How Democrats Benefit from Republicans' Gerrymandering

With two gerrymandering cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this term, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision last week to throw out the state’s congressional map, it’s worth considering whether less gerrymandering would affect policy in the same way it affects political parties.

When you see the irregularity and arbitrariness of some congressional districts on the map, it’s hard to defend them on grounds of reason or justice. Many commentators portray Republicans as gerrymandering’s big winners: They tend to keep the seats they’ve drawn because the voters who might kick them out have been put into districts the Republicans are not going to win anyway. But don’t assume those electoral victories always boost the long-term policy platform of the Republican Party.

For instance, if you are a Democrat who is strongly pro-abortion rights, gerrymandering might be very much in your interests. That’s because the sharp polarization of today’s politics favors a lot of outcomes that are either the status quo or are easier to implement and enforce. That can favor social liberalism.

So how does gerrymandering ease the path for social liberalism? By concentrating clear majorities of Democrats in a smaller number of frequently urban districts, it ensures that virtually all Democratic representatives are strong supporters of social liberalism and abortion rights. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia often supports Republican stances on social issues, but he’s an exception. The Democratic representatives from the coastal and urban districts stand much further to the left on social issues, as their constituents demand.

You might think Democratic support for socially liberal outcomes isn’t enough, given that Republicans control the presidency, both houses of Congress, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. But here’s the thing: No matter what they may campaign on, by no means are all of those Republicans firmly committed to all of their outlined social conservative positions. Many Republican politicians will argue that abortion is morally equivalent to murder, but they don’t want to try women under the law as ordinary murderers. Such a policy would alienate voters and cost the Republicans a lot of seats. For many conservative politicians, it’s easier to criticize abortion from the safe distance of not having to enforce too many laws against it. 

Whether you like it or not, American society seems to have hit on a pretty comfortable equilibrium -- comfortable for our elected representatives that is. Democrats will strongly support liberal positions on social issues, and the Republicans will stake out more conservative positions. And Republicans will tolerate the Democrats getting their way for the most part. You can debate whether this mix is what a majority of voters want or should want, but it is the easiest outcome for us to agree upon.

I’m not suggesting that a weakening of gerrymandering would overturn all the previous victories of social liberalism, only that the current political bargain would start to unravel, with uncertain final results.

In a country with more evenly balanced voting districts, we might see more pro-life Democrats, and that split could hurt the Democratic cause. We could also see more liberal Republicans, but these splits could hurt the Democrats more, because the Democratic Party is de facto more unified in its legislative position on abortion than is the Republican Party. If the Democrats didn’t dominate their districts so clearly, you might end up seeing Democrats running on socially conservative platforms to appeal to moderates, independents and renegade Republicans, splitting their party.

A similar logic influences how the federal government treats undocumented immigrants. Speaking out against illegal immigration is very popular with Republican voters, and those voters may desire some selective deportations. But a lot of Republican representatives don’t actually want the government faced with the logistics, fiscal burden, bad press and civil-rights problems involved with forcibly deporting millions. (Not all of Trump’s advisers understand or accept that this has been the political bargain. I predict the mainstream position will re-emerge as dominant policy, one way or the other.)

Finally, being in the minority makes Democrats an intellectually and ideologically more unified group. Maybe that seems like a small consolation if Congress is passing a tax reform you don’t like, but the Republicans were in a similar position not long ago in 2009. Time in the wilderness can make a party’s ideas stronger and more coherent (not necessarily more correct). That is not in every way an outcome to be cursed.

So would further setbacks for gerrymandering be so wonderful after all? Remember the saying: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.