Can Centrists Win?

There’s an old political saying that goes something like this: “Winners can be found on the left and on the right. But the center is where you find roadkill.” (Or something like that.)

The point is that our two-party system has a way of punishing anyone who tries to take the Spirited Reasoner approach.

Why has extremism become so popular?

My answer, in one word, may surprise you: Gerrymandering.

Since the 1960s, politicians–especially those on the right, which means modern day Republicans–have discovered a cynical way to hold onto power while appearing to kowtow to complaints on the left. Here’s the trick:

To maximize your party’s power, simply carve up a few congressional districts in a manner that will ensure that as many Democrats as possible are included in those districts. In other words–and here’s the catch–by doing so, Republican lawmakers are making sure that sizable pockets of Democratic votes will NOT be found in the other congressional districts.

Here’s an illustration to bring that concept alive. Let’s say you live in a state where there are 4 million Democratic residents and 4 million Republicans, and let’s say your state has 10 congressional districts. (I know. There are lots of children and independents and other non-party people. And there would probably be 11 districts in this mythical state. But I’m trying to keep the numbers easy in this hypothetical example.) So, each district would need to be drawn in such a way as to represent approximately 800,000 residents. 

And let’s say that in the last election, Republicans had a higher voter turnout, so that they now control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office (which is currently the case in a plurality of states) even though the theoretical number of residents claiming affiliation to each party is equal. Here’s what will happen during the highly politicized gerrymandering process:

Approximately three of these districts will be drawn by the Republican majority in such a matter that they are as close to being 100% Democratic as possible. So, in theory, if Republicans can pull off this feat, it would mean that 2.4 million Democrats (that’s three districts times 800,000 Democrats per district) would be certain of being fully represented by a Democratic representative in three extremely blue districts. That’s the cynical kowtowing to which I was referring earlier. There’s no way the folks in those three districts can complain about their representation in Congress. And you can expect that the politicians elected in those districts will be bluer than blue, because they are representing zero Republican voters, or as close to zero as the Republican lawmakers can manage.

But now, see the magic trick? In the remaining seven districts, Republicans will outnumber Democrats by a total of 4,000,000 to 1,600,000, a margin greater than two to one, because 2,400,000 Democrats have been siphoned off into just three districts. So, by giving up only those three congressional districts, the Republican legislature has ensured a wide electoral majority in the remaining seven. In those red districts, Republican residents will outnumber Democrats by an average of 571,428 to 228,571. (I got those results by dividing the numbers above by 7, because there are seven districts remaining.)

In these seven districts, we can expect the Republican candidates to be redder than red, because their constituency will be overwhelmingly Republican. 

So we end up with 3 very blue Democratic representatives and 7 very red Republican representatives heading off to Congress to represent this mythical state, even though we started with an electorate that was exactly 50 – 50. 

Had we carved up the 10 districts in a more neutral fashion, we would expect to see 5 representatives to Congress elected from each party, or maybe 6 of one party and 4 of another. But probably not 7 extremists from one party and 3 extremists from the other, all elected by landslides in their individual districts. 

More importantly, we would be more likely to see candidates moving toward the center, because they would be unsure of their party’s dominance in their respective districts, and would therefore sense the importance of attracting voters from the other party in order to gain a majority. 

But as long as the majority party in each state can dominate the redistricting process, gerrymandering is destined to warp the views of our members of Congress.

The Spirited Reasoner recommends that we find neutral solutions–perhaps even computer algorithms designed to ensure that districts are drawn purely geographically, even geometrically, rather than through the lenses of maximizing party power. I know this may be a pipe dream, but I believe it just might be the most important political issue facing our nation in the 21st Century.