Sometimes, it’s illuminating to connect the dots.
Senate Republicans are refusing to hold hearings to consider a nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, and I have been critical of that refusal (by “strict constructionists,” no less) to discharge their constitutional duty. A reader emailed to say the Democrats would probably do the same if the political roles were reversed; I replied that I hoped they would at least be more subtle about it—go ahead and have hearings, and then reject the nominee.
His essential point, of course, was that both parties’ excessive partisanship and the polarization that characterizes today’s politics threatens our ability to govern ourselves, and he’s right.
One of the reasons for that excessive partisanship is gerrymandering. (And yes, I know that Senate seats cannot be gerrymandered. Bear with me here.)
I have posted for years about the anti-democratic effects of gerrymandering. As I have repeatedly noted, gerrymandering contributes to political polarization and gridlock; in safe districts, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that almost always means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left.
Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to “toe the line”— to placate the most rigid elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to appeal to the broader constituency, we get nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.
The consequence of ever-more-precise state-level and Congressional gerrymandering has been a growing philosophical gap between the parties and— especially but not exclusively on the Republican side— an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or any hint of compromise.
In a post to SCOTUSblog considering the current standoff and potential nominees, Tom Goldstein makes two points in passing that illuminate this toxic situation. Noting that the political parties are in “a deadly embrace from which neither will easily budge,” he says
The administration feels a constitutional responsibility to press for the confirmation of a nominee and every political advantage in doing so. Republicans cannot accede to that effort because their base will not permit it.
After suggesting that the GOP will eventually choose to pursue the “slow walk and reject” option, he predicts that Senate Republicans will vote to reject “essentially as a block. Any other course than a decisive vote against the nominee invites a certain primary challenge from conservatives in the next election.” (emphasis mine)
What gerrymandering has done is radicalize the political bases. It is naive to assume that the consequences of that radicalization are confined to carefully-drawn, noncompetitive state legislative districts and House Districts.
Making matters worse, many of the most impassioned members of those radicalized bases—in both parties—have very tenuous understandings of how American government actually works, let alone the country’s history or constitutional principles. They are ripe for demagoguery and bumper-sticker slogans.
They are the electorate that gerrymandering has helped to create, and they are the electorate to which Senate Republicans are pandering.
Connect the dots.