Every 10 years, after U.S. census workers have fanned out across the nation, a snowy-haired gentleman by the name of Tom Hofeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.
Where Hofeller travels depends to some degree on the migratory patterns of his fellow Americans over the previous decade. As the census shows, some states will have swelled in population, while others will have dwindled. The states that gained the most people are entitled, under the Constitution, to additional representation in the form of new congressional districts, which (since the law allows only 435 such districts) are wrenched from the states that lost the most people. After the 2010 census, eight states (all in the South and the West) gained congressional districts, which were stripped from 10 others (in the Midwest and the East Coast, as well as Katrina-ravaged Louisiana).
The Long, Twisted History of Gerrymandering in American Politics
Outlandish districts created for electoral gain are a major force in the U.S. today, but they emerged out of a long tradition.
The creation of a new congressional district, or the loss of an old one, affects every district around it, necessitating new maps. Even states not adding or losing congressional representatives need new district maps that reflect the population shifts within their borders, so that residents are equally represented no matter where they live. This ritual carving and paring of the United States into 435 sovereign units, known as redistricting, was intended by the Framers solely to keep democracy’s electoral scales balanced. Instead, redistricting today has become the most insidious practice in American politics—a way, as the opportunistic machinations following the 2010 census make evident, for our elected leaders to entrench themselves in 435 impregnable garrisons from which they can maintain political power while avoiding demographic realities.
For the past four decades, it is what Tom Hofeller has done for a living.
Hofeller maintains an office at the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill, though he is now the RNC’s paid consultant rather than, as in years past, its official redistricting director. At 69, he is a professorial if somewhat impish fellow (in his early days, a California House speaker dubbed him “the kid with the shit-eating grin”) who is more than content not to be a household name. His after-hours life includes singing tenor in his church choir and reading multitudes of books that seldom have anything to do with politics. Hofeller’s earliest clients included Democrats, and today he describes himself as a moderate Republican. The adjective is irrelevant, however. His chosen field is, according to Georgia Congressman and House Republican redistricting vice chair Lynn Westmoreland, “the nastiest form of politics that there is”: Tom Hofeller’s objective is to design wombs for his team and tombs for the other guys.
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And so his cyclical travels take him mainly to states where the Republicans are likely to be drawing the new maps. (In most states, an appointed committee consisting of legislators from the majority party produces the map, which is then brought to the legislative body for a vote. Other states relegate the duties to an appointed commission.) At meetings, Hofeller gives a PowerPoint presentation titled “What I’ve Learned About Redistricting—The Hard Way!” Like its author, the presentation is both learned and a bit hokey, with admonitions like “Expect the unexpected” and “Don’t get ‘cute.’ Remember, this IS legislation!” He warns legislators to resist the urge to overindulge, to snatch up every desirable precinct within reach, when drawing their own districts.
But Hofeller’s helpful tips give way to the sinister warnings of a gimlet-eyed, semi-clandestine political operative: “Make sure your security is real.” “Make sure your computer is in a PRIVATE location.” “ ‘Emails are the tool of the devil.’ Use personal contact or a safe phone!” “Don’t reveal more than necessary.” “BEWARE of non-partisan, or bi-partisan, staff bearing gifts. They probably are not your friends.”
Be discreet. Plan ahead. Follow the law. Don’t overreach. Tom Hofeller relishes the blood sport of redistricting, but there is a responsible way—as Hofeller himself demonstrated this past cycle in the artful (if baldly partisan) redrawing of North Carolina’s maps—and also a reckless way. So that his message will penetrate, he tells audiences horror stories about states that ignored his warnings and went with maps that either were tossed out by the federal courts or created more political problems than they solved.
Already Hofeller has picked out which cautionary tale he will relay during the next decennial tour. The new horror story, he’s decided, will be Texas, which stood, this past cycle, as a powerful example of how reckless a redistricting process can become. That mangled effort also provides a stark contrast to the maps Hofeller helped create in North Carolina—drawings that demonstrate how in the blood sport of redistricting, the most cravenly political results are won with calculating prudence.
As the election returns rolled in on the evening of November 2, 2010, Hofeller had already started gearing up for the next round of redistricting. “I’m sitting and watching, less interested than many in the congressional races,” he recalled. “I’m the one saying ‘Okay, so we won Congress. The question is, are we going to keep it?’ And then what I see is that we gained 700 state legislative seats. The night just kept getting better and better. Things happened in some states”—in terms of controlling whole legislative bodies—“that we never expected. Alabama! North Carolina!”
It seemed like Reconstruction all over again for the GOP. Because the Republican tsunami coincided with the 2010 census, Tom Hofeller’s party was suddenly able to redraw many of the 435 congressional maps to its own partisan advantage.
Without asking for guidance from Hofeller or other veterans of the trade, delirious party officials predicted that after all the connivances were set in motion, the GOP would be able to reward itself with an additional 15 safe House seats before a single vote was cast in the 2012 elections.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Partly this is because Democrats understood the stakes and went to extraordinary lengths to blunt the assault. In California, the Democrats (according to e-mails obtained by ProPublica) successfully swayed a newly formed independent citizens’ redistricting commission, through an intricately coordinated guerrilla operation that will likely accrue them six or seven new seats. In Republican-controlled Florida, Nancy Pelosi—in relentless pursuit of the House speakership she lost after the 2010 midterms—helped fund the successful “Fair Districts” referendum to ban partisan redistricting. The measure seems to have persuaded Florida map-drawers to exhibit some self-restraint, and thus a number of surefire Republican seats were wiped from the boards. Of course, Pelosi has not suggested that the Fair Districts concept be applied to states where her party wields legislative control, such as Maryland and Illinois, where the Democrats further cut into the GOP’s gains by drawing nakedly partisan maps that simply vaporized Republican-held districts.
Tom Hofeller certainly did his part to maximize the returns on the GOP’s 2010 electoral bounty. Hired by North Carolina’s top GOP legislators just after the midterms to advise in the drawing of their state’s new maps, the political cartographer spent many hours on the phone with the state legislature’s redistricting chairmen. (Hofeller is careful to avoid leaving an e-mail trail. As his PowerPoint presentation cautions, “A journey to legal HELL starts with but a single misstatement! … Remember recent e-mail disasters!!!”) While talking, Hofeller would expertly manipulate his computer’s Maptitude software, a lightning-fast graphics system that processes neighborhood population data, including racial composition, so that a user can draw and redraw hypothetical district lines.
By July 2011, Hofeller had helped produce what a Democratic operative ruefully terms “exceptionally smart” maps—ones that, assuming they survive a lingering court challenge, may very well install a 10–3 GOP stronghold in place of the present 7–6 Democratic congressional majority.
Hofeller already knew North Carolina, the focal point of several landmark redistricting cases in which he’d testified, well. The Tar Heel State has a history of election discrimination and is therefore one of the jurisdictions covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that electoral maps be approved by either a federal court or the Justice Department. (Like all other states, North Carolina is also covered by Section 2, which forbids discriminatory practices more broadly.) Hofeller and the other Republican mapmakers therefore took particular care not to “retrogress” the racial makeup of the districts represented by the African-American Democrats G. K. Butterfield and Mel Watt—since doing so would have meant running afoul of the Voting Rights Act.
Instead, he reserved his chief mischief for the remaining districts. Hofeller and his cohort hoarded several of Raleigh’s white precincts and moved them into the 2nd District, which had been held by Democrats for 108 of the previous 110 years, until a former intensive-care nurse named Renee Ellmers rode the Tea Party wave to an upset victory in 2010. The new drawings would give the neophyte Ellmers a safe Republican district to last at least at decade. Recognizing that North Carolina’s many Democratic voters had to be put somewhere, the mapmakers shoveled as many as possible into the Democratic districts of Watt and of David Price, a former Duke professor who represented the liberal bastion of Chapel Hill. Most of those Democrats, however, were stripped from the districts of the moderate Democratic incumbents Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, and Brad Miller. In the Democrat Heath Shuler’s 11th District, the mapmakers simply gouged out the progressive core, Asheville, and affixed it to the 10th, the state’s most Republican district over the previous 60 years. The new maps have made quite an impact. Shuler and Miller have announced that they will not seek another term. McIntyre (whose house has now been drawn out of his own district) and Kissell are widely viewed as among the most imperiled Democrats facing reelection in November.
Progressive groups immediately filed suit challenging the North Carolina maps, contending that the state deliberately diluted minority voting power. Hofeller happens to be an old hand at redistricting litigation, and the maps will probably survive into the next decade. (Meanwhile, in a dazzling show of circular logic, Phil Berger, the top Republican state senator, recently refused to allow consideration of a redistricting-reform bill that he had supported back when his party was in the minority, citing the fact that North Carolina is “engaged in litigation on that issue.”)
Still, legal battles have been the other major factor in diminishing the Republican Party’s success. Given that blacks and Latinos tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, Republicans have often taken pains to maximize their control of the districts in a way that does not violate the terms of the Voting Rights Act. But the new census results have presented the GOP with a particularly confounding puzzle—one that lies at the center of this cycle’s redistricting controversies. On the one hand, the biggest gains in U.S. population over the past decade have been in two Republican-controlled states: Florida, which thereby received two new congressional districts, and Texas, which was granted a whopping four.
But on the other hand, most of each state’s new residents are African Americans and (especially) Hispanics. In Texas, the population has swelled by 4.3 million over the past decade. Of those new residents, 2.8 million are Hispanic and more than half a million are African American. While those groups grew at a rate of 42 percent and 22 percent, respectively, the growth in white Texans was a meager 4.2 percent. In other words: without the minority growth, Texas—now officially a majority-minority state—would not have received a single new district. The possibility that a GOP map-drawer would use all those historically Democratic-leaning transplants as a means of gaining Republican seats might strike a redistricting naïf as undemocratic.
And yet that’s exactly what the Texas redistricting bosses did last year. Shrugging off the warnings of Tom Hofeller and other Washington Republicans, the Texans produced lavishly brazen maps that resulted in a net gain of four districts for Republicans and none for minority populations. The entirely predictable consequence is that the Texas maps have spent more than a year bouncing between three federal courts, including the Supreme Court. The legal uncertainty has had national ramifications. It meant, for example, postponing the Texas primary from March 6 until May 29, which cost Texas its role as a prominent player in the Super Tuesday presidential sweepstakes—a very lucky break for the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, who likely would have lost the state to Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum.
But the chaos produced by the overreach in Texas isn’t anomalous. Rather, it is very much in keeping with the new winner-take-all culture of redistricting, an endeavor that has somehow managed to grow in both sophistication and crassness, like an ageless strain of cancer that inhabits a host body for so long that the two seem inseparable, even as the former quietly destroys the latter from the inside out.
How ingrained is the practice of politically motivated redistricting in America? So ingrained that it existed even before Congress did. Late in 1788, just after Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution and thereby join the Union, Patrick Henry persuaded his state’s legislature to fashion the nascent 5th Congressional District in such a way as to force Henry’s political enemy James Madison, of Montpelier, to run against the formidable James Monroe, of Highland. Madison prevailed and later went on to become America’s principal author of the Bill of Rights as well as its fourth president. Serving as his second vice president was Elbridge Gerry, who as the governor of Massachusetts in 1812 had presided over a redrawing of the state map so blatant in its partisan manipulations that the curiously tailored shape of one Boston-area district resembled a salamander. The term gerrymander has been used ever since to describe the contorting of districts beyond all reason save political gain.
Though the constitutionally intended purpose of redistricting is to maintain proper apportionment of elected representatives, several states, for much of the 20th century, didn’t bother to adjust their district boundaries at all. The result, in Texas for instance, was that a powerful rural legislator like House Speaker Sam Rayburn could represent some 200,000 voters, while in the adjacent Dallas district, Bruce Alger represented roughly 900,000. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that such malapportionment violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. One of the dissenters, Justice Felix Frankfurter, warned against judges’ entering a “political thicket.” The high court subsequently ignored him. In the 1980s, the Court took umbrage at the redistricting orchestrated by Georgia Democrats and their leader, state Representative Joe Mack Wilson, who flatly declared, “I don’t want to draw nigger districts.” A decade later, the Court argued that efforts to boost minority representation could also go too far, citing Mel Watt’s North Carolina district, a wormy creature of such narrowness that, so it was said, a person driving down Interstate 85 with doors open on both sides could kill people in two districts. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor tsk-tsked that “appearances do matter,” and the Supreme Court decreed in 1996 that even districts drawn so as to maximize minority representation should retain “compactness, contiguity and respect for political subdivisions."
O’Connor’s admonition notwithstanding, as works of art, redistricting maps continue to evoke a crazed but symbolically rich dreamscape of yearnings, sentimentality, vendettas, and hyper-realism in American political life. Districts weave this way and that to include a Congress member’s childhood school, a mother-in-law’s residence, a wealthy donor’s office, or, out of spite, an adversary’s pet project. When touring Republican strongholds, Tom Hofeller enjoys showing audiences the contours of Georgia’s 13th District, as proposed after the 2010 census, which he likens to “flat-cat roadkill.” (The map that was ultimately approved is shaped more like a squirrel that hasn’t yet been hit by a car.) This redistricting cycle’s focus of wonderment, in Hofeller’s view, is Maryland’s splatter-art 3rd District, which reminds him of an “amoeba convention.” He tends not to mention the gimpy-legged facsimile that is his own rendition of North Carolina’s 4th District.
The byzantine trade of redistricting was long dominated by brainy eccentrics like Hofeller and his Democratic counterparts Mark Gersh and Michael Berman. But that began to change in the 1990s, when the availability of mapping software (such as Maptitude, RedAppl, and autoBound) and block-by-block census data for the whole country opened up the field to a waiting world of political geeks. The democratization of redistricting—made manifest last year in Virginia, which held a student competition, complete with cash prizes, to draw the best maps—is a lovely thing, perhaps. But as one redistricting veteran told me, “There’s an old saying: Give a child a hammer, and the world becomes a nail. Give the chairman of a state redistricting committee a powerful enough computer and block-level census data, so that he suddenly discovers he can draw really weird and aggressive districts—and he will.”
This amateur-hour dynamic presaged the Texas redistricting fiasco. My native state has a long heritage of bellicose gerrymandering, which began with pronouncedly racist maps drawn by Democrats more than half a century ago and continued with Tom DeLay’s knee-capping of Democratic incumbents in his notorious mid-census redistricting in 2003. But no one ever accused the DeLay machine of being out of its depth. In 2011, by contrast, the individual principally responsible for drawing the state’s congressional district maps, Ryan Downton, was a lawyer and co-owner of a medical-imaging firm. The seemingly random hiring of a relative novice like Downton (who was defeated in May 2012 as a Republican candidate for the state legislature) was in keeping with a willful ignorance embraced by the state legislature’s two appointed redistricting chiefs, neither of whom had the slightest experience in this arcane field. (Downton says he was hired because of his litigation expertise, since so many redistricting cases end up in court.) As the veteran Texas Democratic redistricting strategist Matt Angle told me, “People who actually have an understanding of the Voting Rights Act—like Hofeller, who’s 10 times more competent than the people who drew these maps—they wouldn’t have been part of this.”
According to one of the Texas Republicans intimately involved in the map-drawing project, “Tom [Hofeller] and [Republican National Committee counsel] Dale Oldham created an adversarial relationship with the leadership here in Texas. Incredibly brilliant people who tend to think they’re right, and if you don’t agree with them, they don’t put much effort towards convincing you. And that rubbed raw with the leadership here in Texas."
Whether through personality conflicts or out of hubris, the Texas Republicans decided to do things their own way, with no guidance from Hofeller or other Washingtonians. When I asked Lynn Westmoreland, the House redistricting vice chair, to describe his role in the state’s redistricting process, he replied in a weary voice, “Well, the Texas legislature basically told me, ‘We’re Texas, and we’re gonna handle our maps.’ You know, I’m just saying that when you have a population increase of 4 million, and the majority of that is minority, you’d better take that into consideration."
These statistical realities left the Republican-controlled state legislature and Governor Rick Perry with three choices when it came to redistricting. They could bow to the demographics, draw three or four new “minority-opportunity districts”—in which Latino and/or African American voters would have the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice—and then set themselves to the task, as Governor George W. Bush once did, of appealing to the state’s fastest-growing population. Or they could opt for the middle ground and create one or two such districts. Or, says Gerry Hebert, a lawyer who has handled numerous election and redistricting cases for Democrats, “they could use the redistricting process to cling to what power they have and hang on for as long as they can."
Earlier this year, I had a breakfast of waffles and fried chicken wings at the Poly Grill, a Fort Worth diner in the heart of a formerly Anglo east-side neighborhood named Polytechnic Heights, which, as a testament to the region’s fluid demographics, is now thoroughly black and Hispanic. With me was Marc Veasey, a 41-year-old African-American Democrat and lifelong Fort Worth resident. Veasey is the community’s representative in the state legislature and would like to be its U.S. congressman. Specifically, Veasey has been expecting one of Texas’ four new districts to be placed here, because of the explosive population growth of blacks and Latinos in the area.
Many House Republicans, like the Texan and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, reportedly agreed with Veasey that a new minority-opportunity district belonged here—though for different reasons. Failing to create such a district would mean that each of the half dozen–plus Republican members of Congress in the Metroplex would have to absorb increasing numbers of minority voters. Several once-safe GOP districts might thereby become swing districts by the end of the decade. Better, as Smith and others saw it, to preserve the existing seats by funneling the minority population into a new district.
But the Texas map-drawers refused to create such a district in the area. Over breakfast, Veasey explained to me what that lack of minority representation meant. Presently, Polytechnic Heights—one of many minority enclaves in the Metroplex that DeLay’s redistricters spread across five Republican districts, thereby “cracking” a potent voting bloc—falls in the district of Michael Burgess, a white Republican who last year told a local Tea Party group that he favors impeaching President Obama. “[Burgess] goes around saying ‘I represent more African Americans than any other Republican in the entire U.S. Congress. Look at me, look at my outreach,’ ” Veasey said. “There’s no way African Americans would ever have any influence in this district at all. His votes prove it. His rhetoric proves it.”
In February, after court testimony in San Antonio and Washington, D.C., Veasey and his fellow Democrats prevailed in a suit charging the state of Texas with producing maps that discriminated against blacks and Hispanics. A three-judge panel ordered that the new 33rd District be drawn into Veasey’s stomping grounds—and Veasey promptly entered the race. He won the primary, and in November he’ll likely capture what will presumably be a safe Democratic seat.
While the San Antonio court awarded the 33rd District to the Democrats, it also left largely intact the state’s drastic redrawing of the 27th District, a territory that includes Corpus Christi, the home of Congressman Blake Farenthold. In the 2010 election, despite being an Anglo Republican who does not speak Spanish in a district that’s 74 percent Hispanic, Farenthold upset the longtime Democratic incumbent, Solomon Ortiz, by a margin of about 800 votes. “I won, which disproves the fact that all Hispanics vote Democrat,” Farenthold told me. “I go back to my premise that most Hispanics, especially in south Texas, if given a test on the issues that would place you as Democrat or Republican, would fall into the Republican category.”
In fact, Farenthold’s opponent, Ortiz, received 86.6 percent of the Latino votes cast. But Hispanic turnout in the 27th was abysmal that year. The Tea Party–backed Farenthold garnered more than 80 percent of the non-Latino vote, which put him over the top.
Over freshly shucked oysters at a Corpus Christi restaurant one afternoon, I relayed to Farenthold the testimony of the state GOP’s map-drawers: basically, they all acknowledged that Farenthold would have had a hard time being reelected in 2012 if they hadn’t drawn him a friendlier map. District 27, which they obligingly constructed for him last year, sheds the border city of Brownsville, climbs up the coast and swallows portions of Ron Paul’s existing district, then abruptly hooks westward into the deeply conservative Bastrop County. The new configuration resembles a Glock pistol held at a 45-degree angle. If Farenthold was so sure he had a Hispanic following, I asked him, then why hadn’t he insisted on keeping his district as it was?
Farenthold, whom I find to be one of the more charmingly plainspoken members of Congress, laughed. “Listen,” he said of the new map, “I’ll take a 60-plus [percent] Republican district over a swing district any day. Duh!”
Given Congress’s low standing, I wondered aloud to Farenthold whether allowing incumbents like him to escape the wrath of his constituents by installing him in a safer district wasn’t thwarting democracy.
“I’m willing to run on my record in any district I live in,” the freshman maintained. He pointed out that “at least 50 percent” of his new district would be composed of his present constituents. He added, “On a metaphysical level, sure, there’s gonna be some politics in it. But elections have consequences. You elect a Republican legislature, you’ll get more Republican-drawn districts. It works both ways.”
I asked Farenthold if being in the new district would in any way change how he conducted himself. “The district I’m in now is a swing district,” he said. “This [new] district is a much stronger Republican district. You say the same thing, but you use different words. Immigration would be an issue—you’re probably not going to change your mind on your core immigration issues, but you’ll be a little softer about how you talk about it in a swing district than in a harder-core Republican district.”
During his last few years in the House, John Tanner of Tennessee pursued a lonely quest to interest his colleagues in a redistricting-reform bill. Tanner was a co-founder of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who were all but wiped out in 2010, the year Tanner himself decided to head for the sidelines. He had introduced his bill first in 2005, when the Republicans controlled the House, then in 2007 and again in 2009, when Democrats were in charge and Nancy Pelosi was the speaker. “She and Steny [Hoyer, then the majority leader,] said, ‘That’s a good idea, we’ll take a look at it,’ ” he recalled with a smirk. “But the hard left and the hard right don’t want it.”
Tanner says that redistricting’s impact has evolved over time, from simply creating safe seats for incumbents to creating rigid conservative and liberal districts, wherein the primary contests are a race to the extremes and the general elections are preordained. “When the [final] election [outcome] is [determined] in the party primary—which now it is, in all but less than 100 of the 435 seats—then a member comes [to Washington] politically crippled,” the retired congressman told me. “Look, everyone knows we have a structural deficit, and the only way out of it is to raise revenues and cut entitlements. No one who’s reasonable thinks otherwise. But what happens? The Democrats look over their left shoulder, and if someone suggests cutting a single clerk out of the Department of Agriculture, they go crazy. Republicans look over their right shoulder, and if someone proposes raising taxes on Donald Trump’s income by $10, they say it’ll be the end of the world. So these poor members come to Washington paralyzed, unable to do what they all know must be done to keep the country from going adrift, for fear that they’ll get primaried.
“It’s imposed a parliamentary model on a representative system,” Tanner went on. “It makes sense for Democrats to vote one way and Republicans to vote another in a parliamentary system. It’s irrational in a representative form of government. So what that’s done is two things. First, it’s made it virtually impossible to compromise. And second, as we’ve seen in this past decade, it’s damn near abolished the ability and responsibility of Congress to hold the executive branch of the same party accountable. The Bush years, we were appropriating $100 billion at a time for the Iraq War with no hearings, for fear that [those would] embarrass the administration. Hell yeah, that’s due to redistricting! The Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration became part of the same team. We’re totally abdicating our responsibility of checks and balances.
”Tanner’s bill (which fellow Blue Dogs Heath Shuler and Jim Cooper reintroduced last year, to similar non-effect) would have established national standards for redistricting and shifted the map-drawing duties from state legislatures to bipartisan commissions. Such commissions already exist in a handful of states, while Iowa relies on nonpartisan map-drawers whose end product is then voted on by the state legislature. Tom Hofeller points to the California citizens’ commission as evidence that politics will inevitably find its way back into the process. “There’s no such thing as nonpartisan,” he told me.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hofeller insists that the dire consequences of his vocation are overblown. “We’ve had gerrymandering all along, so there’s no proof that that’s the cause of all the polarization,” he told me. “I’m here to tell you that there are two other major factors that are much, much more prevalent than redistricting. One is the 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week news media, where you only get noticed if you’re extreme. And the other is McCain-Feingold, which pushed a great deal of money to the extremes.” In limiting the size of financial contributions to national parties, the campaign finance–reform law encouraged donors to funnel their cash to opaque outside groups. (See James Bennet’s cover story on this subject.)
“That’s part of the problem,” Tanner conceded when I asked him about the super-PAC ads flooding the airwaves. “But you can trace how the members got here back to gerrymandering. I don’t give a damn how much money you spend. These guys are gonna be responsive to the people that elected them, to avoid a party primary. And so they come here to represent their political party, not their district or their country. That attitude has infected the Senate, too. Look at Orrin Hatch,” he said, referring to the veteran Utah senator who fought off a primary challenge from an ultraconservative. “Now you’d think he was an original member of the Tea Party. It makes you sick to see him grovel.”
Some redistricting experts argue that Americans have polarized themselves, by gravitating toward homogenous communities, a demographic trend observed in Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s 2008 book, The Big Sort. But, says one Texas Republican map-drawer, “redistricting has amplified the Big Sort by creating safe Republican and safe Democratic districts. Look at Texas. If you count [Blake Farenthold’s] 27th as the result of a fluke election, the [racially polarized West Texas] 23rd is the only swing district in the state.” In this sense, the only difference that the new maps will make is that instead of one swing district out of 32, there will now be one out of 36. As to what this portends, former Texas Congressman Martin Frost, a Democrat, told me, “I won’t mention anyone by name, but I know certain Republicans in the Texas delegation who would be inclined to be more moderate, if they didn’t have to fear a primary challenge.”
One Texas Republican who dipped his toe in the moderate waters, by voting for last summer’s debt-ceiling deal, was Congressman Michael Burgess. Tea Partiers lambasted him to his face, saying, “You caved.” An analysis by National Journal found that politicians like Burgess were the exception—that most House members who voted to raise the debt ceiling were from swing districts, while “the further a member’s district is from the political center, the more likely it is that he or she opposed the compromise.”
We know what happened after that whole debacle: the Dow Jones plummeted, Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating, and Congress’s approval rating sank to an unprecedented low of 9 percent. That intensity of public disgust has hardly abated, and it is felt across the political spectrum: according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this past January, at least 56 percent of all liberals, moderates, and conservatives would like to see everyone in the legislative branch fired this November.
If this is so, then perhaps Tom Hofeller is right. Perhaps redistricting reform is unnecessary. Perhaps instead the system is self-correcting: the extremists whom the map-drawers have helped to create will be judged as obstructionists unworthy of their safe seats and, by means of electoral laxative, flushed out of the body politic. Thus cleansed, America can then slowly return to what James Madison called “this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities.” When that happens, we know who will be there to draw the battle lines.