Before observing the political firestorm of redistricting, I never fully understood what makes up that other pillar of democratic inaction. Obviously the overt and covert political power of money is an obstacle to functioning democracy; political inaction, due to ignorance, feelings of futility, and apathy is another, and specifically public, ill; but the actual process of representation itself is a mind blowing example of just how political power is maintained. I am not speaking as someone who is unsupportive of the general process of American democracy. Indeed, even in the face of absolute and often inscrutable stupidity, I press on in my belief that this is the best working process in the history of the human species. But let us be honest about just how well the process is working. As with all aspects of our existence, only by confronting our reality will we be able to successfully deal with it.
I love that moment in a discussion about American government when one party says, “we live in a democracy!” only to be countered by some smug character who interjects, “a representative democracy.” What I love about this moment is the absurdity of the suggestion tacitly implied that representative democracy is somehow of lesser quality than direct democracy, the process wherein each and every member of society votes on each and every decision: government by referendum. First of all it should be noted that this has literally never existed. Direct democracy, historically speaking, has always been a collection of elite men pandering to the one or several among them with the greatest relative power. Representative democracy is instituted for reasons both practical and political. We could never fit the entirety of the American public into the Congressional chambers, we could never convene an assembly of the entirety of the 300,000,000 members of the American body politic, and even if we could, this would provide a poor platform for the acquisition of power – both personal and national; both of which are important.
The fact of the matter is, however, that while representative democracy is what makes political participation in government by the people even possible, it has its own problems. We do live in a democracy, a representative democracy, and we do get to vote for our representatives. We choose who among us will make up the government and make decisions which are in our interests. This is generally well understood, even among those who do not vote. The problem is not that we vote for representatives, but the way it is determined how many representatives each population is entitled to, and furthermore, what defines a population? How are districts of representation determined? Of course, the very fact that we elect representatives who then are entrusted with drawing district maps creates a situation where voters choose representatives who also, in a surprisingly direct way, choose voters. Obviously there are supposed safe-guards in place, for example, there are ideal population sizes for districts both on a federal and state level. But the principle remains the same, and ideal population sizes are mostly ignored, or at least, are rarely ever met.
Redistricting, the processes by which old districts are rearranged in order to better represent updated census data, is by nature a partisan issue. Because the representatives control the process of redistricting, they are able to determine how populations are grouped. This enables, not so much abuses of power, because there is nothing unconstitutional about it, but gerrymandering which produced predictable political results. Politicians are able to group people of one political bent or another together and call them a population of interest or, on the flipside, slit them apart based on some other marker to create districts which are tailor made for one party or another. And this is not a game played only by the political “bad guys.” Indeed, as with any arms race, once one person or party begins to mess around with districts in order to harvest electoral certainties, the others must compete just to stay relevant. If New York State Democrats in the Assembly are going to draw districts which ensure the status quo, the Senate Republicans must follow suit if they want to stay politically relevant, and vice-versa. But the reality isn’t that there are only a few people rigging the game; it’s the few who aren’t.
So while the nation grapples with Congressional districts which are irrational by all accounts, and while New York is dealing with a flare up over a 63rd state Senate seat, the essence of the problem really isn’t the political power struggle – that’s a given. The problem is firmly rooted in the powers given to our representatives. But this power isn’t a new phenomenon; we just happen to be in a position now, probably for the first time in history, where the general population is both aware of the issue and potentially capable of doing something about it. Even the Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, who has wielded executive power with remarkable force, has called for an “independent” committee to go about the process of redistricting. But unless the independent committee is chosen by popular referendum, or perhaps, the maps suggested by the legislature themselves, the process will always be weighted in favor of the political establishment. Only a vigilant citizenry is able to counter balance the pressure of a top heavy political environment.