Communication Currents

Unintended Consequences of Communication Transparency and the Redistricting Process

August 1, 2011
Political Communication

Six months ago, our nation came together and recognized that we have more in common with each other than not. The shocking January 8, 2011, shootings of 19 people, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona during an outreach event provoked contentions that uncivil discourse had contributed, if not caused, the tragedy. While well over half of citizens did not feel that the harsh political tone had anything to do with the shootings, the incident provided an opportunity for Americans to reflect on our commonalities. Whether Republican, Democrat, or something else, we cherish freedom of speech and abhor acts of violence against our fellow citizens. As President Barack Obama said in a speech delivered at the memorial service held in Tucson five days later, “Let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.” 

Currently, Obama’s profound words seem lost in a sea of political ire, despite widespread calls for civility in the months immediately following the shootings. In April, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a national, non-partisan center for the study and promotion of civility in political life, was established at the University of Arizona with an impressive national board behind it, including former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Citizens favor civility in theory. In practice, they tend to suffer from temporary amnesia when uncivil remarks are uttered from their side.

The recent debt ceiling talks between President Obama and congressional leaders illustrate the challenge of civility in practice. On July 13, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that a “huge financial calamity” would occur if the President and the Republicans could not reach a deal that would allow the federal debt ceiling to be increased. Despite high stakes, both sides have displayed hubris by grandstanding and posturing.  In June, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walked out of negotiations with Vice President Joseph Biden, which some claim was a staged event. A couple of weeks later, it was President Obama who left the table early, stating “Don’t call my bluff, I’m going to take this to the American people.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, was quick to defend the president and maintain that Cantor did not deserve a seat at the table.

One might of course question why civility is sought and believed to matter for the functioning of government. Civility is an indicant of the extent to which people respect others with whom they may disagree and respect the process in which another side is given an opportunity to express its opinions. American government was not designed for consensus building per se, but it was designed for compromise. Civility does not solve problems, but it provides the road for reaching solutions. If respect for the process and acknowledgment of the rights of others to be a part of that process are not present, a productive dialogue between parties will not happen and decisions, such as how to handle the issue of our national debt, will not be reached.

Two features of the contemporary political environment exacerbate the challenge of maintaining civility in political dialogue among political elites: transparency and the congressional redistricting process.  While transparency is considered an ideal when it comes to good governance, the deliberative process between political elites is affected by the lack of private space where options can be discussed without concerns about immediate public sanctions over “potential” ideas, let alone actual voting records. With continuous surveillance over every word uttered, the options and tradeoffs that should be considered when faced with a potential crisis are constrained. 

While C-SPAN has provided a window into the world of Congress, it has also altered how politicians talk to each other as this window provides a grandstanding opportunity that they did not have before. Members of Congress are frequently tempted to address the television audience and not one another. In life, people make mistakes and they often apologize for them. With cameras recording nearly every political interaction, mistakes are not easily forgotten, preventing politicians from moving forward. This constraint of transparency is magnified by the reality that congressional representatives often come from relatively non-competitive voting districts where they are beholden to perspectives from one side of the ideological spectrum, hampering their likelihood of considering options and compromising on their initial positions. 

What this means for people hearing these highly charged political interactions is that politics does not appear to be a place of productive decision making. Elite discourse does not mirror the types of conversation that everyday citizens often have to get through their daily lives, where compromise is key in the work place and in the family. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that citizens who pay attention to the political process often feel like mere spectators rather than actors and many citizens simply tune out altogether.

The U.S. Constitution directs that every 10 years a census be taken to gauge the distribution of the population among the states. This information determines how representation in the U.S. House of Representatives should be allocated between the states.  As populations grow in some areas and do not grow or grow as fast as others, the number of house seats is reallocated, which leads to changes in the boundaries of congressional districts. While this technical detail of our governmental process may seem mundane, it changes the rules by which campaigns are guided.  Redistricting, in short, changes the playing field of politics. It changes how states communicate their preferences in Congress, and it changes how political players interact with their constituents.

The means of determining how the congressional district boundaries are drawn varies from state to state. Many states leave the decisions up to the state legislatures, which means that incumbents have the ability to influence how political lines are drawn, keeping them in power by creating “safe” districts. Other states have independent commissions determine the boundary lines.  Districts are supposed to be geographical contiguous and not allowed to be gerrymandered, meaning that lines are not supposed to be drawn purely for someone’s political advantage. States are also under a mandate from the Supreme Court to create majority-minority districts, which refers to districts where the majority of constituents are from a racial or ethnic minority group when there is a concentration of minorities in a given area. Few states have rules that require districts to be drawn competitively. For those states where competitive districts are a goal, the ideals of competitive districts and minority-protected districts are often in conflict, which creates the “safe” district scenarios that incumbents from both parties ultimately prefer. The lack of competitive districts has contributed to the lack of civility seen today in American politics. 

While elected officials are supposed to think about both the good of the nation and the good of their districts, sometimes, these goods are not always one and the same. Increased polarization at the elite level is a side effect of safe districting. Such polarization makes it more likely that politicians will posture, focusing specifically on the good of their districts, and consequently be less likely to compromise. Politicians may justify these moments of posturing by rationalizing that they will not be able to work for the greater good if they are not re-elected. Short-term re-election is prioritized over deliberation and compromise. Tough choices get delayed ad nauseum until the country reaches the point of desperation (hence the debt ceiling issues we have today). 

Although the redistricting issue has profound consequences in how politicians think about choices and compromise, it is an issue that receives little attention by the media. Formal structure could improve our conversations in an environment of transparency by making congressional districts competitive. It would result in political conversation targeted toward the middle ground where cooperation matters more. In an environment where the middle of the political spectrum matters, there is less incentive for politicians to cater to the extremes through vitriolic rhetoric because there are potentially negative consequences for doing so. When politicians need moderate voters to win, they risk alienating the center through unreasonable attacks, which may be palatable to extreme members of their base but may not be tolerated by others.

As redistricting plans are released in the upcoming months and public meetings are held about them, citizens will have an opportunity to provide feedback to those guiding this process which has profound consequences for campaigns and governance. Although the news media often do not cover this issue in detail, those wanting to make a difference need  to make their voices heard – be it by writing letters to those involved in redistricting, emails to relevant blogs and websites, or attending public meetings. And when citizens make their voices heard, perhaps for a moment, they will not think of themselves as partisans first but as Americans wanting a fair and competitive process.

Our nation can sustain itself under the current structure of incumbent protections and polarized rhetoric. Whether it will continue to be a great nation, however, may be jeopardized if we do not rethink the importance of compromise and civility’s role in facilitating such compromise. If one believes that form follows function, we need to consider the role the redistricting plays as a function that changes how politicians talk with one another and with their constituents.

About the author (s)

Kate Kenski

University of Arizona

Assistant Professor