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It’s well-treaded advice that would-be leaders should listen to everyone, especially the people they disagree with. “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people,” advised President Woodrow Wilson.
But where can our leaders in Congress go today to listen to the people who don’t agree with them?
Many lawmakers certainly can’t look to their own district.
Thanks in part to the redistricting process known as gerrymandering — where political boundaries are drawn in such a way as to almost guarantee a win for one side or the other come election time — the United States has more ideologically pure districts than at any other time in its history.
In 1995 — no time of political harmony mind you — there was still such a thing as a Southern Democrat, and 79 House Republicans came from districts that President Clinton carried. Today, Southern Democrats are practically nonexistent in Congress, and The Associated Press reports that just 13 House Republicans come from districts that President Obama carried.
We have, in a very real sense, segregated ourselves.
It’s unhealthy, it’s dangerous, and it’s helped lead us into the national embarrassment that is the federal shutdown.
Consider the feedback loop these ideologically pure districts enter into:
• The districts elect more people with extreme points of view than a “mixed” district would.
• Those people primarily talk to other people who share their point of view.
• Come election time, they are rewarded for not compromising.
• Meanwhile, elected moderates feel pressure from home not to compromise.
Here in Southeast Alaska, we’re pretty lucky. We don’t have to deal with the gerrymandering issue when it comes to representation in Congress. That’s the bright side of districts that take up the entire state. Yet we can understand that our primary races produce Joe Millers, and our elections produce Lisa Murkowskis. That’s two pretty divergent views of government, depending upon the voting audience. We are not going to tell you which view is better at this juncture, but if half the people are in Congress because they “out-lefted” their opponents and the other half is in Congress because they “out-righted” their opponents, it stands to reason that we are going to have gridlock.
All of which is to say we might have to get used to the shutdown for a bit longer. Averaged as a whole, Americans yearn for the middle road. Yet Americans voters have been segregated in such a way that lawmakers often hear one point of view or the other. For many, there is no pressure to end the shutdown, and a lot of pressure to extract some political gain out of it.
Here in Ketchikan, we have our share of furloughed workers and halted services. Our problems range from the comical (need to go to the bathroom at Ward Lake? Tough luck, the outhouse has been shuttered) to the serious (civilians who help maintain Coast Guard vessels? Furloughed.)
Nationally, putting hundreds of thousands of workers out of work, even temporarily, hurts the economy. The government also faces a potential brain drain, as fed-up feds might look for a more secure line of work. Internationally — and this is putting it mildly — America looks weak.
The people in D.C. certainly deserve blame. But they got to D.C. for a reason. Decisions have consequences — sometimes unintended consequences. So while clever redistricting might have seemed like a great way to keep “the good guys” in power, what it’s left us with is a mess.