30 May 2005

Rotten Boroughs

Once upon a time, in a nation ruled by a king who barely spoke his subjects' native language, the ruling parties played games with electoral districts. Many district lines were drawn to make certain districts safe for one party or the other, at least insofar as the party leadership could control who would be on the ballot for that party. To make things worse, not everyone could vote; not even every adult.

In 18th-century England, this led to the concept of the "rotten borough." In those districts, the Member of Parliament would be elected by a few propertied white men of impeccable family lines; the voters would bloody well vote as directed by the party leaderships. Of course, this led to severe difficulties in unseating unsuitable MPs, and gave party leaderships active control through the whip system. What this really meant was that for a little bit more than half of the electorate, the wishes of the residents in the respective rotten boroughs were meaningless. In turn, this made concentration of power not just possible, but inevitable. And those of us Over Here know what that eventually led to.

In 21st-century America, this has led to the concept of the mid-cycle redistricting and the gerrymander. Although the eligible voter list is somewhat more inclusive than it was in industrializing England, the proportion of eligible voters who actually do so partly eviscerates that advance. We've already been through another attempted secession, which failed. Or maybe it didn't: Look at the states the last few Presidents have called home (in reverse order, Texas, Arkansas, Texas, California, Georgia, Michigan, California, Texas, Massachusetts, Kansas, Missouri—most of them former slave states).

Just a subversive thought on Memorial Day.