Gerrymandering, Safe Districts, and Political Extremism

The original Gerrymander concept.

We are in another election season, one of the strangest in modern American history, and there is much speculation about the race for both the Presidency and Congressional elections. It seems appropriate, therefore, to say something about the Congress, safe districts, and political extremism. But the historian in my thinks we should go back in time to discuss this in the context of the 19th century before offering some thoughts on the current races.

It is a truism of elective office that whenever a politician has little fear of being turned out from office by the electorate s/he is more likely to take hard-line ideological positions and to refuse efforts to compromise on issues of significance. I was reminded of this during graduate school when I studied Civil War politics. Antislavery members of Congress representing safe districts in the North had the luxury of radicalism in their opposition to slavery because they did not fear that an electoral challenge would be successful in unseating them. Those in less solidified districts had to take more moderate positions and engage in the grand political art of compromise.

Historians analyzing the politics of the era found that even if a northern congressman opposed slavery the mandate from his electoral jurisdiction controlled his ability to espouse antislavery ideals. Consequently, politicians such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, both of whom had the avid support of their constituents, could dare to be radical.

There is much to be admired in a story in which an antislavery politician pursued relentlessly the end of slavery regardless of how divisive the issue might be in the nation as a whole. Sumner, Stephens, and others had the luxury of safe districts, sometimes gerrymandered to ensure that they were indeed safe for their incumbencies, from which to pursue their antislavery agenda. Political extremism was the result of these safe districts—and it is important to note that southern members of Congress had similarly pro-slavery safe districts of their own—and the first casualty of this situation was the ability to compromise in the political process as each side stood firm against the entreaties of the other. Deadlock resulted, and in the case of the slavery questions it was only resolved through force of arms and Civil War.

On the other hand, in spite of his personal antipathy toward slavery, Abraham Lincoln was at first moderate in his public statements because he could not afford to compromise his questionable popular base of support as president. Lincoln recognized that his administration’s ability to hold the nation together in the wake of Southern secession in 1861 was dependent upon his walking a narrow path of acceptability to a coalition of factions with sometimes divergent beliefs about the slavery issue. Without sufficient support for his leadership his position as president would be undermined and he would never be able to accomplish anything worthwhile. In spite of personal desires, it was a question for Lincoln of first things first.

Accordingly, only when the tenor of the population shifted did Lincoln act to abolish slavery by executive order, the sesquicentennial of which is recently passed. At a fundamental level this pragmatism represented the essence of American politics and it is important to acknowledge its central place in the history of the nation’s political system.

We seem to be at an impasse over many issues on the nation’s agenda at present as both sides have hardened positions that offer little room for compromise. None of these issues rise to the level of the moral abomination of human slavery, so it is not exactly the same thing as the Civil War era, but the inability to reach compromises that will facilitate governing the United States are very real. The same reasons are at play, safe districts created in part through gerrymandering, and an unwillingness to compromise are resulting.

Because of gerrymandering—in this case to create a rock solid Republican majority, and one that has become increasingly radical and uncompromising—House Speaker Paul Ryan is in a primary battle with an even more conservative and uncompromising Republican who may become the nominee for Ryan’s House seat. It would not be the first time this has happened in the recent past; as an example in 2014 even someone as conservative as Eric Cantor (R-VA) was challenged and defeated in his primary bid.

We are coming into an election season in which all of these issues are a major subtext. Whatever your beliefs, engage in the political process and make sure that your position is heard. Should politicians, in your view, hold hard lines on issues or work to compromise for the sake of governance? Whatever your answer, make sure your elected representatives hear it.

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