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The Fewer Competitive Districts We Have, The Better

Perhaps Thomas Brunell is unfit to run the U.S. Census Bureau. But his thesis on competitive elections is perfectly reasonable.


Politico reports that the Trump administration is considering naming Thomas Brunell, a Texas professor “with no government experience,” to head up the U.S. Census Bureau. Sounds good so far. But, according to Politico, Brunell, a political scientist, also happens to be a partisan who has testified in “more than half a dozen” lawsuits regarding congressional redistricting, and authored a 2008 book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.”

You can’t make this up, says left-wing social media. The yuck could be heard throughout the Twitterverse. Can you imagine such a thing? A census director who believes the United States needs fewer competitive elections?

Now, perhaps Brunell’s lack of experience makes him unfit for the job. “Voting rights advocates” argue that the country needs another (mythical) nonpartisan bureaucrat to run the office. Brunell’s book, though? The thesis is perfectly reasonable. The notion that every district in the country should be consumed by insufferable, perpetually divisive political campaigns is insanity.

Americans have every right to live in places where the views of the majority comport with their own. Yet it’s been a long-standing position among right-thinking people that competitive House races are healthy for “democracy.” Artificially creating political disharmony in districts where like-minded voters have already clustered together is an idea driven by political considerations. Advocates for redistricting, after all, aren’t concerned with rock-solid liberal districts, they’re concerned about suburban and rural districts that aren’t competitive for the Democratic Party. In the imagination of some, “gerrymandering” is the monopoly of the GOP.

A number of different researchers have found that Americans are increasingly open to moving to communities wherein residents share their notions about culture and faith. Perhaps these people have an aversion to living in a constant state of ideological warfare. Perhaps the rigidity, anger, and cultural imperialism that’s overtaken some political movements during the past decade has persuaded them to find homes in more welcoming environs. Perhaps voters in Colorado Springs, like the voters of Brooklyn, are more content with neighbors who share their worldview?

Fortunately, we’re a big enough country to accommodate this compartmentalization. Theoretically, our dispersed political system allows minorities to live in these communities without having to worry about the national majority lording over their lives. The Constitution features protections against a direct democracy — protections that many on the Left have been pushing to eliminate for the same reason they want to create more competitive districts.

In many ways, this isn’t the healthiest situation. One-party rule can often coagulate into corruption and mismanagement, though there’s plenty of room for organic competition within parties. Moreover, this kind of self-sorting only strengthens tribalism and distrust of the other side. But the other choice is living under the rule of a majority that’s become increasingly comfortable using coercion to dictate their morality to others. G.K. Chesterton argued that a healthy democracy resisted fads and was boisterously intelligent and questioning of all power. This does not describe our democratic institutions today.

Brunell also argues (I have not read the book) that districts packed with like-minded voters tend to lead to a more inclusive representation than ones with more closely split populations of Democrats and Republicans, because fewer voters in partisan districts cast a vote for a losing candidate. The positions of the two parties have become so irreconcilable that a representative simply can’t effectively speak for both sides anymore.

“Brunell’s background also indicates that the White House is heavily focused on the political outcomes of a survey that is primarily supposed to gather objective data about the country,” the Politico piece asserts. This may well be true, although the writers offer little genuine evidence to back up the statement (moreover, the idea that Census Bureau hasn’t been political over the past decade is absurd). It’s one thing to argue that a lack of experience should disqualify Brunell, but much of the antagonism towards the candidate seems to be predicated on his refusal to buy into a political position that happens to be popular with Democrats these days. That’s probably because they’re also interested in politicizing the Census Bureau.