The Slow Death of American Democracy

October 2, 2013 Topic: CongressDomestic PoliticsPolitics Region: United States

The Slow Death of American Democracy

How redistricting rules and institutional breakdowns brought us to the shutdown.

The American political system is broken. It is in the throes of progressive deterioration, and nothing is likely to reverse the deterioration anytime soon. It is time for the American people to begin to worry about the future of their republic.

These stark musings are precipitated, of course, by the partial government shutdown that resulted from rabid partisanship and governmental dysfunction. But the shutdown is neither the cause of the deterioration nor a manifestation, in and of itself, of progressive governmental decline. After all, we have had shutdowns in the past and survived them just fine. And our history contains numerous eras when the intensity of politics spawned various kinds of governmental dysfunction.

On two occasions in the dozen years before the Civil War, the House became so divided that it couldn’t elect a speaker. The result was that for weeks the House couldn’t organize; without a functioning House, the Senate couldn’t conduct business; without a functioning Congress, the president couldn’t send up his annual message and set a national agenda. The government froze.

Or consider the rabid Jacksonian era, when two presidents—Andrew Jackson himself and his protégé, James Polk—were censured by houses of Congress.

Those difficulties were spawned in part by powerful political emotions unleashed by issues that lawmakers and their constituents considered fundamental to the very definition of the nation. It is true that we are living in such a time today, and that is contributing mightily to the venomous nature of our politics. But the country’s current political woes stem also from the fact that the machinery of government isn’t working as it should.


Consider the role of current redistricting practices on Congress’ failure to find a path through the issue thicket of our time. In the modern era of the House of Representatives, there are fewer and fewer contested districts every time a new redistricting plan emerges. Instead, districts are drawn to ensure that they will be dominated by one party or the other.

A look at how this developed is instructive. Well-meaning reforms almost always breed unintended consequences. In a landmark 1964 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that population disparities among districts violated its earlier "one man, one vote" principle. Subsequent rulings pressed "zero population deviation" as a fundamental goal in congressional apportionment. Then through the confluence of actions—amendments to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, various court rulings and Justice Department interpretations—a mandate emerged: Whenever feasible, states must create a district in which a minority group enjoys majority status.

But doing this in the context of zero population deviation is tough. The map-drawing computers must cut district lines right through counties, through precincts, through towns and villages. They wind and curve and bend, creating districts that look, as one pol once put it, like a bug splattered on a car windshield.

These districts bear no relationship to the political communities that have grown up organically over the years. Whereas people and politicians in cities and towns and counties around the nation must learn to work together in a climate of mutual respect for each other and for the system in which they operate, their representatives in Washington are now totally unmoored from those efforts and that sensibility. For 150 years, before this gerrymander phenomenon infected our political system, a leading principle was that districts should be compact and "geographically contiguous." The idea was to ensure that districts interlocked with the surrounding political community and that members of Congress reflected the swirl of struggles and debates that defined the community.

That era is dead, replaced by a system that spawns members of Congress who represent not whole communities but pastiches of population enclaves here and there that harbor particularly strong partisan sensibilities. Thus have representatives, of both parties, become more and more driven by ideology. Thus has the House become more and more polarized.

Consider also the complete breakdown in parliamentary discipline in both houses of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner has no tools (or weapons) with which to nudge (or whip) his members into line. He only has cajolery, which doesn’t go very far in a time when ideological intensity defines the nation’s politics. In the old days, congressional leaders had various carrots and sticks with which to impose discipline. And party elders back home held plenty of sway over members as well. Now that system of party and parliamentary discipline is gone, replaced by gangs of political paladins with little fealty to any kind of order.

This also has undermined the social pressure that once served to hold in check mavericks who went too far. When Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey was elected to the Senate in 1948 as a brash young Democrat in a hurry to remake society and the Senate culture, he was shunned by his colleagues and became a sad senator without influence. Lyndon Johnson, a Senate bigwig, took the faltering Humphrey aside and coached him in the ways of the Senate and how to play the game. Humphrey took the lessons to heart and emerged as a powerhouse in the chamber.