In a strong blow for freedom, yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the judicial branch of government does not have authority to curtail partisan districting, otherwise known as gerrymandering. From the progressive position, or so they claim, this decision is a conservative affront to democracy itself. But what if one of the most prominent liberal Democrats in House of Representatives is the beneficiary of a serpentine, racially motivated case of gerrymandering?
First, let’s have a word about gerrymandering in general. How political districts are formed is clearly a political decision. We should have far more trust in the person who admits this than in the person who claims to have some nonpartisan “fair” way to create districts. These well-intentioned souls never seem to notice that they too are political creatures. They too, are advocating a kind of ideology.
But let’s assume, as it is a good assumption, that with this court case gerrymandering, which has always happened, will continue to happen. What will that look like? Well, it will pretty much look like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler’s district in New York. In the map below you can see its circuitous pattern, but only New Yorkers will understand why it takes the path that it does. One hint is that his district is 72 percent white.
It starts in Southern Brooklyn, in a mostly white Democratic neighborhood called Bensonhurst, then dances a slender line through more conservative Bay Ridge, then up the mostly white Democrat Brooklyn coast of the East River, skips Chinatown to capture the Financial District, Chelsea, and the Upper West Side — all enclaves of, you guessed it, mostly white Democrats.
To pretend that something other than “Let’s give Nadler a district full of white Democrats” is going on strains credulity. Even Nadler would be hard pressed to explain how this coincidence happened. So let’s stop playing games. Politics is politics; it’s hard-nosed and scruffy. Both sides have always used this tool, and there’s only been one civil war.
In cases where it can be proven that bias played a part in districting, we need to take a long, hard look at it. But again, no reasonable person can conclude that Nadler’s district is composed of anything but a racial preference, assuming whites have a bias towards a white candidate. And what other groups might be harmed by giving Nadler such a white district — if the white vote were more diffuse, would it help non-white candidates, even if it harmed Nadler?
This is where the hard questions about districting arise. Nobody knows what a perfect district looks like, what it ought reflect or represent. This cartography of democracy can be sliced and diced any which way. What the Supreme Court rightly landed on is that we let the people we elect work it out. It’s why we elect them.
Frankly, both political parties will likely sigh some relief at this decision. Instead of being thrown into some new kind of regulatory chaos, they can continue the back-room deals that land guys like Nadler sweetheart districts. And you know what? That’s how it works. You don’t like it? Elect better representatives.
A final thing to think about is that gerrymandering always comes with a price. It’s a bet. Every sure vote you slide to one district is denied to another. This a chessboard of massive proportions and nobody really knows what changes can occur within a decade.
The bottom line is that there is no consensus, or even vaguely good definition, regarding what a fair district is. What are its constituent parts? What test can I give it, to judge its fairness? It’s subjective. There is no answer, no Platonic ideal. We elect politicians to figure it out. And this week the Supreme Court told them to keep doing their job. Jerry Nadler should be very happy.