Fareed Zakaria has a smart column highlighting the dysfunctional mismatch between America’s highly polarized parties and our cooperation-oriented political institutions. Unfortunately, like a lot of people who write about this issue he seems to have fallen for the siren’s song of redistricting as a cure all. He cites a Mickey Edwards article in The Atlantic as offering good ideas, including “truly open primaries and handing over the power of redistricting to independent commissions.”
As it happens, we have a perfect controlled experiment in what an American legislature might look like without gerrymandering. It would look like the United States Senate. And the US Senate gives us plenty of examples of Senator-pairs who represent identical constituencies but have different partisan affiliations. So ask yourself, is it true that Pat Toomey and Bob Casey represent a streak of pragmatic dealmaking moderation that could get us out of this jam? How about Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown? What is true is that when you see a Republican elected from a clearly Democratic-leaning state like Scott Brown in Massachusetts, or a Democrat like Mark Pryor from Arkansas that this kind of “mismatched senator” tends to have a proclivity for dealmaking. But even so, the striking thing about partisan polarization in the United States is that Pryor has a more left-wing voting record than Brown just as Mary Landrieu is more left wing than Mark Kirk. Our null hypothesis about a House with less partisan gerrymandering should be that it would look more like the U.S. Senate. “Fair fight” districts would look like Ohio, schizophrenically sending us liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans according to circumstances prevailing on election day. Lopsided Republican districts would look like Arkansas, mostly sending us conservative Republicans but occasionally coughing up moderate Democrats. Lopsided Democratic districts would look like Massachusetts, mostly sending us liberal Democrats but occasionally coughing up moderate Republicans. But the moderate Republicans would still vote with the conservative Republicans most of the time, and the moderate Democrats would all be to the left of all the Republicans.
There are two main reasons why the parties are so polarized today. One is that we have the best-educated, best-informed electorate that we’ve ever had in American history, so elected officials are under more pressure to reflect the ideological views of their backers. The other is that we lack a major, high-salience issue that’s uncorrelated with the main fights in American politics. In the middle of the 20th century, some economic populists were also white supremacists and some business friendly conservatives had progressive views on race and racial politics was very important to a lot of people. If something brand new (barbershop licensing, parking regulation, etc.) were to become highly salient that might cut across existing partisan divisions. But absent that, we need to accept polarization and find a way to make our institutions work.