Nolan McCarty is the Susan Dod Brown professor of politics and public affairs and chairman of the politics department at Princeton University.
A few years back, two collaborators and I completed a paper titled “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” Our answer was an emphatic (at least by scholarly conventions) “only a little bit, if at all.”
At the time, in addition to my professorial duties, I was serving as an administrator at Princeton’s policy school. As part of this gig, I routinely came in contact with current and former members of Congress and their staff members. Given the high public anxieties over political polarization and gerrymandering, I eagerly shared my new insights with whomever would listen. Invariably, the other person would patiently wait until I had finished before responding with some polite rephrasing of “Are you nuts?”
Drawing on personal experience, the skeptical visitor would tell the story of how some lawmaker was able to persuade friends in the state legislature to fashion a safer seat, or the woeful tale of someone who lost a seat because of the gerrymanderers’ creative handiwork. The net result of these machinations, they insisted, was a decline in electoral competition and accountability, and a rise in partisanship and polarization.
Thus, the belief in the pernicious effects of gerrymandering is not confined to the general public and the news media. It is widely accepted by experienced, professional politicians. There are good reasons to oppose the absurdly shaped districts that gerrymandering often produces (more on this later). But before succumbing to the notion that jiggered legislative districts are at the root of America’s gridlock and divisiveness, it is worth considering the proposition that I, my co-authors and the many political scientists who have studied the effect of gerrymandering on polarization are not nuts.
Arguments about the negative effects of gerrymandering usually take the following form. First, by using the latest sophisticated software, state legislatures can carve out districts that guarantee electoral victory for one party or the other, often in the service of protecting incumbents. Generally, the gerrymanderers accomplish this by packing Republican voters into Republican districts and Democratic voters into Democratic districts. Second, because such gerrymandering makes the districts less competitive, candidates are freed to pander to their bases while ignoring moderate and independent voters. Moreover, politicians who do not pander face primary challenges from ideologically purer candidates.
The result often is that only conservative Republicans can win in districts designed to elect Republicans, just as liberal Democrats usually dominate Democratic districts. Because redistricting no longer produces moderate, bipartisan or heterogeneous districts, moderates have trouble winning election to the House.
These arguments suggest a straightforward solution to excessive partisanship and polarization: Take the politics out of redistricting (a process that occurs every 10 years, as required by the Constitution) by drawing districts that are heterogeneous with respect to voter ideology and partisanship. Appealing to independents would become the key to winning election, and polarization would become a thing of the past.