The other day, I took a coffee meeting with a woman who has decided recently to become involved in social activism. She had previously been unengaged politically, but the recent election has galvanized her into action. Specifically, she was deeply concerned about President-elect Trump’s appointment of Steven K. Bannon as Chief White House Strategist, and wanted to do something about it.
Bannon, as most of us now well know, ran Breitbart before joining the Trump campaign, a website that Bannon had described as “the platform for the alt-right.” “Alt-right” is a clever rebranding of the misogynist white ethnic nationalist fringe of the American right, and the woman with whom I met argued that a man responsible for giving a megaphone to people with such views, even if he does not believe them personally, has no business in polite society, much less in the White House.
In full disclosure, I share her view. I greatly fear what it will mean for our country - and in particular, for anyone who is not white and male - to empower such an ideology. So, sympathetic to her beliefs and eager to join together in common cause, I asked her what she hoped to do about it. Her plan was to pressure her Congressman to issue a statement denouncing Bannon and calling on the President-elect to rescind the appointment.
Unfortunately, her plan is a fool’s errand. Why? Because she lives in Virginia’s 7th congressional district, a district that has historically been safely Republican and will likely continue to be despite a recent court ruling that caused it to be partially redrawn. Simply put, her representative, Dave Brat, can ignore her concerns, as well as those of people like her, without fear of reprisal. He doesn’t need her vote. Since his district has a reliably solid Republican majority, he can — and generally speaking, will — lose the vote of every Democratic-leaning constituent and still sail to reelection. Indeed, he is more likely to fear losing in a primary election to a more conservative Republican challenger than losing in a general election battle against a Democrat. As it turns out, that is precisely how Brat was elected in the first place. In 2014, Brat, an insurgent, Tea Party-supported candidate, upset longtime Republican Congressman (and party leader, to boot) Eric Cantor.
This means a Congressman like Brat, in a district like Virginia’s 7th, has little incentive to cater to the needs of his more liberal constituents or to forge compromises that will satisfy voters across the political spectrum, and every incentive to please his more conservative ones. Thus, a liberal constituent in such a district is effectively disenfranchised; neither her voice nor her vote matters.
I wish I could say that this situation was rare. However, according to recent studies, over 90% of Congressional seats are considered “safe,” and only 36 of 435 districts are actually competitive. As such, the problem described above is bipartisan. Say you’re a conservative who lives in New York’s 15th district, located in the Bronx, generally considered to be the most Democratic-leaning district in the country, and you want your Congressman, Jose Serrano, to vote against gun control legislation or to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Is there any doubt that your appeal would fall on deaf ears, if it was even entertained at all?
Congressional Districts are drawn by people, not ordained from on high. In general, they are supposed to be geographically contiguous and comprised of equally-sized populations. Furthermore, it is largely illegal to draw districts in a way that packs people of a particular race or ethnicity into or out of their boundaries.
There is no way to avoid the fact that, sometimes, Congressional Districts will naturally consist of relatively homogenous groups of people. But the lack of competitive seats in today’s U.S. House of Representatives is not due not to natural causes. Rather, it’s a product of political gerrymandering. Politicians, who by law have the authority to draw district lines in many states, have in recent years taken to drawing political opponents out of their districts, packing them with just enough like-minded voters to ensure comfortable re-elections each cycle.
Political gerrymandering is a threat to American democracy. A democratic system lives or dies based on politicians competing for votes. A republic requires representatives to be accountable to the diverse people they represent. When Congressional Districts are gerrymandered, politicians no longer have to compete in a marketplace that rewards the most compelling ideas, and they are incentivized to deliberately ignore parts of their own constituencies. Gridlock and dysfunction inevitably result from politicians being accountable to party loyalists rather than the people they represent.
Jewish Americans should be especially concerned about this issue because it is immoral by our tradition’s standards. Gerrymandering makes it such that some people matter less than others, or not at all (Democrats in majority-Republican districts, Republicans in majority-Democratic districts, etc.). Our tradition, however, insists that every human being is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Additionally, the Bible asserts that all human beings can trace their ancestry to one parent, Adam, a teaching that the rabbinic tradition understood to mean that we all have equal value (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). From the fundamental Jewish principle of human equality flows the command “You shall have one law” (Leviticus 24:22), that all people should have equal status, privilege, and protection under the law. By effectively saying that some people are worth less than others and taking the vote away from them, gerrymandering is an assault on these bedrock Jewish values.
Furthermore, Jewish ethics dictate that leaders must be concerned about and responsive to the will of their constituents. When, for example, Pharaoh ignores the cries of the oppressed Israelites (see, for example, Exodus 5:17-18), God responds by sending ten plagues, devastating Egypt, and liberating the Israelite slaves. Moses, too, is severely punished for lashing out thirsty Israelites rather than providing them water (Numbers 20:1-13). Even God, according to rabbinic tradition, governs through popular assent (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a). Our tradition guides us to insist on a political system and leaders who feel beholden to the needs and concerns expressed by the governed, and issues warning after warning of the inevitable consequences that ensue when officials cease to care about what their constituents have to say.
This moment of American history beckons for American Jews to heed those admonitions, which we can do through the bipartisan fight to end gerrymandering through reforming our states’ redistricting policies. Only then will we have a government that truly works for us, and a society that reflects the equal human value we all possess.