The surveys conducted by Bright Line Watch in order to assess the quality of democracy in the United States on multiple scales are definitely helpful in displaying the varying perceptions in respondents. However, the most telling statistics that are shown are pretty much reiterating a common theme in American politics that continues to undermine and haunt the legitimacy of elections and party majorities. This, of course, is gerrymandering. The infamous “g-word” in politics has been an unfortunate institution since the inception of the United States and its government structure. The original benchmark of trying to eliminate racial discrimination in districts and along district lines has extended well beyond the realm of racial attitudes, and has now become a strategic, yet gamesmanship-style move for the majority party.
Gerrymandering was first introduced into American politics in Massachusetts in 1812. Governor Elbridge Gerry managed to pass a law that would allow him to alter the district lines in the state to help benefit his political party. The long history of the term can be summarized simply by saying that through many legislative acts of reapportionment and election reform, the political drive behind gerrymandering transitioned from ending racial discrimination in certain districts to creating party-advantageous lines to allow representatives and officials from the majority party, the ones who draw the lines, to keep getting reelected and further progressing their particular agenda. This phenomenon brings up a few very distinct points: Is gerrymandering the biggest threat to democracy? If so, why hasn’t democracy been defeated already? I want to turn to the recent survey results provided by Bright Line Watch as of January, 2018.
Bright Line Watch’s clear objective is to quantitatively depict how much the perception of democratic quality fluctuates, specifically since the inception of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. They present the date in many different ways, one of the most intriguing being differences between expert’s perceptions of democracy, and the perception of the general public. To narrow the focus, the bottom three aspects of democratic performance, according to the expert survey, were “Districts not biased”, “Participation high”, and “Votes have equal impact”, in that order. Interestingly enough, “Districts not biased” is the 4th least performing aspect of democracy among the public, and the other two points both hover around 38-40% in terms of percentage of people who do not agree that they are upholding democracy. Both graphs can be found here. On a related note, the graphs that portray how answers have changed over the course of these surveys been distributed shows very little change in how “Districts not biased” is perceived by both the public and the experts.
Depicted above are congressional district maps of North Carolina, clearly showing gerrymandered district lines to help fit the respective party’s successful election needs. Gerrymandering has transitioned from a racially discriminatory question to a politically discriminatory trend. The majority party in the U.S. has always changed district lines in order to give themselves an electoral advantage going into the next round of elections. To give another example of an institution being polarized in order to create long-term effects for a certain party, presidents can appoint allegedly “objective” judges to the Supreme Court, who then end up having strict voting lines on constitutional questions for often over twenty-five years. These changes to the political structure of the United States should have seemingly semi-permanent effects… right? Here’s an interesting fact: since 1885, there have been no more than three consecutive presidents of the same political party. Perhaps the longest reign of one party was that of FDR and Harry Truman, who presided as democrats over a twenty year period from 1933-1953. With all the gerrymandering and strategic Supreme Court appointments, how is it possible that the party in the presidency has managed to change hands so many times? The answer is simple. Democracy in America is completely alive and well. The experts that took the Bright Line Watch survey seem to think that the democracy of the United States has decreased slightly over the past year, or is lesser than other global statistic indexes. Almost every perceptual trend that could possibly decrease following Trump’s election did for those who did not approve of him. If democracy is decreasing due to gerrymandering and judicial interdependence, then democracy is either absolutely fine or has been dead for a long time. If anything, Bright Line Watch tells us viewers one thing: party polarization exists. However, in reality, the politics and democratic principles of the United States show us viewers a completely separate thing: there is a group of people in the middle who sway side to side every four to eight years when they realize that maybe the other side is preferable. I agree that gerrymandering is an incredibly flawed institution, as well as the whole “appointing middle of the road judges” phenomenon. Out of these two scenarios, there are independent voters and a swing vote in 5-4 decisions. THESE are the principles that show our democracy is still very much intact.