In 2019, a poll done by Georgetown University showed over 80% of respondents were frustrated by the lack of civility among members of Congress and thought compromise should be one of their chief goals. One year later, roughly the same percentage of those in the House of Representatives won reelection.
Why are Americans so overwhelmingly in favor of more civility and compromise in government and, at the same time, so overwhelmingly likely to elect people who work against it?
On this week’s episode of YDHTY, I spoke with Mattias Polborn, Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University, to answer this question. Mattias has spent much of his career studying political polarization and its causes, and has an innovative, if not counterintuitive, solution to this problem.
Since the 1970s, the likelihood of members of Congress crossing party lines to pass legislation has dropped to near zero. A big part of this has been the use of gerrymandering to carve congressional districts in favor of one party.
While gerrymandering has existed almost as long as the congressional district, three factors make today’s gerrymander more potent:
- The ability to use data to pinpoint voting trends has gotten far more precise, allowing political operatives to micro-target people based on criteria such as newspaper subscriptions and shopping habits.
- A geographic self-sorting of people into political homogenous communities has taken place over the last 20 years, meaning the median voter in any one district is likely to be more partisan.
- Politics has shifted from one where elections are won on local issues, to one where the local officials are elected based on the national political dialogue.
As a result, members of Congress increasingly have to work to keep the partisan base in their districts happy, as opposed to appealing to the median voter.
The process for carving congressional districts varies from state to state, with some having independent commissions draw the maps and others where the majority party is 100% in control and the minority party simply has to suffer. While some methods are more balanced in terms of partisan representation, no method has proven to create a system where more extreme elements of the partisan base aren’t overrepresented.
To this end, Polborn has an innovative solution to gerrymandering: let everyone in on the action.
Rather than having one party draw the map or a bipartisan commission try to determine what’s fair, parties would take turns deciding which voting bloc would be assigned to a congressional districts - effectively building districts out of voters, rather than tracts of land. This would change the incentive structure from one where parties seek to carve districts in their favor to one where they seek to balance the opposing party’s advantage.
While this could result in non-contiguous, non-compact districts - the opposite of what most redistricting reform advocates recommend - it would do a better job creating districts that better represent the median voter of the state, meaning less polarizing candidates and more competitive elections.
Polborn's paper on the increase in political polarity since the 1970s: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2014/03/03/party-realignment-on-cultural-issues-is-responsible-for-increased-political-polarization-in-presidential-elections/
His paper outlining his proposal for competitive gerrymandering: https://www.cesifo.org/en/publikationen/2020/working-paper/competitive-gerrymandering-and-popular-vote