Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How Gerrymandering Can Destroy Democracy

Democracy is a highly fragile thing. It’s the kind of institution that without proper care and management quickly falls into a terrible state of disrepair. What of the systemic problems that can take hold in a democracy is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a process in which electoral boundaries are modified specifically to achieve a desired political outcome.

What this means is you try to optimize the number of districts your party can win and minimize the number you opponents can win. This usually involves concentrating your strength so you have areas that will never come close to electing the other party.

The ironic thing about gerrymandering is it is probably as old as democracy or representative government itself. Britain, the first democracy, had a problem known as “rotten boroughs”, which were electoral districts with no or marginal population. One, in fact, was a community that had gotten swallowed by the sea but still managed to send a member of parliament to Westminster.

The United States is notoriously bad for gerrymandering. In Canada most of our redistricting is done by independent commissions with limited political bias. Though there are complaints is by no means systematic. Check out this Map. Here you can clearly see strange shapes in the districts. The meander all over the map of Southern California so that friendly neighbourhoods to one party or another are together so that they are reliably Democratic or Republican. This is most clear with rural, and ethnic voters who predictably vote for one party over the other.

How does gerrymandering hurt democracy? At the core of democratic values is one person, one vote – gerrymandering screws with that idea. It goes as follows. Every citizen is permitted one vote, and exercises it to elect local representatives. However, if parties determine which party will reliably control which district than the freedom of choice is taken away. Though there is a bigger problem. Candidates that win their districts tend to be in the middle of their district’s values. In a healthy, non-gerrymandered democracy this produces a lot of centrist politicians. In a gerrymandered democracy it produces extremists. Why? Well, if a district is reliably liberal or conservative the representative only has to worry about challengers from within the party. Therefore they can be as radical as they want because they will not be kicked out on election day.

Gerrymandering fosters extremists and extremists break down the governing process. Gerrymandering weighs down the political parties with large numbers of hard left and hard right politicians that cannot compromise for fear of losing their seat to someone more radical than they are. On the other hand when a party sweeps to power they only do so by electing many more moderates than they are used to in their party, to win these liberal/conservative districts where their party normally doesn’t perform. The governing party naturally begins to lose traction and fall apart because the extremists and centrists can’t get along.

Gerrymandering interferes with the creation of a healthy, vibrant centre in public debate, and therefore effective government. Certain parts of a given country are going to be more liberal and more conservative, there’s no point in forcing the public’s hand by rigging the system. It’s my opinion that the road to salvation for American politics is first to get independent redistricting underway, and in Canada it is necessary to protect the system we already have.

One person, one vote is the central value of democracy, but it starts to lose meaning if everyone you vote with agrees with you.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Goodbye Moderates

I worry when it looks like moderates are getting mowed down. There is something alarming when political parties cannot hold a substantial presence in the middle of the political spectrum. I see the obvious problem with this though, if all political parties are somewhere in the middle they tend to sell out their principles, infuriating their strongest supporters.

Periodically political parties undergo “purges”. I’m not sure how much I like the term purge when describing voter and party anger in real democracies when the origins are much more sinister. Regardless, these events occur. The squishy, compromising middle of a political party gets the sights levelled on it and they start to vanish.

I believe it might be fair to say, that in a way, the Republican Party is undergoing a purge. Political veterans that trace the beginning to the election of President Obama are being short-sighted. The last moderate Republican President was George H.W. Bush. Ever since he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 the Republicans have been moving right, sometimes steadily and other times lurching. This year is a period of lurching. Since 1992 the Republican controlled Congress in 1994 was much more conservative, and continued to be so socially, which culminated in the election of evangelical President George W. Bush.

I think the principal sign of this transformation has been the career of Senator John McCain. In 2000 when he ran for president he was very much a moderate Republican and in the early Bush years he was seen as a centrist, and in fact led a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

This ended in the lead up to the 2008 presidential race when he started to move hard to the right. He adopted virtually all of Bush’s and the conservatives planks as his own, despite being a leader on some issues, which I’ll return to. 2010 saw McCain threatened with a primary challenge from his right. Being faced with conservative opposition McCain went hard right.

The true symbol of this is immigration reform. McCain used to be a major leader on immigration reform, and sponsored a bill with Ted Kennedy to make sense of America’s failed policies. In 2010 he vowed not to move to make any compromise at all on immigration. Oh the times they are a changin’.

I’m sure most people have no idea who Mike Castle is. Mr. Castle was the Republican favourite to win the nomination for the Senate seat in Delaware. He was a nine term congressman (that’s 18 years in the House of Representatives), and before that he served two years as Delaware’s Governor. So, when Castle said he wanted to run people who voted for Castle for decades threw their support behind him. Many believe in a year good for Republicans like this, Castle was a shoe-in even in bluish Delaware.

But that’s not going to happen. Castle lost the nomination to a conservative “Tea Party” candidate named Christine O’Donnell, who has no experience in government and a questionable past. Castle was a moderate, would have made a great Senator. O’Donnell if she wins... well, I don’t have much hope.

It’s one thing to turf moderates, but to get rid of the experienced, savvy politicians... that seems reckless.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Race in Canada

It is a particular, peculiar belief of Canadians that racism is a minor element in Canadian life. Canadians take a certain pleasure in looking down upon our American neighbours and their unglamorous relationship with race. The juxtaposition of the slave-owning American Republic to our own country gives us a certain comfort.

While Canada has had a better overall relationship with those whose ancestors originated in Africa centuries ago, it is not so much better that we can stand proud. Our history mirrors that much more of the Northern United States than some Canadian idealism of racial harmony.

Who else? Aboriginal Canadians have a long and tragic relationship with the Newcomers. To this day, as a race, they occupy a lower socio-economic rung from other Canadians. Aboriginal communities are distinctly poorer and face immense social problems compared to their “Canadian” counterparts. Alcohol abuse, suicide, arrest rates are all higher. It’s a painful reality.

Euro-Canadians often disparage Aboriginal demands. They dismiss their historical grievances and view them as leeches on the state. This view has in some form stood with Canadian society for many decades. It is also unlikely to go away in the near future.

What of immigrants? Our immigration policy is comparatively progressive. We welcome the world, so long as they have the skills and resources we want/need. However, we’ve all heard the complaints and muttered anger. “Immigrants get a free ride,” “Look at what they get,” “Twenty of them in one house,” and on and on and on. Anyone who actually met families who immigrated the traditional way will tell you that there’s not much the government offers. Twenty members of a family live in one house because they cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Racial attitudes are ingrained here just as they are in other countries and places. Those ethnic groups associated with crime and poverty are likewise ostracized and, to an extent, ghettoized in Canadian cities. Racial discrimination has long been banished in a legal sense, but it lives on in the minds of Canadians. For better, and for worse racism has not been stamped out. To pretend otherwise is the height of naïveté. Things won’t change overnight. Coming from Brampton and growing up in a massively multi-cultural community I have faith in the future.

Racism has been a major social ill since at least the early modern era. I don’t expect to see it gone in my lifetime, nor my children’s, nor their children’s, but I can hope that the symptoms of this social disorder will fade.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Remembering 9/11

This Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. I think it’s hard for most of us to remember how it all felt that day. CBC Newsworld recently played a documentary called 102 Minutes that Changed America. The documentary recounts the events of the morning of September 11th from the perspective of never-before-seen camera footage from people on the ground in Manhattan and New Jersey. Interspersed were 9-11 emergency calls. Perhaps most haunting was the recorded, real-time conversations between those watching the fires rage in the World Trade Towers.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when a pair of girls watching the NYU Dorm were recording out their window when the second airplane slammed into the other tower. Their shrill screams and instant terror communicated a feeling that washed over anyone who watched that day, “This isn’t an accident.”

My father, and many others, have said that 9/11 will be the Kennedy Assassination for my generation. It is a cultural touch-point that we can all look back on and ask the same question, and we will have an answer to what we did that day.

My 9/11 story is a little strange. On Tuesday September 11, 2001 I was home sick. I had a fever and the flu. After waking up from a restless feverous sleep I turned on the TV and since it was morning television, I put on CNN. CNN already picked up the breaking news of the first tower on fire. Lying in bed with a fever watching something like that you begin to wonder if you’re delusional. I was only 13 at the time. It’s hard to think it was so long ago.

That fear, the fear about what could happen next was intense. Canadian media was scared about the planes overhead our nation, while the Americans counted down the planes they didn’t have an account for. The rumours over what got hit next, and the idea that anywhere could be next.

When commentators last December and January started calling the decade between 2000 and 2009 a lost decade it was easy to know what they meant. The events that stemmed from 9/11 are still echoing around the world. As a historian I wonder how 9/11 will fit in the context of the next century. Will it be a blip? Something whose impact will fade in the coming decade, or is the death of Franz Ferdinand, whose impact shaped the modern world? Maybe I’ll leave long enough to know, but I was there for the start