Why Is It So Difficult for Pundits to Understand Gerrymandering?

by Neil H. Buchanan
At long last, the mainstream press and some of the pundits who are accepted in polite society are taking more and more seriously the idea that the US might soon cease to be a functioning constitutional democracy.  I continue to believe that it is already too late to prevent the worst from happening, but I also remain willing to reassess my predictions as new evidence comes in.

Although Democrats have recently been feeling better about their chances in the midterms, there are still plenty of reasons to think that it will all go very badly for them (and the country) on November 8.  As but one among many examples, despite being one of the weakest candidates in the history of the country, Georgia's Republican candidate for the Senate is actually leading in the polls.  No matter how extreme or crazy (or blatantly dishonest) the Republican nominees are for key gubernatorial and US Senate races, there is no evidence of any dams breaking as people say: "at long last, this is too much."
My purpose here, however, is not to predict electoral outcomes.  That is not my skill set, and frankly, I would seriously have to reconsider my life choices if that is what I did for a living.  Instead, I am interested in the apparently unbreakable bad habits that cause people to continue to misunderstand even the most basic threats to our political system.

Until recently, the Democrats had mostly been pretending that there was nothing seriously wrong that some good fundraising and inoffensive candidates could not solve.  They now seem to have shaken themselves out of that slumber, and it has surprised everyone.  Indeed, the Republicans had no idea what to do when President Biden actually called out their authoritarianism, so they resorted to making over-the-top remarks about the lighting at the site of Biden's speech.  In some ways, this is promising.

Even so, I should be clear that the awakening that I mentioned above -- with centrists and liberals suddenly talking openly about the possible death of democracy -- is in its drowsy, eye-rubbing phase.  There is still plenty of disbelief and denial ("I want to go back to sleep ... please, just five more minutes!"), and there is no serious chance that the non-Republican political class (Democrats of various stripes, independents, and whatever we might call the earnest Pollyannas who are trying to start third parties) will ever find the spine to take even half-measures.

A very good example of this can be found in a recent long-form article by David Leonhardt in The New York Times: "'A Crisis Coming': The Twin Threats to American Democracy."  I give The Times a lot of credit for devoting resources to its new "Democracy Challenged" series, of which Leonhardt's piece is the latest entry.  He clearly means well, and he covers plenty of interesting and important ground.  Even so, let me note two examples of bad old habits that show up in the piece, reinforcing my worry that the people who need to stand up and resist will lose their nerve -- or might not even know what needs to be done.

Both of the examples that I will focus on here have to do with gerrymandering -- and again, I emphasize that there is a lot to like in Leonhardt's piece -- but they are not the only worrisome lapses.  I am focusing on them because they are especially clear examples of the kind of sleepwalking non-thinking that too often passes for political analysis.
First, there is the almost awesome ability to take even the most one-sided problem and present it with classic bothsidesism: "In Illinois, for example, the Democrats who control the state government have packed Republican voters into a small number of House districts, allowing most other districts to lean Democratic. In Wisconsin, Republicans have done the opposite."  See, both parties are bad!
But hey, maybe that is just a framing device.  After all, the very next paragraph concedes that "Republicans have been more forceful than Democrats about gerrymandering," even linking to a report that some illegally gerrymandered maps are being used in 2022 because the Supreme Court's reactionary majority is allowing it.  Nonetheless, we are told that "the current House map slightly favors Republicans, likely by a few seats."  But this is after Republicans added at least eight safe seats nationwide, while Democrats were stopped from responding in kind in several states.  In light of that, if the overall Republican advantage is only a few seats, that merely means that the Democrats would be outright favored in a non-gerrymandered world, not fighting from a disadvantage.
More to the point, the idea that "both sides do it" is simply ridiculous in this context.  Of course Democrats are trying to do what they can to counter Republican gerrymanders.  They are a political party, and they know hardball when they see it.  But if both parties were given the chance to vote for a system with no gerrymandering (with enforceable guarantees that both parties will be prevented from using redistricting to achieve an unfair advantage), we all know that the Republicans would say no and that Democrats would say yes.  (Indeed, the Republicans on the Supreme Court have done exactly that.)  That is not necessarily because Democrats are inherently virtuous, but the simple fact is that their gerrymandering is defensive, not offensive.

In mainstream pundit-land, however, only people who are willing to unilaterally disarm are viewed as sufficiently pure of heart.  Apparently, Democrats would have to commit themselves to the practice of Gandhi's Satyagraha before they would be permitted to complain about gerrymandering.

Second, Leonhardt then defaults to another myth about gerrymandering, which is the idea that the Democrats' disadvantage in the House is partly non-Republican voters' fault, because they have moved into cities and thus supposedly made it impossible not to gerrymander them into too-safe Democratic districts.  He even has a citation to a political scientist who has made that argument.

But as I described in a column here on Dorf on Law five years ago, that is nonsense on stilts.  It is simply false to say that an all-Democratic area makes it impossible to draw districts that are competitive and have partisan balance.  District lines are drawn through cities all the time, joining urban, suburban, and rural areas in all kinds of ways.  When I was growing up in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, the 9th congressional district was essentially the city of Toledo and a few of the surrounding suburbs.  I was still registered there when Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur won her first term in the House.  Here is her current district map, running from Toledo along empty areas of the Lake Erie coast, connecting to Sandusky (and Cedar Point) and then all the way to the Cleveland suburbs. 

Marcy Kaptur - BW Center for Women and Politics in Ohio

Thanks to Ohio's gerrymandered Republican state legislative majorities, Kaptur has been re-redistricted into an area that still includes Toledo but that now runs west to the Indiana border, an area that Donald Trump won in 2020.  Interested readers can see that map here, but the previous map above makes my point clearly.  Does anything about that map suggest that there are limits as to the shape of congressional districts -- limits that make it impossible for a map-maker acting in good faith to undo non-Republican voters' supposed "geographic sorting"?  Even contiguity is not completely honored, with the rather large Sandusky Bay breaking up the land mass.
And Ohio's 9th is hardly an outlier.  Even before the Roberts Court decided to take gerrymandering even less seriously, the only limits on gerrymandering were related to racially discriminatory district maps.  Republicans openly admitted that they were gerrymandering, but they said that it was acceptable to do so because they were merely harming Democrats qua Democrats, not targeting minorities deliberately or specifically. Indeed, they defended themselves all the way up to the Court's disastrous 2018 punt on gerrymandering by saying, in essence, that they should be able to get away with whatever they want, because deciding what counts as excessive gerrymandering is just too hard.

Even so, Leonhardt writes: "The increasing concentration of Democratic voters into large metro areas means that even a neutral system would have a hard time distributing these tightly packed Democratic voters across districts in a way that would allow the party to win more elections."  Again, that is not only wrong but trivially and obviously illogical.  And Republicans know it.

So here we have an essay in The New York Times purporting to describe the dangers facing our democracy, yet somehow managing to make one of the most important Republican strategies distorting our system seem innocuous and even somehow natural.  Fifty-two percent of Alabamans identify as Republican or "lean Republican," but six of that state's seven congressional districts elect Republicans.  Is that because it is impossible to distribute Democrats in Mobile and Birmingham into competitive districts, because Democrats self-sorted into huge and impenetrable cities?  Get serious.
And Florida's Republicans were not able to add turn 3 competitive congressional districts (plus one new district) into safe Republican seats in a single cycle because too many Democrats moved to downtown Tampa and Miami.  We could also flip the script: Does anyone think that Republicans would not be able to "crack" bright-blue New York City in a way that would kill off a few Democratic seats?

Again, Leonhardt's piece has its virtues, chief among them his newfound willingness to discuss openly the idea that the Republican Party is no longer committed to democracy.  Even so, his blithe acceptance of assumptions that at best have only ever been partially true and that now have been completely overtaken by events, combined with good old-fashioned bothsidesism, is emblematic not merely of one journalist's laziness but of the difficulty that too many people have in accepting reality.  Even when warning that Republicans are an existential threat to our constitutional system, the instinct is to cower and say, "but not too much of a threat."

This should not be acceptable.  When the history of American democracy is written, we will find that a key element in its demise was the timidity of people who ought to have known better and who should have tried harder to move beyond conventional wisdom.