The rap on Macon is that it’s a hopelessly divided house. So it’s pretty amazing that Bibb County’s entire legislative delegation, plus pundits from Charles E. Richardson to Erick Erickson, are on the consolidation bandwagon. That’s a great development.
But legislators in Atlanta and many other state capitals around the country are pushing the opposite: using the redistricting process to fracture and disperse voting power away from urbanized areas and so-called “communities of interest” like Macon. Just when Macon is starting really to act like a unified community of interest, outside forces are undermining the effort.
Allen Peake, a genuine hero of the Macon/Bibb consolidation effort, still defended his fellow-Republican gerrymanderers in Atlanta by saying that it’ll be good for Macon to have multiple representatives in Washington.
That’s not what people in cities such as Austin, Nashville and Salt Lake City say, whose own communities, like Macon’s, are in danger of losing their distinct political voices through redistricting. Citizens there are concerned that becoming incidental constituents of multiple congresspersons is less desirable than being part of a primary community of concern to one congressperson.
Their concerns seem justified. Since Georgia’s last mid-cycle redistricting designed to marginalize Macon and dislodge Jim Marshall, Macon has become something of an afterthought in Georgia’s Eighth Congressional District, to the point that U.S. Rep. Austin Scott has ended the practice of having a constituent office in Macon. Scott’s incentives to pay special attention to Macon will only diminish when Macon’s voters are split in 2012 between Scott and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop.
For his part, Bishop is already firmly anchored in Columbus. Picking up a few constituents in Macon will likely prove little more than an occasional distraction for him.
Redistricting threatens to do lots more damage nationally than just tend to undermine local communities of interest. When the parties control redistricting, the people elected from the districts designed by the parties tend to be more extreme and partisan in their voting behavior. Democratic officials become more attuned to their own party than a broader sense of the general welfare. Republican officials, likewise, become more attuned to their own party than the public good.
We see the effects in Washington. Representatives now barely speak to people across the congressional aisle. Political moderates like the Blue Dogs are targeted by both parties for political death. Nothing gets done on major public projects like deficit reduction. The parties effectively collude with one another by each defending their own party’s existence as critical for withstanding threats from the political jihadists on the other side.
Meanwhile, lobbyists indiscriminately enable and embolden whichever party can deliver the goods, or might threaten the interests of the lobbyists’ clients if not managed properly.
When the smoke drifts away from most partisan skirmishes in Washington, key lobbyists’ clients are almost always found content with the substantive results. But the public’s business usually remains unaddressed.
Gerrymandering may seem like a technical gripe, of interest only to political wonks like me. Not so. A research team that I headed at Mercer University showed that modern gerrymandering has deep, statistically significant implications for the national political environment, affecting critical votes on the most significant legislation facing Congress.
In his political bones, Sonny Perdue intuitively understood the practical implications of our research team’s findings even before we published them. Early in his last term as governor, Perdue advocated independent redistricting for Georgia. But he was just the governor, and the Republican party, which really controls Georgia politics, ignored him.
Citizens might do well to demand independent redistricting, insulating the redistricting process from the two parties and increasing attention to the people’s business. Though it’s not a panacea, it’s one step in a broader move away from excessive partisanship in our collective political life.
Still, I won’t be waiting for independent redistricting to happen in Georgia, or in most states, anytime soon. The political parties, and their lobbyist consorts, need to be dethroned first, and that’s a daunting project. Many smart, politically charismatic people like Teddy Roosevelt, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Ron Paul have failed to fight their ways through the two-party puzzle, even just to survive politically.
If and when you do figure out the puzzle, though, please let me know so I can write about your idea. That is, right after I get up from kneeling before you, because by then, you may be the Supreme Leader, ruling a former democracy strangled by two corrupted parties that claimed to be (but were not) essential for democracy.
David Oedel is a professor of law at Mercer University and has served as legal counsel to both Republican and Democratic officials in Georgia, including, on the Democratic side, Jim Marshall and Robert Brown, and on the Republican side, Sonny Perdue and Sam Olens.