Changes in the Political Landscape

Political positions change over the years. Traditionally Republicans tended to be pro-business, encourage free trade, be strong on national defense, support more frugal governance with lower deficits, and opt for lighter regulations and more personal decision-making. Democrats have favored more environmental protection, government backstops and assistance for people, especially minorities, and more support and protection for low and middle income workers.

These historical norms are being challenged on many fronts, with underlying themes becoming less ideological and more cultural in nature. We see broad separations: Coastal and interior regions; North and South; High Tech and traditional manufacturing, evangelical and more traditional religious approaches. With different values and beliefs, the widening split tends to manifest itself along lines that can be shown geographically on maps. These can be, perhaps oversimplified, viewed along axes of faith beliefs, urban/rural and new economy/old economy.

At this point in time, the political parties tend to attract voters in more and more predictable ways: Republicans are supported by more rural and small town residents, on the whole with less formal education, and with more evangelical and/or conservative religious beliefs. Most are Caucasian. More are men.

Democrats are favored by more urban and close-in suburban voters, in general with higher college graduation rates, more diverse in racial classifications, members of older and more "mainstream" religious groups as well as with more secular positions on faith. More are women. College towns tend to vote Democratic, even in red rural districts.

One can find exceptions to almost any of the generalizations cited above, but the overall data are clear. These current trends are straining, if not breaking, traditional party classifications.

The U.S. Supreme Court long has decided that gerrymandering, defining Congressional districts on the basis of race, is unconstitutional. However the Court's position on political, or partisan gerrymandering is that it is legal, if not ideal. At this time, two major lawsuits are before the federal courts. These cases are proving difficult and perhaps unpleasant, since there is no doubt that each party in power has used that position to increase the Congressional representation in their favor, but these acts are yet to be decided as unconstitutional.

This slanted process occurs when a state political party controls (and both are more or less equally guilty) and jury-rigs the Congressional districts to elect more representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the legislature, than the total of the popular vote in their state. In Maryland, the Democrats have seven of eight congressional seats in a state where Clinton won 60/34. So simplistically, the eight districts would ideally be five to three. In North Carolina, where Trump won 50/46, the state has ten Republicans and three Democrats in the U.S. House compared to an "ideal" split of seven and six.

A map showing party registration and voting patterns in North Carolina is an example of the difficulty of drawing Congressional representation districts. Using color-coding, the state is a vast swath of Republican red in all areas outside college towns and metropolitan areas. The complication is that the cities and suburbs hold the largest populations, while the countryside is much larger but in general much less densely populated. The political party that controls the state legislature and the governorship can decide how to draw the districts, which must include roughly 600,000 people after each census as required by the Constitution. The resulting Congressional districts are frequently crazy distortions, with pockets of Democratic voters isolated from the adjacent rural countryside and connected to another urban "pocket" by fifty or a hundred miles of a tiny filament-like Interstate highway. In this way, the "likes" can be coupled to "likes." As a result, the number of House seats can be quite distorted from the overall popular vote in the state.

As an example here in the Austin, TX area, the situation is similar, if not more pronounced. The state is very Red, with the exception of the large cities and in rural areas along the Rio Grande River. The Republicans control every single state-wide office. The Legislature's approach to the most recent decade's redistricting for the U.S. House Representation is exemplified by the metro Austin area, nearly two million people, with deeply blue Austin in its core and suburban areas transitioning outward from blue to purple into deeply red rural regions. The gerrymandered map slices this into four clean radial cuts emanating from the very center of Austin. In this way, a block of a over a million Democratic voters is cleaved and inserted in measured amounts into suburban and rural areas such that all districts but one now send Republicans to Congress. Take that, Austin!

In Texas, Trump defeated Clinton 53/43, or a margin of 55%/45%, yet the Republicans control twenty-three of thirty-six seats, almost 64% of the congressional delegation. The popular vote split would suggest a split of twenty to sixteen seats.

Several states have instituted a non-partisan system of defining voting districts, and while it's understandable that the winner gets to influence the rules, it's arguable that we have gone well over the edge. The resulting distaste and resentment of this political process will alienate citizens with a dangerous long-term impact on Democracy.

Enjoy life, it's the only one we will get.

Jim George


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