by Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal
Oct. 9 (Bloomberg) — What if we told you that the gerrymandering of congressional districts has nothing to do with political polarization in Washington? Gerrymandering didn’t have anything to do with the shutdown, or the battles over the debt ceiling, or Obamacare. In fact, the accepted view that politically based redistricting led to our state of intransigence isn’t just incorrect; it’s silly.
The real reason for our increasingly divided political system is much simpler: The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced a fundamentalist version of free-market capitalism and succeeded in winning elections. (The Democrats have moved to the left, but less so.)
The Republican shift is the result of several factors. The realignment of Southern white voters into the Republican Party, the branch of conservative activism created by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and the party’s increasingly firm stance on issues such as income inequality and immigration, can all be important to Republicans’ rightward shift.
The “blame it on the gerrymanders” argument mistakenly assumes that because redistricting created more comfortable seats for each party, polarization became inevitable. Our research, however, casts serious doubt on that idea.
The most important element affecting polarization in the House of Representatives is the divergent approaches that Democrats and Republicans take to representing districts that are otherwise similar in terms of demographics and presidential voting. Even in moderate districts, Democratic representatives are still very liberal and Republican representatives are very conservative. This reflects a widening ideological gap, not different lines on a map.
Consider, for example, the rise of the mastermind of the shutdown, Senator Ted Cruz. The Texas Republican won his seat, as does every member of the Senate, in a statewide race, without any benefit from gerrymandering. The same is true for other Tea Party stalwarts in the Senate such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.
The analysts who are wedded to the view that gerrymandering is at the root of the congressional impasse argue that rancor spread to the Senate from the House. Yet it could also be argued that the force-feeding has run in the other direction, that it was Cruz who stimulated adamancy among Tea Party conservatives in the House, leading to the standoff.
As for the shifting ideology of the House, political scientists have demonstrated that whenever a congressional seat switches parties, the voting record of the new member is very different from that of the departing member, increasing polarization. In other words, it is becoming more common to observe a very liberal Democrat replaced by a very conservative Republican (and vice versa).
Such a shift happened in Minnesota. In 2010, one of the liberal giants in the House, Jim Oberstar, was defeated by former Navy pilot Chip Cravaack. As a congressman, Cravaack compiled a reliably conservative voting record and even supported Michele Bachmann’s bid for a House leadership position. But in 2012, Cravaack was defeated by Rick Nolan, a liberal Democrat. So in the course of four years, Minnesota’s 8th District swung from liberal to conservative back to liberal. Gerrymandering can’t explain this pattern of turnover.