Republicans may question the value of criticizing a tool that gives Republicans a winning hand and puts Democrats on full tilt.

For starters, corruption always finds a way.

Not unlike Jeff Goldblum's character's warning of the perils of bringing dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic Park, corruption tends to crash through barriers and debase the person seeking or holding power.  The jury is out on gerrymandering's legality and whether it actually causes polarization, but experts agree that it is "an invitation to overt corruption," especially when power is unearned through uncompetitive elections.  (In the 2016 election cycle, 97 percent of U.S. House incumbents were re-elected, while 42 percent of state legislative elections were no-contest races.)

What's stopping a politician, once ensconced in a safe district, from submitting to human nature, which more or less has stayed constant for hundreds of thousands of years?  With all the deep-pocketed donors teeming on the swamp's shores, why not legislate government largess (if you're a Democrat) or crony capitalism (if you're a Republican), especially if there's a financial gain and no consequence of electoral expulsion?

It's exactly this slippery, self-justifying logic that gerrymandering breeds that should keep conservatives up at night.  Gerrymandering ultimately creates democratically dysfunctional behaviors in legislators and those whom they represent – dysfunctional behaviors that the Constitution was designed to minimize and avoid.

When the framers of the Constitution sat down to write a founding document, they had a truly revolutionary aim in mind: make democratic behavior the basis for citizenship instead of singular identity.  As long as people live by the rights enumerated in the Constitution, they have an equal claim to and were guaranteed those rights –  no matter their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin.  In America, what you do matters more than who you are.

By enshrining this idea, the framers made a clean break from the old world, which demanded fealty to blood and soil.  The framers also recognized that government power in the hands of factions (or tribes) posed a threat to their revolutionary idea.  So they ensured that citizens could exercise their rights by dividing, checking, and balancing government power.  When the Constitution was ratified and citizens embraced it, American exceptionalism was born.

Gerrymandering puts the founding idea on its head by incentivizing the worst behaviors in individuals.  By equalizing Republicans and Democrats and uniting them on the same side as one monolithic political class, individual rights take a back seat to politicians' interest in gaining and keeping power.  Play this out over time, and the majority party inevitably becomes effete, uninterested in constituent needs, and seemingly unable to run competitive races to get re-elected.  The minority party winds up obsessed with the power it doesn't have and eyes the next election like a recidivist prisoner who longs for parole.

Worst of all, citizens are reduced to apathy.  As academic Sheila Kennedy wondered, why turn out to vote in an uncompetitive district?  Why volunteer for a sure loser?  Why contribute money to a sure winner?  Why exercise your rights in a system that repeatedly marginalizes them?  In the end, the notion of "big government" winds up redefined.  Tenure of office becomes an obstacle to the exercise of rights in the same way that massive budgets and onerous rules do.

Just like the casual user who starts with a gateway drug and moves on to the harder stuff, gerrymandering tempts politicians into self-destructive behavior while the citizenry literally and figuratively pays the consequences.

Admittedly, prohibiting gerrymandering won't end political mischief-making.  Nor will it provide a backbone transplant to politicians to make tough decisions.  But getting rid of gerrymandering will deprive the political class of a tool that rigs the system for personal gain by undermining America's founding idea.

Conservatives expect the Supreme Court to interpret the original intent of the Constitution and leave the legislating to Congress.  They also are forever vigilant against any attempt, subtle or overt, to weaken individual freedom.  Striking down gerrymandering is consistent with those aims.  It also would send a message to all politicians to serve through the spirit of the Constitution, do the hard job they were elected to do and let citizens do theirs.  Nothing could be more exceptional, or more American.

Chris Varones is founder and principal of Aesop Communications Group, a communications consulting firm based in Chicago.