Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Self Gerrymandering

As I wrote in Article One almost two years ago, the first article of the United States constitution provided for the employment of generations of geographers, by stipulating that the citizenry be counted and mapped on a regular basis. The original purpose of the Census was to ensure that Congressional representatives be selected in proportion to the population of each state and district. As everyone by now knows, geographers have been employed almost since the beginning of the Republic to reverse that process: Gerrymandering allows representatives -- to some degree, at least -- to select their voters.

In recent years, the modeling of voter geography has become sufficiently sophisticated to allow incumbents to identify and select increasingly loyal groups of voters -- people who disdain Congress in general but are incredibly devoted to their individual members of that august body. The result, as most observers realize, has been an incredible polarization of the electorate, highlighting the red and blue in a country that is essentially purple (again, see my Article One post for details.

It is in this context that political journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts encourage readers to "Turn Off the Blowhards." They cite a recent and perspicacious article by David Carr, who observes that the media -- and readers/viewers -- are increasingly gerrymandered.

Twenty years ago, cartoonist Peter Steiner identified anonymity as one of the fundamental characteristics of the Internet. A related feature has been the incredible fragmentation of media that has been facilitated by the growth of the Web. It is increasingly easy -- and comfortable -- to become immersed in an echo chamber of those who will not challenge our assumptions, Gerrymandering ourselves into very small, very uniform districts of limited discourse. Anonymity allows forays into the intellectual turf of "others" to be limited to verbal volleys that range from snarky to abusive, but that do not resemble real discourse.

As the Robertses argue, the combination of polarized voting districts and polarized thinking districts is increased dysfunction, exemplified by ever more frequent paralysis. The reform of political districting is daunting and perhaps impossible; the reform of our own habits of mind, however, can start immediately.

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