15 September 2009

One, Two, Three, Many

Next year, all of us here in the U S of A will be doing something we do once a decade — participating in the Census. And then, the real fun will start, in smoke-filled rooms across the nation: the amazing spectacle known as "redistricting." It seems to me that most redistricting arguments — if, that is, one is not a cynic who views "redistricting" as "partisan incumbent protection" — are about the exact speed of light in the ether... because they unquestioningly accept the existence of the ether.

In this day of "commuter communities", where more than a few people live in district A, send their children to school in district B, work in district C, and do their routine shopping in district D, does it make any sense to pretend that only district A reflects their representative and political needs? In particular, the phenomenon of "enterprise zones" creates quite a bit of tension between C/D and A — and it's entirely needless, because the assumption that one's political interests are based on where one lays one's head at night (and, even then, only in terms of "legal residence") is tied to eighteenth-century transportation, business, and communication models. In case the news hasn't reached your community yet, this is no longer a preindustrial agrarian society in which 90+% of the population is born, lives, works, and dies within a forty-kilometer radius. It hasn't reached East Central Redneckistan yet, as the County Clerk's latest intolerant rant demonstrates.

Consider, for a moment, Chicago congressional districts, and especially the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh districts. (It's not much, if any, better elsewhere, like Manhattan Island with its many districts that cross waterways). The key point is this: Substantial parts of those districts in particular are downtown business zones with few residents. So, then, does that mean that Kirkland & Ellis; Jenner & Block; the Chicago Board Options Exchange; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, are represented there? Highly unlikely: Instead, most of the workers (and certainly the highest-paid ones) live elsewhere, are counted elsewhere... and end up with their interests, at least at the national level, being represented by people who do not represent their lives. The corporations themselves may not vote, but they've got a helluva lot of influence (Justice Sotomayór's first oral argument on the Court concerned exactly that topic last week); so, are they perhaps being counted twice, in that a Congresscreature from the district in which a major defense contractor is headquartered fights for that corporation's interests, even if the workers come from outside the district to the headquarters every day and have their own representatives?

If we insist on dividing districts geographically, shouldn't we instead be allowing each individual to choose which element matters most to him/her as a member of the body politic? Even so, does geographic districting continue to make sense (consider the "I've Been Moved" meaning of "IBM" in the 1960s and 1970s for a moment...)?

You may have noticed that this entry doesn't have a whole lot of answers in it. This is at least in part because the questions are very, very hard, and I don't have answers... if only because on top of "What would an ideal system look like?", we have to ask "How do we get from the status quo to/toward that ideal system without bloodshed?" It is also because, as I tried to indicate early on, I am not at all sure we're asking the right questions.