Why “Reform” Makes Problems Worse: A Case Study

There’s an old saying that goes something like “scoundrels vastly underestimate the cynical possibilities of ‘reform,’” and my own social-sciency version of this is the equation P+R=2P, where P is the Problem and R is the Reform to solve the problem, but which makes the problem twice as bad.  And yes, elementary algebra shows that Reform is a Problem itself.  (See how easy modern academic political science is?  You think I joke?  Look up just about any article in the American Political Science Review, and it will begin with an equation, often to prove something trivial or obvious.)

Anyway, the ways in which reform backfires come to mind in connection with a story making big waves this week from ProPublica, a lefty “investigative journalism” website for the most part, that blows the lid off how Democrats manipulated the “reformed” redistricting process in California.

Background: In 2008 voters passed an initiative that put redistricting in the hands of a supposedly bipartisan “citizen commission,” so as to eliminate or reduce the partisan gerrymandering that badly distorts political outcomes in the Golden State.  It really is a farce when politicians get to choose their voters, instead of the other way around.  Over the last several decades Democrats have generally run the table on California gerrymandering.  The only exception was in the 1990s when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson was able to veto the legislature’s gerrymander, and throw the process to a panel of “special masters” drawn from retired judges, who drew compact districts (state Senate districts contained two nestled Assembly districts, for example) that were more competitive in many cases.  Republicans did better in the 1990s (including one term with a majority in the Assembly) and there were several more moderate Democrats from a few districts.

Not surprisingly, Democrats fiercely opposed the 2008 initiative.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rounded up more than $8 million to beat it, but it passed anyway.  However, the new commission was cynical reformers’ dream, in that it called for lots of “public participation” and other nonsense geared to favor the most politically mobilized, which would be . . . Democrats.  So the Democratic House delegation is likely to go from 33 seats to 38 seats under the new maps.  ProPublica tells how it happened in “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission”:

The question facing House Democrats as they met to contemplate the state’s new realities was delicate: How could they influence an avowedly nonpartisan process? Alexis Marks, a House aide who invited members to the meeting, warned the representatives that secrecy was paramount. “Never say anything AT ALL about redistricting — no speculation, no predictions, NOTHING,” Marks wrote in an email. “Anything can come back to haunt you.”

In the weeks that followed, party leaders came up with a plan. Working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — a national arm of the party that provides money and support to Democratic candidates — members were told to begin “strategizing about potential future district lines,” according to another email.

The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests.

When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento.

In one instance, party operatives invented a local group to advocate for the Democrats’ map.

California’s Democratic representatives got much of what they wanted from the 2010 redistricting cycle, especially in the northern part of the state. “Every member of the Northern California Democratic Caucus has a ticket back to DC,” said one enthusiastic memo written as the process was winding down. “This is a huge accomplishment that should be celebrated by advocates throughout the region.”

Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.

“Very little of this is due to demographic shifts,” said Professor Doug Johnson at the Rose Institute in Los Angeles. Republican areas actually had higher growth than Democratic ones. “By the numbers, Republicans should have held at least the same number of seats, but they lost.”

There’s a lot more in the full story, but here it is worth pausing to reflect on a basic fact of political life: Democrats are just better at this sort of thing than Republicans, and for a very understandable reason: when you see government as a primary avenue of ambition, and moreover when government is the primary source of your livelihood, you are much more motivated to organize and show up than is a person or group of people who don’t depend on government for their way of life.

One of my favorite books that bears on this question is Alan Ehrenhalt’s The United States of Ambition, published more than 20 years ago.  While the book is about political ambition generally, Ehrenhalt spends a lot of time exploring the question of why Democrats often dominate politics even in suburban districts and areas where Republicans ought to dominate it by virtue of their larger numbers or general culture.  (The classic case of this was Irvine, California, in the early 1990s, where a deep red Republican town elected the socialist Larry Agran as its mayor.) He concludes simply that Democrats work harder at it, and goes part of the way to my explanation about the substantive differences between Democrats—the party of government—and Republicans—the party of the private sector.

This is one reason why I was never very enthusiastic about term limits, even though I usually voted for them simply for the splendid insult they deliver to the political class.  Democrats have an endless bench of smart and ambitious people ready to move up the ranks.  Republicans, not so much.

I don’t have a good solution for this, except for getting a bigger typeface on my bumper sticker that reads “SMASH THE STATE.”