You ever hear a point of view that is so infuriating that you want stick your head out the window and yell? I go bananas when I hear an opinion that goes against well-established political science literature. That happened this past weekend when respected television journalist Tom Brokaw said the House of Representatives is becoming increasingly polarized because of gerrymandering. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brokaw. It just so happens that he is wrong, and posts about the effect of gerrymandering on redistricting have been written over and over again in past months. It could be that Brokaw doesn’t quite understand what gerrymandering is. For those who don’t, gerrymandering is the manipulation in the drawing of House districts to ensure a desired result. Brokaw’s assumption is that politics is becoming more polarized as the result of gerrymandering in districts in which Democrats and Republicans are increasingly safe from worrying about a competitive challenger from the other party. While it is true that House districts are increasingly “safe”, this is the case even when controlling for redistricting. Last week, Nate Silver noted that there was an 8% increase in polarization independent of any effects of redistricting in 2012.
Much of this change is because states themselves are becoming more polarized. As I pointed out in my last article, the number of swing states in presidential elections is at an all-time low. The number of Democratic and Republican senators from states that lean Democratic and Republican on the presidential level respectively is way up. Partially as a result, there is an increasingly large gap in ideology between Democratic and Republican senators, which has tracked with the ideological gap in the House. So unless, we are, all of a sudden, redistricting state lines, then gerrymandering can’t possibly be the cause of what we’re seeing at the state level.
Part of what’s going on in the House is that there is a natural inclination for Democrats to crowd into cities and Republicans to spread themselves out in suburban and rural areas. In New York City alone, there were five Democratic members of Congress re-elected with at least 90% of the vote. Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden ran redistricting simulations on the precinct level and still ran up against a natural bias that prevents Democrats being able to win more seats because of their urban concentrations. There really isn’t any way to fix this issue – at least, not by redistricting.
Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal computerized redistricting with the aim of creating “fair” non-gerrymandered districts. Even when they tried their best to have “many heterogeneous and competitive districts”, the predicted level of polarization didn’t differ much from what we have today. Keep in mind, of course, that this sort of redistricting also would reduce the number of minority members of Congress because it neglects the Voting Rights Act. I get the feeling that wouldn’t be particularly popular.