“In fact, the accepted view that politically based redistricting led to our state of intransigence isn’t just incorrect; it’s silly,” write Nolan McCarty, professor of politics and public affairs at Brown University, Keith T. Poole, the Philip H. Alston Jr. Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal, professor of politics at New York University. They made their case for Bloomberg News.
“The real reason for our increasingly divided political system is much simpler: The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced a fundamentalist version of free-market capitalism and succeeded in winning elections,” the professors say, noting that “Democrats have moved to the left, but less so.”
The shift in the Republican Party results from several factors including the move by Southern white voters into the party, “the branch of conservative activism created by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and the party’s increasingly firm stance on issues such as income inequality and immigration.”
But don’t blame gerrymanders. “The most important element affecting polarization” in Congress “is the divergent approaches” taken by the parties in “representing districts that are otherwise similar in terms of demographics and presidential voting,” the professors posit. “Even in moderate districts, Democratic representatives are still very liberal and Republican representatives are very conservative. This represents a widening ideological gap, not different lines on a map.”
Examples: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, “the mastermind of the shutdown,” won his seat, as do all senators, “in a statewide race without any benefit from gerrymandering.” Ditto for “other Tea Party stalwarts in the Senate such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.”
Another case in point: In 2010 Minnesota voters turned out Rep. Jim Oberstar, “one of the liberal giants in the House,” electing former Navy pilot Chip Cravaack who compiled a conservative voting record, even supporting Michele Bachmann for a leadership position. But two years later, Cravaack lost to liberal Democrat Rick Nolan. “Gerrymandering can’t explain this pattern of turnover,” observe the professors.
Also at play are regional realignments giving Democrats control of the Northeast and Republicans control of the South in the 1960s and 1970s; “the increasing interest gaps between urban and rural voter;” and safe districts resulting from Americans sorting themselves geographically into politically or culturally similar areas — such as Florida’s Palm Beach County, “reliably Democratic,” and the Panhandle which “will consistently vote for Republicans.” Even representatives from one-district states Vermont and Wyoming “are just as partisan as their colleagues from gerrymandered districts in other states,” the professors explain.
Their conclusion: “Ideologies are rigid and evolve slowly. Political polarization can be attributed to a number of factors, but evidence shows gerrymandering just isn’t one of them.”
Even so, it doesn’t make partisan gerrymandering desirable.