Why Cities Lose

on December 31, 2015 in Philadelphia City.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 30: A general view of Philadelphia City Hall from Broad Street venue of the Arts on December 30, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
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Here’s an issue you likely know intuitively but is worth knowing and considering in more depth. Partisan gerrymandering is a scourge on our democracy and Republicans played it to maximum advantage in 2010. But it’s only part of the reason that Democrats play at a deep structural disadvantage in the House of Representatives. An equally big culprit is Democrats’ concentration in major urban enclaves. Indeed, the two are deeply intertwined. What we think of as partisan gerrymandering in its recent Republican guise is largely a matter of taking the existing concentration of Democrats in urban areas and playing it to maximum advantage. Put another way, if Democrats controlled states and tried to partisan gerrymander to their maximum advantage rather than produce ‘fair’ districts through commissions it simply wouldn’t be possible to do it as successfully as Republicans did in 2010-12.

The key to a successful partisan gerrymander is creating a large number of districts where your party has a strong but not overwhelming advantage and creating a small number of safe seats for your opponents where they have an overwhelming advantage and thus ‘waste’ lots of votes. Geography and demography simply make that much more possible for Republicans than Democrats.

This has another secondary effect that is not always immediately apparent. It creates center-left legislative majorities that are inherently more brittle than Republicans’. Many of you are mad at Nancy Pelosi for riding the brakes on impeachment or opposing Medicare for All. And you may be right to do so. But what we often call Democratic timidity is a reaction to this structural reality. Democratic legislative majorities tend to be dependent on seats in weather-vanish centrist or center-right districts. Thus the brittleness, something Republicans also have to an extent to never quite as much.

This isn’t the only reason. Conservative parties are historically and very much in the present far more authoritarian in character, far more pliable to top down control. But these demographic and geographic realities make all of this more doable.

I raise all this because the topic is getting renewed attention because of the release of a new book Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide by Jonathan Rodden. You may have already seen a handful of articles on this topic keying off of Rodden’s study.

Rodden explains why this is neither new nor uniquely American. The same pattern has played out in a number of industrialized democracies over the last century. It’s become more visible in the US in recent years as our parties have become more ideologically coherent and as the rural-urban divide has become more coterminous with partisanship. This has always been this way to a significant extent. But it’s much more so today. It is hard for people who’ve only known this version of US politics to understand or remember that in the not too distant past both party’s had real left and right wings. Republicans were the more conservative party and Democrats the more liberal. But Republicans had members that could genuinely be called liberal and were more liberal than most conservative Democrats and vice versa. Much of the era of bipartisanship that some wistfully remember from as recently as the 1970s and 1980s was based not on better manners but on this structural reality, the fact that the parties weren’t nearly as ‘rationalized’ and coherent as they are today.

What’s the solution? The most practical one is the liberal parties just have to win more votes than conservatives do. The real solution is proportional representation. So if Pennsylvania voters vote 55% for Democratic representation the House seats are distributed to that percentage. The problem is that district representation (and winner take all elections) are deeply, deeply embedded into the nation’s political fabric. And not for only bad reasons. Don’t you want one member of Congress who represents your area rather than simply a fractional percentage of one party’s strength in your state? Certainly for constituent service and having one representative to really focus on your area’s unique needs that’s a plus.

And if we really wanted to pursue this principle, why limit it to states? Why not just have one national legislative election for the House, each party puts up a slate of candidates and they get seats based on their vote tally. Depending on how the system is structured that would likely also mean you’d have multiple legislative parties. The two party system is built into the current structure as well.

For present purposes, these kinds of mammoth constitutional changes seem hardly credible, though within states they would be manageable. But these are structural realities that are important to understand and thus to grapple with even if the present reality means they can only be managed rather than truly solved.

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