The recent government shutdown has severely shaken the American people’s faith in their government (even more so than before), and has people wondering “what happened?” The inability of our elected leaders to keep our government functioning, at the very least, is symptomatic of a much larger problem– the extremely polarized political environment of Washington. Much of this problem of extreme polarization stems from gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the reason many districts have been drawn in the most eccentric and irregular shapes. They are drawn in a way that ensures that the majority of voters in the district will vote in line with a particular party. Although this tactic has been used by both Democrats and Republicans across the board, the negative effects of gerrymandering have been made even more pronounced on the side of the Republicans during the recent government shutdown.
Republican gerrymandering encourages representatives to cater to their conservative constituents, and with guaranteed Republican victories in those conservative districts, the only challenge to their seat would come from an even more conservative opponent. As a result, representatives become increasingly more conservative in an effort to please their district, which is why we saw such an unwillingness to compromise on the side of the Republicans during the shutdown. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and his gang refused to back down on Obamacare even amid warnings from inside the Republican party that such actions would result in backlash in 2014 and damage the Republican Party’s national standing. While national polls for Congressional Republicans dropped to a historic low, Ted Cruz was rewarded among Republican primary voters as their top presidential candidate for 2016. This shutdown fiasco sheds light on how gerrymandering has hampered our government’s basic ability to legislate through compromise. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the country is ready to fly into a rage over the incompetence of Congress – if the Republicans’ districts approve of the right wing policies of their representatives, then their seats are safe and that is all they need to worry about.
How is a practice that appears to be so blatantly unfair and detrimental to the political process legal? The sad fact is that the Supreme Court has been vague on the subject of gerrymandering. In the landmark case of Shaw v. Reno (1993), the Court stated that redistricting only based on purely racial classifications was unconstitutional. It is a dangerously blurred line that the Court has drawn. Within Republican districts, district lines are drawn in such a way as to exclude Democratic voters, many of whom are racial minorities, indirectly creating racially divided districts that are not considered unconstitutional. This is problematic because it minimizes the votes of those that have been sidelined by bizarre redistricting lines, a possible violation of the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment. Sanford Levinson of Al Jazeera puts it best: “[Gerrymandering] undermines democracy. It creates a situation in which political officials choose their electorates.”
With the vagueness of the Court’s ruling on gerrymandering, it becomes very difficult to discern the point at which gerrymandering violates the precedent established in Shaw v. Reno. What is evident though, is that gerrymandering has created a political climate that rewards extreme polarization. According to a Cook Political Report, 105 districts were actually considered ‘competitive’ in 1995, but now, only 53 are. The lack of competitiveness among congressional districts translates into an increasingly stagnant Congress where seats are dominated by incumbents unwilling to compromise or adopt moderate policy approaches in fear of displeasing their gerrymandered districts. The implications of this were realized during the government shutdown with the ability of select Republicans and Tea Party-ers to ignore the calls from their own party to back down. The unfortunate reality is that even with national Congressional ratings hovering at 9%, most Congressional incumbents will be re-elected yet again. The government shutdown demonstrated the harmful ramifications of gerrymandering and political polarization, but with silence from the Court and neither party offering any solutions, the government shutdown may just be the beginning of our troubles.