After we finished graduate school, K and I moved to Indiana. Most of Indiana is quite conservative, politically – although Barack Obama did win the state in 2008, the Republican party typically won the state with the highest percentage of votes in the nation while I was growing up. More so than Texas, even.
K and I moved to the state’s liberal college town, though. As have many Americans, we chose to live among like-minded people.
In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop argues that choices like ours have caused this nation’s current political morass. Because we live in Bloomington, perhaps K and I are never exposed to alternative political viewpoints. More crucially, we probably expect to be represented by a starkly left-leaning politician who knows that conservative voters will never build a sufficient coalition here to make their voices heard. If our hippie politician ever compromised and cast votes for a conservative idea, primary challengers even further to the left would burble up from the muck to unseat the sell-out.
Political stagnation, in this view, is an inevitable consequence of our increased mobility.
Bulls**t, argues David Daley. In his meticulously-researched Ratf**ked, he presents evidence that district lines have been carefully drawn to subvert the will of the majority of voters. In his words,
If we were truly Big Sorting ourselves into homogeneous and like-minded districts, if the boundaries truly didn’t matter, our highest-paid political minds wouldn’t have been working around the clock, risking their careers and reputations, to tweak the maps to give exactly the result they wanted.
Or, more explicitly:
the trend in journalism these days is to argue that the opposite of what’s right in front of our nose is true. Careers are made by taking the counterintuitive position that’s sexy, has a greater intellectual degree of difficulty and stands out from the crowd. That’s the guiding principle behind, for example, the New York Times’s “Upshot” columns on redistricting which try to show that it’s not the lines, that we’ve sorted ourselves, liberals and minorities in cities, conservatives in suburbs and rural areas. (Just forget about redlining or years of racial inequality. We all chose to live where we live, and the history behind it doesn’t much matter!) In reality, the lines have been drawn so artfully and intentionally that to undersell or deny the significance of this is also to deny the reality of the multimillion-dollar industry that has grown up around it.
While researching Ratf**ked, Daley drove along the boundaries of many congressional districts. We all know that there are some strange-looking congressional districts out there, but it’s possible that these districts reflect peculiar geographical landmarks in those areas or longstanding neighborhood divisions.
That is not what Daley found. Instead, he found district lines crossing and recrossing streets, tiny bulges in boundaries to include a prominent stadium in one district and a garbage dump in another. The lines often seem illogical… until they are compared with high-resolution data on voting histories. Then the lines make sense.
Consider Michigan’s 14th congressional district. It snakes across the state so that several majority-black areas can be cleaved together, forcing their representatives to win with massive majorities. This allows as many of these votes as possible to be excluded from neighboring districts: for each Democratic landslide, the Republican party can eke out several victories. The 14th was carried by Obama with 80% of the vote, as compared to Republican-leaning districts where he lost 45-55%.
Mathematically, it’s obviously possible that self-selection would lead to a massive difference between voting and representation. For instance, if urban areas voted 100% Democrat, and rural areas voted 49% Democrat, then almost any set of districting lines would lead to Republicans having more representatives despite winning fewer votes.
But this is not our world. Daley interviewed several statisticians who have studied district lines. They’ve run computer simulations to test many different configurations of districts to see how ofter imbalanced outcome arise. And they’ve found that our egregious differences between votes cast and seats won are very, very rare.
We did not stumble into this inequity by accident. Daley was right to be suspicious when all the highly-paid political consultants were obsessing over the districting maps.
After all, when K and I self-sorted, we accomplished little. Sure, our town is a lovely place to live. And we do have a left-wing mayor. But our representative? Republican. Indeed, 80% of Indiana’s representatives are Republican, in a state where fewer than 60% of the voters are.