Redistricting and Polarization

People on just about all sides of the political spectrum say the same thing… “America’s politics is becoming so polarized”. And it is true…. the vast majority of Americas are neither far right nor far left, yet a good chunk of our elected representatives do fall into one of those categories.

So why is this? One thing people often say is it is the fault of a 2 party system. I’ve never really bought into that idea… if there were more than 2 parties, you’d get elections that look like this:

Sarah Palin, Tea Party 18%
Barack Obama, Progressive Party 17%
Hilary Clinton, Democratic Party 17%
Russ Feingold, Socialist Party 14%
Mitt Romney, Republican Party 12%
Ron Paul, Libertarian Party 12%
Ralph Nadar, Green Party 5%
Pat Buchanan, Reform Party 5%

So now Sarah Palin is president even though less than 1 in 5 people voted for her and even though 53% of the country voted for candidates who are opposed to her on basically every issue. More parties mean that people further on the fringes can win because a small percentage is required to win. Two parties mean the candidates have to fight for the people in the middle. In a two-party system, Sarah Palin can never be president because she’d have to get over 50% to vote for her, and that simply will not happen.  But in an 8 party system, she’d have a chance.

So what DOES cause the polarization? There’s lots of answers (differences in media and how information is distributed from ages past, for example) but one of the very biggest, in my view, is how we draw the boundaries for our districts.

Now don’t get me wrong… given the system is how it is, I don’t fault Wisconsin Republicans for drawing boundaries favorable to them, and don’t fault Democrats who do likewise. But if you look at the changes that are made, what essentially happens in this process is the party in power tries to tilt swing districts that they currently hold in their favor (to protect their most vulnerable members) and cancels this out by making seats the other party already holds more extreme.

This is exactly what happened in Wisconsin’s congressional districts. They took some red areas and moved them into Sean Duffy’s district and took some blue areas and moved them into Ron Kind’s district. So this is estimation, but perhaps Duffy’s chances of winning re-election increase from 50% to 70% and the Republican’s chances of defeating Kind decrease from 5% to 1%.  So there is a tradeoff, but on the balance, the Republicans come out ahead.

But now let’s think about how this plays out in the long run… one consequence of this is that after Kind moves on or retires, a Democrat who is much further left than Kind can now win this district, where a somewhat moderate Democrat like Kind was previously required.  And that’s where the polarization creeps in.

These are the sorts of changes happen all over the whole country… borders are modified such that more politicians have partisan districts and more security. 

What if it was not this way? What if the whole process was done by a computer making the simplest shapes possible to equalize population? Obviously that is not going to eradicate all extreme politicians (some areas of the country are in fact very liberal or very conservative), but it seems to me that if you do it this way, you are going to get a lot more competitive districts.  And competitive districts are exactly where the 2-party system shines and rewards candidates who are more moderate, which, given we often lament that we are becoming too polarized, seems to be the type of candidates we want to see.


  1. i support your analysis of the 2 party system. both sides campaign and vote.