10/07/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Mr. Jerry Mander: Arch-Villain or Innocent Bystander?

I'm beginning to see -- thankfully -- more ink (bytes?) devoted to the critical study of dysfunctionology: the anatomy of how we got into this political mess we're in and how to get out (see here for example from just this morning, and here for Dean Baker's rebuttal).

As I've noted in recent posts, one of the problems we're facing now is the inability of the House Republican leadership to mete out effective discipline on the Tea Party, or, if you will, the "shutdown caucus." And one reason for that -- not the only reason, maybe not even the biggest -- is gerrymandering: the creation of districts that are so safe, a member is insulated from external pressure.

Here are some numbers from various sources that explain the extent of the problem:

-- in the 1995-96 shutdown, 79 House Republican were from districts won by President Clinton in 1992; in this shutdown, only 17 House Republicans are from districts won by President Obama in 2012.

-- Obama beat Romney by four percentage points nationally; in the shutdown-caucus districts, Romney beat Obama by an average 23 percentage points.

-- Between 2000 and 2010, the country became considerably more racially diverse. Yet after redistricting, the average Republican district is getting less diverse (i.e., whiter).

-- The caucus that is controlling the government, and threatening to deliver a body blow to the global economy through debt default, is especially non-reflective of racial and ethnic change: the average House district is 63 percent white; for the shutdown caucus, it's 75 percent white; Latinos are nine percent of shutdown districts, but 17 percent overall (see here for a useful analysis of the shutdown caucus).

It should be noted that some political scientists disagree that gerrymandering is much of a problem, and they've got two general reasons why not. First, they note that the Senate -- not elected by districts -- ain't exactly so functional either. But that's too broad a condemnation. Even after the recent bloviations of Sen Cruz, 25 Senate Republicans just voted for a clean CR (the budget patch that would re-open the government). So sure, the Senate is no model of compromise, but in this critical case they've shown that they won't follow the Tea Party in lockstep.

Second, and here the critics of the gerrymandering explanation have a strong point, there just aren't that many competitive districts. We're just so damn polarized now that almost no matter how you drew the districts you'd end up in similar straits.

But again, I think that critique is too broad. Yes, we're deeply polarized and that, more than gerrymandering, may explain why we're unable to effectively attack critical problems, like climate change, inequality, middle-class income stagnation, high unemployment, and more. But polls repeatedly show that by large margins most Americans want the shutdown to end. I'd wager that if you could analyze those poll results from shutdown-caucus districts you'd find a different result (here's what I mean).

So yeah, we're a lot more polarized than in the past, and that's making compromise a lot tougher in general. But the gerrymandered districts are hyper-polarized -- they exist in a particularly thick political and demographic bubble -- such that if it weren't for them, we might well not be in the particularly deep mess we're in today.

Why the increase in gerrymandering (note: a key technique in dysfunctionology is always peeling the onion back one more layer)? Clearly, the sharp partisan results in state legislatures in the 2010 election is one explanation (every year that ends in a zero calls forth a decennial census which triggers redistricting by state legislatures). Also, legal scholars tell me courts have been increasingly lax in prosecuting the issue.

What to do about it is, predictably, a huge challenge. The foxes guarding the henhouse tend to be reluctant to upgrade the security system. Independent commissions could be helpful, and California has gone that route. As Jon Terbush reports: "Unsurprisingly, studies have found that commission-drawn maps lead to more competitive districts." But he also notes that Democrats allegedly stacked the CA commission, so this isn't a silver bullet either.

I'm sure most of us will breathe a big sigh of relief when the shutdown ends and even more so -- we'll hyperventilate with relief -- if we avoid default. But even if we get clean bills, the chances that we're back here again way too soon are way too high. So I encourage all of us thinking and working on this to quickly get PhD's in dysfunctionology. We quite desperately need to get back to a politics that tries to solve big problems, not cause them.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.

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