Friday, October 14, 2011

The Politics Of Division

Brian:       Brothers!  Brothers!  We should be struggling together!
Francis:    We are!  Oh.
Brian:       We mustn’t fight each other!  We should be united against the common enemy!
Crowd:     The Judean People’s Front?!?
Brian:       No, no!  The Romans!
Crowd:     Oh, yeah.
—Graham Chapman as Brian, Michael Palin as Francis, and cast of Monty Python in Life of Brian

If you want to see one of the roots of why this country is so badly divided, you need look no further than this.

According to an article published October 11 at, there’s a fight brewing in Nevada over redistricting and its impact on Hispanic voters in that state.  In an odd reversal of the usual battle lines, this time it’s actually the Republicans supporting the creation of Hispanic majority districts, and the Democrats insisting that the districts be drawn to distribute the Hispanic vote throughout the state, rather than vice-versa.  We’ve had a similar fight-now-lawsuit here in Houston over Republican efforts to redraw the precinct lines in Harris County—lines that already bore a closer resemblance to a complex jigsaw puzzle than any natural geography.

The stated rationale for these redistricting fights is always the same: ensuring that the minority group at issue has “fair representation”—read: is able to elect one of its own.  In discussing the Nevada situation, Fox quoted “Hispanic Republican activist” Alex Garza:  “We should have the opportunity to elect the candidate of our choice.”  In a September 7 article on the lawsuit over Harris County redistricting, the Houston Chronicle reported that “[t]he plaintiffs argued that the maps prevented minority voters from gaining a sufficient number of new seats[.]”

Somewhere we developed this mentality that different ethnic groups are entitled to at least one of their own on every elected body, whether it’s the House, the State Legislature, the County Court, or what have you.  We’re just one step shy of simply dedicating seats; this is the Hispanic seat, this is the Black seat, etc. 

I’m searching and searching the Constitution, but I don’t see anything about every subgroup of Americans being entitled to elect one of their own.

More to the point, where does it stop?  Do we have to have at least one representative from every nationality-hyphen-American simply for the sake of having them?  What about gays—do we need a dedicated “gay” seat (don’t even bother with the joke, Beavis) in the statehouse?  And if there’s to be a gay seat, don’t we also need representatives from every other behavioral variation and fetish by which some group may define themselves?  Not only does this logic quickly devolve into the absurd, its only real solution is total democracy, because the only way to have every possible permutation of human individuality represented is to have each individual represent himself personally.

Further, the minute you begin attempting to create a district designed to permit, say, Hispanics to elect a Hispanic, you are—assuming your underlying premise that Hispanics will and should vote for Hispanics is valid—inherently devaluing the vote of non-Hispanics in the redrawn district.  The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals put it nicely in Gonzalez v. City of Aurora:

“[N]either § 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] . . . nor any later decision of the Supreme Court speaks of maximizing the influence of any racial or ethnic group.  Section 2 requires an electoral process ‘equally open’ to all, not a process that favors one group over another.  One cannot maximize Latino influence without minimizing some other group’s influence.  A map drawn to advantage Latin candidates at the expense of black (or white ethnic) candidates violates § 2 as surely as a map drawn to maximize the influence of those groups at the expense of Latinos.”  (emphasis original, citations omitted)

The real problem, of course, is that both parties in this kind of debate are pandering to the lowest common denominator.  They are not genuinely interested in assuring that this group or that group is “adequately represented.”  They are interested in one thing, and one thing only, and that gaining or remaining in power, and in this vein they are acting on the inherently racist and elitist assumption that this group or that group is likely to support the party’s policies and will vote for a candidate solely based on the color of her skin.  So what they’re telling the Hispanic community (or blacks, or whoever) is we assume you can’t think your way through the issues so we’re going to color-code the ballot for you.  Possibly worse, this thinking also assumes that a Hispanic household cannot be adequately represented by their white next-door neighbor, or at least not as well as they could by a Hispanic who lives across town.

I vote for the candidate I believe is most likely to act in my best interest.  Yes, I have voted for white Anglo-Saxon males.  But I’ve also voted for women, blacks, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, Vietnamese, and Indian candidates for various offices.  I’ve voted multiple times for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is a paraplegic, and unlike FDR, takes no measures to hide it.  I’ve probably somewhere along the way voted for at least one gay candidate—I don’t know, because I don’t ask and I don’t much care.  But I don’t just vote for the straight white guy because I’m a straight white guy.  If you do that—or if you vote for the black because you’re black, the Hispanic because you’re Hispanic, etc.—instead of voting substantively in your best interest, you are a racist and a fool.

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates that we redraw the maps after the Census in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives.  But allowing these districts to be redrawn in any conceivable shape inevitably leads to the temptation to craft districts that technically include the requisite number of people, but are bizarrely laid out in order to maximize the drawing party’s political power (so-called “gerrymandering”).  The potential for mischief is almost endless, and it has been abused by both sides.  An easy fix, it seems to me, would be to mandate—probably by Constitutional Amendment—that all voting districts take the form of a polygon with, say, six sides, thus inherently limiting the degree to which it can be artificially manipulated. 

In advocating on behalf of the Republicans in Nevada, University of Texas at Dallas political science professor Thomas Brunell says that the artificial creation of “minority-majority” districts is necessary because “[w]e are not post-racial yet.”  Well, we’re never going to be post-racial if we can’t stop worrying about race and allow ourselves to be post-racial.


Editor's Note:  I will be traveling on business next week, 10/17 - 10/21, so may be unable to post.


  1. Gerrymandering to favor an ethnic minority (by converting it to a majority in the gerrymandered district) and in reality to elect a particular candidate or party has corroded our republican system. There was one case in Southern California a few years ago, where the voting district was being contested in court under the claim that it should be a Hispanic district and with the current boundaries, it was impossible to elect a Hispanic. As the case dragged on and before any changes were made, an election was actually held and the winner was a Hispanic woman. Then the judge decided in favor of the plaintiffs, and the district was redrawn and a new election ordered. I'm not sure of the outcome of that election, but as I recall, the Hispanic woman who won the first election, was defeated. Maybe the "correct" Hispanic won the second time around.

    At any rate, in addition to defining a shape like a hexigon, just let a computer program that includes population (but not ethnic) data divide the state into areas with equal numbers of people in each area. I'm pretty sure I have read that such software exists, and some may be publically available so that you can actually perform a "do-it-yourself" redistricting.

    As Rusty says, I am satisfied if I have the opportunity to vote for the person I believe is best qualified for the job. Because of gerrymandering in Harris county, until recently I was unrepresented in Congress by Sheila Jackson Lee, probably one of the most inept and incompetent legislators in Congress and perhaps the most enduring, negative legacy of Enron (she was the political protegy of Ken Lay), Sorbanes-Oxley not excepted. There is no hope for the people in her district that she will ever be voted out of office by those who recognize her for what she is, unless her district boundaries are changed to allow for serious competition for her seat.

  2. Jim:

    My sympathies that you have to suffer through Rep. Jackson-Lee. As the immortal John Blutarski told us: "My advice to you is to start drinking heavily."