Wednesday, November 16, 2005
by Wayne Besen
American democracy has become professional wrestling.
Both are fake, belligerent sideshows with vicious combat, verbal sparring and sycophantic cheerleaders. And like pro wrestling, democracy goes through the motions of being a true competitive sport, while in reality the winner is all too often a foregone conclusion.
On Sunday, an op-ed by Robin Toner in The New York Times discussed how Congressional redistricting has turned modern politics into a predictable cakewalk. According to the article, in the last three Congressional elections, the incumbent reelection rate has hovered from 96 to 98 percent. In 1992, 103 Congressional districts voted for one party's candidate for president and another party's candidate for the House. In 2004, there were only 59 such districts.
President George W. Bush is in Asia this week lecturing on the virtues of democracy. More than 2,000 Americans have lost their lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi's have perished in the name of establishing free elections in the Middle East.
Yet, right here at home, politicians have rigged the system to discourage real competition in electoral politics. Even in years of great political upheaval, such as 1982 or 1994, only about ten percent of incumbents are defeated.
The reason for this, of course, is that the party in power at the state level gets to redraw district lines creating "safe seats". Using sophisticated computer models, nearly impregnable districts are designed making entire regions the fiefdom of one party or another.
This is really no more than the tribalization of democracy, with each side avariciously grabbing power at the expense of the American political system. This is devastating to America and producing a politics of polarization where mainstream voters are squeezed out of the system.
What, after all, is the incentive to seek compromise if you are a member of Congress in a district that tilts dramatically to the left or right? The current system undermines true democracy in several ways:Voter Turnout:
If a television network broadcast a football game, but everyone knew the final score beforehand, the ratings would plummet. The same goes for politics, in that there is little reason to vote in a district that has been set up where one party always gets trounced. If we want to increase voter turnout, people must believe their vote counts.Corruption:
Gerrymandering creates a situation where politicians can run amok with few consequences. In Texas, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay has been indicted. Still, he is expected to win reelection because his district tilts heavily Republican. If districts were instead created with competition as the main objective, politicians would have to be more accountable for their actions. Feast or Famine: The tribalization of districts has created feast or famine politics. If your tribe wins, you reap the spoils. However, if your tribe loses, you have a congressman in office with little incentive to listen to anyone outside his tribe. This creates a scenario where millions of Americans are frozen out of the process and feel disenfranchised.System Failure:
Districts are now set up to give special interest groups undo power. The result is disincentives to compromise, find common ground or discover real solutions to America's problems. This produces gridlock and turns people off from greater involvement in civic life. Gay Rights:
One can see the harmful affects of feast or famine tribalism by looking at the Human Right's Campaign's Congressional scorecard. Most of the politicians have either stratospherically high ratings or abysmal ones. However, politicians with 100% ratings or zero percent do not reflect where most Americans stand on gay rights, which I would guess hovers around an HRC score of 65-80 percent.
The implications of this are huge. It means that when conservative Republicans control Congress, anti-gay legislation opposed by most Americans has a good chance of passing. If Congressional districts reflected mainstream American values, the United States would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation more than a decade ago.
The way out of this quagmire is for both parties to agree that the current system is broken and needs to be fixed. The same advanced computer systems that gerrymandered districts to create partisan "safe seats" can be commandeered to create "competitive seats".
Imagine an America where the vast majority of races were highly competitive and the winner wasn't actually known until Election night. Visualize a nation where margins of victory were so close, that politicians had to pander to mainstream voters rather than fringe groups. Picture a political system where politicians were rewarded for fixing problems, rather than obstructing solutions.
This vision can become a reality as soon as we stop treating redistricting like a jobs program for the party in power - whether Democrat or Republican. It is time we wrestle control away from those who would undermine democracy and once again turn politics into a competitive sport.