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Why is Congress becoming more polarized, paralyzed?

Created on Dec. 31, 1811, and printed in March 1812 in the Boston Centinel, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts. Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a blend of that word and Governor Gerry's last name. Drawn by Elkanah Tisdale.

Created on Dec. 31, 1811, and printed in March 1812 in the Boston Centinel, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts. Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a blend of that word and Governor Gerry’s last name. Drawn by Elkanah Tisdale. See examples of gerrymandering online.

Many people have heard the term “gerrymandering,” but do you know where the name originated and why the practice is a bad one?

A congressional district is the best way to demonstrate the point. Back in the days when our republic was youthful and naïve, congressional districts often centered on obvious clusters of voters, such as of the towns and their environs. Relatively unpopulated portions of the state were given, say, one to 10 districts, depending on the state’s size, all of which resembled some simple and vaguely recognizable shape, whether one would consider it to resemble a circle, a square, an oval, a rectangle, or even a cloud.

Take Illinois’ 10th Congressional District in the 1970s, which contained a mix of “pure” suburbs like Willmette and Northbrook, and inner-ring suburbs like Evanston and Skokie. The district included factory owners, businessmen, union members, members of our military, policemen, firemen, school teachers, and one or more colleges or secondary schools, together with residents of greatly varying degrees of income. Of course, all of these groups placed many, varied and contradictory demands upon a congressional candidate, as though these were cross-currents in a stormy sea.

If you took any part in congressional politics at this time and place, you knew that, in order to win the district, an aspiring member of Congress had to weigh and take account of as many of the foregoing demands as possible to win a seat. He or she could not be too liberal because of the policemen, firemen, the military and the businessmen in the district. He or she could not be too much of a laissez-faire capitalist because of the teachers, college students and union members in the town. The list goes on. In the end, he or she had to take positions that were least harmful to many of the local factions, and positions which were most likely to carry forward some common agenda of the majority of voters.

The Illinois 10th Congressional District changed hands between Democrats and Republicans multiple times as the 70s progressed, driven by “swing” voters. The besieged congressional candidate had to puzzle all of the foregoing competing groups in a tug-of-war battle with his opponent, or lose to her if she had done a better job of it. Is it any wonder that these districts produced more members of Congress who were centrists, pragmatists and problem solvers?

In participating in the scrum for this congressional seat, the candidate is performing an extremely valuable function in a democratic form of government: The political-science phrase for this is aggregation of political demands.

Not everyone’s wishes can be accommodated on the national level. It was the job of the candidate to weigh and aggregate those various demands of the voters and try to arrive at a consensus for the good of the greater number. To do otherwise was to risk a loss in the district. Note that the tug-of-war or head banging in these examples is taking place at the local (congressional district) level, not at the next level, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It did not take political animals long in our early republic to gain some useful insights. Once upon a time in the state of Massachusetts, the Jeffersonian Republicans, who were in power there, were designing state senatorial districts. They reckoned that they could divvy up voters for their party so that there were just enough Jeffersonians allocated to each district to assure a winning edge in the majority of the districts. Leftover and unwanted non-Jeffersonian voters could then be impounded (my phrase) into one or two districts, where they resided in overwhelming numbers and the result was a foregone conclusion. Very neat.

Since Jeffersonian and non-Jeffersonian voters did not clump together in any regular fashion, the carving up of state senatorial districts had to be flexible and highly creative. One of the districts created looked like some medieval monster with a long sinuous reptilian body, an angular head and numerous toes and claws. Some joked that it looked like a salamander. Since Elbridge Gerry, an honorable man and one of the founding fathers, reluctantly approved it as the governor of Massachusetts, one of the local editors called it a “Gerry-mander.” The rest was history as they say, and poor old Eldridge’s name became ever after associated with a negative concept, just like Thomas Crapper’s.

As gerrymandering has proceeded and become an art, why seek compromise with the congressional Republicans when your district contains enough Democratic voters to assure you a comfortable margin in the next election? And vice versa. And why ever compromise with the Democrats when your district is an “impound” containing 88 percent Republican voters. Moreover, from the safety of an “impound” district why not go further and denounce the opposite party from every stump and media outlet between Washington D.C. and your own district, leaving scars and bad feelings that will last. If you start to show moderation in an “impound” district, someone further to your leftward or rightward, as the case may be, may challenge and beat you in the next primary contest. A number of sitting congressional Republicans in safe districts lost their primaries in recent elections because they were perceived as being too flexible or collegial.

Gerrymandering has taken the battle of ideologies and ideas from the local level, where it was traditionally resolved, up to another level, to Congress itself. Thus the polarization and paralysis continues.


Written by Oliver Harris, special to the Express. Harris is the author of the novel “JoJo,” and he has been a trial lawyer, a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney over a legal career spanning 45 years. He has a degree in political science from the University of Chicago. He was an Alderman (city commissioner) of Evanston, Ill., for four years.

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