Political map-making process in need of a cure

Photo by Army Pfc. Carlynn Knaak

Drug-resistant pathogens seem to be all over the place right now. Untreatable infections are surging across the nation, and health care professionals see dire consequences ahead. The cause? The promiscuous overuse of antibiotics, ”miracle” drugs developed in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s that revolutionized the clinical treatment of everything from ear infections to tuberculosis. Science outsmarted nature, and delivered mankind from a grievous host of debilitating diseases. Sadly, it seems to have been a premature obituary.

Politicians, ever alert for convenient miracles, similarly avail themselves of clever strategies to minimize electoral risk. Of these, electoral district manipulation is one of the oldest. Based on the twin concepts of “packing” and “cracking,” artfully drawn district boundaries can dilute a numerical majority down to a stunted minority. Pack the opposition into one district, and break it into small pieces in others. The result: winning seats that would otherwise have been lost.

Texas, never outdone in matters political, has a long and storied history of creative electoral district map-making. Like the rest of the Confederate South, it drew districts to marginalize black and Latino voting for generations; a tactic that led to the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In one of history’s richer ironies, it was President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan intimately familiar with the workings of Lone Star redistricting, who signed the bill into law. Despite this, aggressive gerrymandering remains alive and well in Texas and throughout the nation.

Most recently, a three-judge panel of federal judges in San Antonio rejected Texas’ latest redistricting map. They found three districts: Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s Congressional District 35, Blake Farenthold’s Congressional District 27 and Will Hurd’s Congressional District 23 to have been drawn with the clear intent to disenfranchise black and Latino voters. A motion by plaintiff’s attorneys now seeks additional relief in the form of an injunction forcing the state to redraw its district lines in time for the 2018 midterm elections. The motion is now under review.

Regardless of how the pending litigation turns out, it’s worth noting that the rewards of voter manipulation can be few and fleeting, and are often illusory. Safe districts, those lacking meaningful partisan balance, invariably breed incompetence, cronyism and a total lack of accountability. In practice, this has opened the door to extremism; and extremism deforms the public discourse, poisons the social contract and impedes the conduct of the public’s business. If in doubt about this, consider the feckless performance of the Republican congressional majority now taking place in both houses of Congress.

Saddled with a disaffected, safe-district, right-wing majority untroubled by the prospect of primary challenge, a sitting Republican president and speaker of the House can literally get nothing done. It is a stunning development, not unlike what happens when a hospital patient’s vital signs crash because of drug-resistant bacteria. Like loathsome superbugs, the House Freedom Caucus works its maniacal will on a comatose GOP establishment incapable of crafting a workable legislative agenda; and they seem determined to drive the majority-dominated coalition’s whole process into the ditch. Some majority.

Politics remains the art of the possible, which means compromise and mediation, words rarely heard in today’s super-heated political moment. Fueled by mountains of super-PAC cash, the GOP built a machine that took control of dozens of state houses, both houses of Congress, plus the White House, and it can’t govern. If anything confirms the futility of successfully rigging the system, this must be Exhibit A. In practice, political parties exist to have functional opposition, to remain alert, relevant and responsive to the public mood. Lose it, and they die. History is littered with the carcasses of defunct unopposed political regimes that failed to accommodate healthy debate.

And so, good Lone Star office-holders and governors alike: beware the seductive allure of “necrotizing politis,” a terminal affliction caused by an unwillingness to submit to the cleansing therapies of the ballot box.

William Lanigan