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Is Gerrymandering Unraveling America’s Connectedness?

To prevent partisan gerrymandering, we must first understand exactly what it is.

Key points

  • Gerrymandering allows a minority of the population to control the majority of political power.
  • It also allows extremists in both parties to join the House of Representatives.
  • Gerrymandering plays a role in further dividing our politics and our culture into incompatible factions.

In recent years, a number of things have been contributing to the cultural and political polarization of Americans. In the past, there was general agreement across different demographics and across different political persuasions that certain improvements in American society were important goals of government: reduce poverty, improve healthcare, improve education, safeguard voting access, etc. The disagreements were on which policies would achieve those shared goals.

But now, it’s different. Rather than debating on how best to achieve those shared goals, Americans have become so polarized in their ideologies that they can’t even agree on what the shared goals of society are.

In fact, groups with opposing political and cultural persuasions have become so insulated from one another that recent psychological studies are showing that they develop ways of thinking that are drastically different from one another. For example, strongly religious people are biased to have lower standards of evidence for accepting religious claims compared to scientific claims, whereas strongly non-religious people are biased to more readily reject religious claims (in the face of failures to replicate) than scientific claims (Lobato, Tabatabaeian, Fleming, Sulzmann, & Holbrook, 2020). And political persuasion, along with social dominance orientation, plays a strong role in determining whether someone is willing to spread false COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation (Lobato, Powell, Padilla, & Holbrook, 2020). Participants who reported being politically conservative and in favor of social dominance hierarchies reported that they would be more likely to share these conspiracy theories over their social media accounts.

How did these rifts in American society happen?

Some point to social media. Instead of griping about the opposing political party to your one or two neighbors who are like-minded, now you can find thousands of people across the country on social media who will gripe with you and make you feel richly connected with a large community that shares your complaints. You can also find an amazing variety of ridiculous falsehoods about the opposing political party that always seem to feel more believable when they are in print – compared to when they’re spoken by one of your neighbors over a few beers.

But we shouldn’t discount the role that district gerrymandering has played in literally dividing our country in convoluted ways that have severe consequences on how our “representative democracy” is actually represented -- as well as severe consequences for how we all get along with each other. Gerrymandering has been conducted by both parties for a long time, but it has been supercharged in recent decades with supercomputer algorithms that allow partisan gerrymandering to take a majority of votes for one party in a state and turn it into a majority of House Representatives from the opposing party. How is this done?

Most people know that gerrymandering is a way to carve up strangely-shaped voting districts in a way that somehow biases the voting outcomes, but not everyone knows exactly how it works. They call it "stacking, cracking and packing," where some districts are cracked in two, others are packed together, and still others are stacked like a poker player "stacking the deck." I’ve designed here a simple pair of diagrams to make it easy to comprehend.

Michael Spivey
Figure 1. A population fairly represented.
Source: Michael Spivey

Figure 1 shows a spatial distribution of 21 blue people and 20 red people. When the population is divided into four districts along vertical and horizontal axes, two of the districts get red majorities and the two other districts get blue majorities. Thus, this nearly equally divided population would have 2 government representatives from the red persuasion and 2 from the blue persuasion – a fair representation of the population’s affiliations.

Michael Spivey
Figure 2. The exact same population unfairly represented, due to partisan gerrymandering.
Source: Michael Spivey

Figure 2 shows the exact same population with the exact same spatial distribution, but their districts are divided by diagonal lines now. This re-districting results in 2 districts that have close, but reliable, wins for the red team, plus another district that is an overwhelming win for the red team. With this particular gerrymandering, only one district wins for the blue team even though the majority of people in the population are blue. (Note also how District 1 is impossible for blue to lose and District 4 is impossible for red to lose. They could put forward almost any candidate and still win.)

Not only does partisan gerrymandering produce an inaccurate representation of whom the people want advocating for them in government, it also produces peculiar districts where one particular political party can essentially never lose. In these never-lose voting districts (such as Districts 1 and 4 in Figure 2), a candidate can be an unpopular extremist in their party and still win their district’s election. Thus, in addition to allowing a minority of people to win the majority of political power, gerrymandering also allows the House of Representatives to get populated with some individuals who have extremist ideologies. The voices of those individuals then get magnified by their status and, as a result, the average sentiment within each of the two main political parties moves farther and farther apart from one another.

What was once a somewhat-flawed representative democracy in America is now quickly becoming a substantially-flawed representative democracy. If gerrymandering (and also voter suppression) are allowed to continue unchecked, the United States of America could find itself resembling the illiberal democracies of Turkey or Hungary. If instead, Americans can come together, recognize our shared connectedness, and reacquire our common goals, then perhaps we can get back to allowing the majority of people to control the majority of political power.

To achieve this, perhaps we can draw some insights from Reunification Therapy (typically used in family therapy situations). The key goal in reunification therapy is to reestablish trust and rebuild attachment between the parties involved. Interventions involve facilitating a civil conversation about past disagreements or even playing a coordination game together, and may also require developing culturally specific interventions as well (Harris-Britt, Paces-Wiles, Wax, 2021). The only way to mend those rifts in our society will be to have those conversations together and spend some quality time together, which is hard to do during a pandemic. Reach out to your friends and family with opposing political/cultural persuasions and start those conversations. It's the only way we will heal.