Saturday, February 18, 2017

Gerrymandering, Race and Polarized Partisan Politics

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Is gerrymandering the biggest obstacle to democracy in America?  It has produced polarized partisan politics, a dysfunctional Congress, the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history, and most voters oppose it; and gerrymandering is not likely to end soon since the elected representatives who benefit from it continue to perpetuate it.

Gerrymandering is rooted in racism.  It began in the South with the demand of black voters for minority representation.  The creation of single member districts in which black voters were a clear majority created even more districts in which black voters were ignored.  The result has been to institutionalize racism in partisan politics.  The Democrat Party is now the party of blacks and other minority groups, while the GOP is the party of the white majority.   

Redistricting is required every ten years with the decennial census, and it has been the responsibility of legislators elected in the districts being redrawn.  The proverbial fox has been left in charge of the electoral henhouse, with the result that racial polarization along party lines has remained endemic in U.S. politics. 

Redistricting after the 2020 census should be by courts or by an independent political entity.  But even if there is no change in the method of redistricting, increasing demographic diversity will transform gerrymandering in the long term, with more Hispanic and Asian voters diluting the traditional black-white racial dichotomy in the electorate with more racial pluralism.

Gerrymandering will continue to polarize politics along racial lines through the 2020 census unless the public interest is placed above partisan interests.  A third party could do that, but 2016 election results indicated that voters are not ready to elect third party candidates to challenge the existing Republican and Democrat political duopoly.

Religion is a wild card in U.S. politics.  The vast majority of voters consider themselves Christians, but there is much political diversity among them.  Evangelical Christians emphasize an exclusivist religion that seeks to preserve traditions, and they traditionally support Republican candidates.  By way of contrast, black Christians traditionally support Democrat candidates.

Most white Americans identify with mainline Christian denominations that avoid mixing their religion and politics.  And while most vote for Republicans, unlike evangelical Christians, they believe that the altruistic teachings of Jesus are God’s truth.  With pastoral leadership they could relate those moral imperatives of faith to their politics and end gerrymandering.

Politicians remain accountable to the voters, even in gerrymandered districts.  Church leaders—both white and black—should promote racially neutral districts as part of the Christian stewardship of democracy.  That could break up the political logjam of gerrymandering and its racially polarized politics.

Gerrymandering is a major obstacle to racial justice in America.  While its original purpose was to provide black representation, its continuation has institutionalized racism in partisan politics.  Gerrymandering will not end without black voters feeling that they have been denied representation—but it will end.

The end of gerrymandering will come with increased demographic diversity in the U.S.  Already non-white births outnumber white births, so that the days of a white majority in the U.S. are numbered.  The racial dichotomy between blacks and whites is being subsumed by more racial and ethnic diversity.  That will end gerrymandering and allow a politics of reconciliation.

I have personal experience with gerrymandering.  As a member of Columbia City Council from 1978-1986 I supported single member districts that allowed black representation on city council; and as a candidate for Congress in the Fifth Congressional District in 2016, I experienced the partisan polarization that is a lasting legacy of congressional gerrymandering.

America has had a black president and Columbia now has a black mayor.  There is no justification to continue gerrymandering, and the efforts of the Trump administration to preserve a white majority by curtailing immigration are doomed to fail.  American democracy will survive the age of gerrymandering; even so, it has caused lasting damage to our democracy.    


Brian Klaas has asserted that gerrymandering is the biggest obstacle to genuine democracy in the United States.  So why is no one protesting?  See

On religion, race and the deterioration of democracy in America, see


  1. There's actually a longer history than southern racism: gerrymandering began with Patrick Henry in 1788, and its purpose was to serve the Anti-Federalist party by preventing the election of James Madison as a Virginia representative--so goes the story told in the memorably titled book "Ratf**ked," which I heard about on a podcast a year ago. As this* review explains, gerrymandering is a tool that everyone in power in America has used since forever. But the Republicans really cranked up its efficiency ahead of the 2010 census.
    As I recall from the podcast, the book's author reports that independent commissions overseeing redistricting haven't been a silver bullet, in those cases where they have existed. But it's hard to see how else we'll arrive at some more equitable way of dividing up the electorate. I have a feeling that some tech/data giant like Google might be necessary to do some of the work. But it would be great if, as you suggest, church leaders in especially hard-hit, low-voter-turnout districts could serve as organizing voices to push for more equitably drawn districts.

    1. Thanks for that information. If it weren't for the racist nature of gerrymandering that has polarized our partisan politics, it wouldn't be such an endemic defect in our democracy. As it is, until our black-white racial dichotomy is diluted by more racial and ethnic pluralism--and it will be--I expect we'll have to tolerate our old-fashioned racism in partisan politics--especially in the South.