The History of the Gerrymander

February 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

We live in an era in the United States where, in many states, politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around.  This is because in most states, the boundaries of congressional districts are in the hands of politicians, and the majority of the party in the state house has more or less carte blanche to manipulated these boundaries as they see fit.  In most democracies, this is handled by an independent commission to avoid just this kind of silliness.  When left in the hands of politicians, I can see how the temptation to gerrymander is too great to resist.  The logic is simple: If we gerrymander the boundaries of congressional districts, we can not only perpetuate our control of the state house, we can also manipulate and control the congressional party from our state, and if others in other states do it, preferably in our political party, then we can control government.

Of course, this is not how it’s supposed to work.  And yet, we end up with congressional districts like these two, from California.  We tend to hear in the news that Republicans are the ones who gerrymander.  But they’re not alone. Democrats do, too.  But, without question, Republicans do it more often.  Anyway, look at these two congressional districts.  One is the 11th District in California, the other is the 38th.  One was Republican, one was Democratic.  Both images are from c. 2004, and both districts have been re-drawn.

CA_11thCD_clip California_District_38_2004

The gerrymander has been used in nearly every democracy, and is one of the many dirty tricks politicians have used to maintain power.  That the gerrymander is, by definition, anti-democratic is another matter.  The first time the word was used was in the Boston Herald, in March 1812.

That year, Massachusetts state senate districts had been redrawn at the behest of Governor Eldridge Gerry.  Not surprisingly, Gerry’s gerrymander benefited his party, the Democratic-Republicans.  The Herald’s editorial cartoonist was not impressed with the re-drawing of the South Essex district:

The_Gerry-Mander_Edit.png

The Herald charged that the district looked like a mythical salamander, hence we get gerry-mander.  It’s worth noting, though, that Gerry’s name wasn’t pronounced ‘Jerry’, but, rather, ‘Geary,’ so, in early 19th century Boston, it was supposed to be pronounced ‘Gearymander’. One theory I’ve read is that the Boston accent re-appropriated the word to ‘Jerrymander.’  More likely, though, something else happened: In the rest of the nascent United States, the name Gerry was likely to be pronounced ‘Jerry,’ not ‘Geary.’  And there we go.

For the remainder of 1812, Federalist newspapers and commentators around the country made use of the term to mock the Democratic-Republican party, which was then in the ascendancy.  The Democratic-Republicans were Thomas Jefferson’s party, and it controlled the White House from his election in 1800 until the party split in 1824, largely due to Andrew Jackson.  His branch eventually became the Democratic Party we have today.  The other branch eventually became the Whigs.  Together, the Democrats and Whigs were the core of the Second Party System of the United States, c. 1824-54.

The term also travelled out of the United States, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom, and north to Canada.  To be fair, the coining of the term in March 1812, came on the brink of the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year.  So, for the British, this was just another way to mock the Americans.  But, either way, the term became an accepted term in the English language by 1847, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The End of the New Deal?

May 8, 2017 § 2 Comments

I teach a lot of US History.  And every semester, when we get to the Depression, my students are gobsmacked.  It doesn’t matter where they’re from, New England or Alabama, or California or Virginia.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or disinterested in politics.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists.  To a person they are appalled and disgusted by the response of Herbert Hoover’s government to the Depression.

They don’t understand how the government of the United States, their country, could be so callous towards its citizens.  How, they repeatedly ask, could Hoover sleep at night as people were starving and shivering in the streets?  How could Hoover and a Republican majority in the House and Senate do nothing as people lost their jobs, their homes, their families?

And then, they read about FDR and the New Deal.  And, to a person, they are excited to learn about the New Deal, about how it re-set the government and its relationship to Americans.  They are happy to learn that their government responded humanely to the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen in a time of peace.

FDR’s administration did create a new deal between Americans and their government.  Out of the Depression was created a government that provided a modicum of care and services to its citizens.  Certainly, the so-called welfare state of the United States did not reach the levels it did in the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Western democracies.  But, it did give Americans a change to begin to get back on their feet, though they were certainly helped in this regard by the outbreak of the Second World War.

That Americans as a whole appreciated the New Deal is borne out in the fact that the President came from the Democratic Party from 1933-53 and 1960-69.  In addition, the House remained Democratic from 1931 until 1995, with the exceptions of the 80th (1947-49) and 83rd (1953-55) Congresses.  The Senate, meanwhile remained blue from 1933-1979, except for those same 80th and 83rd Congresses.

Even Republicans in office retained a respect of the New Deal, reflecting their constituents.  A lot has been made of the Reagan Revolution and how it began the dismantling of the New Deal state, but that, in many ways, is overblown.  The New Deal understanding of the relationship between state and society, for the most part, survived Reagan.

But it is under attack now.  One of my students, during the first attempt to dismantle Obamacare in March, commented on the inhumanity of throwing 24 million people off health care rolls.  Another one noted that this appeared to be a break down of the New Deal.  This is when I felt like a proud professor, of course.

But they are right.  Obamacare was a continuum of the New Deal’s promise to Americans.  And while I, a Canadian, think Obamacare is stupid (I much prefer the single-payer system), it was a massive improvement over what came before it.  And the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the House last week, is a return to pre-New Deal America.  It is a return to Hoover-era politics, where Americans suffered as their government turned its back.

Trump and the White Working Class

November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday.  How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question.  Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.

Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back.  The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years.  They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life.  Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday.  And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant.  They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts.  They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time.  And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money.  Got married, had kids, raised them.  Eventually, you retired.  Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company.  But that’s all gone.  Deindustrialization.  And free trade.

What happened when the jobs dried up?  People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages.  Alcoholism and addiction became more common.  Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers.  Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry.  But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills.  Then there’s health insurance and benefits.  With GE, those were all taken care of.  Waffle House doesn’t take care of them.  Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans.  But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things.  And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.

And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner).  Think about TV and the movies.  Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA.  Now?  Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous.  And besides, it’s set in Chicago.  Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city.  America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore.  There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane.  Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA.  For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.

The United States has long been a deeply divided nation.  We like to think it’s North-South.  It’s not.  It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory?  No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class.  And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred)  And then Trumpism occurs.

Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back.  I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization.  My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988.  My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border.  And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone.  He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder.  And my mom was university-educated.  But. We lost.  And so many others.  Their anger is visceral.  Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.

But Trump cannot deliver on his promises.  If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s.  Those factory jobs aren’t coming back.  Automation, people.  The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation.  More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did.  He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.

So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again?  When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there.  But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more.  Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified.  Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader.  Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc.  I don’t feel optimistic either way.

Whither the Poor? Or, Why You Need to Vote!

August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments

I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income.  That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086.  Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.

On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society.  The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US.  But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party.  But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances.  But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted.  The people here are the forgotten people of the country.

Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history.  And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England.  Americans like to think they live in a classless society.  They don’t.  At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests.  For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless.  And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.

By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance.  This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity.  In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.”  And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this).  In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.

Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live.  There are people in this county who are well-off.  There is even a very tiny middle class.  But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor.  Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair.  The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.

But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all.  This is a politically mobilized group in my county.  During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent.  Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting.  Angrily, but they’re voting.  They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.

A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.

But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.

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