ProPublica: The Anti-Politics Police

Try to imagine Lady Chatterley’s Lover written by the Anti-Sex League. If you can, you’ve grasped the basics of ProPublica’s story on California redistricting, which floats a few morsels of detail in a broth of disgust and ideological loathing that renders it worthless and misleading.

The gist of the (badly edited) ProPublica piece is that, while the Republicans who control the House of Representatives sat helplessly on the sideline, “savvy” House Democrats “fooled” a hapless and self-blinded California Citizens Redistricting Commission into drawing a congressional district map that helped some incumbent Democrats at the expense of the public interest.

I’ll refer you to others more steeped in the intricacies to see show how flimsy the ProPublica piece is in some of its particulars:

  1. As Paul Mitchell, a Democratic redistricting guru, notes, it’s “ludicrous” to believe that incumbents and parties wouldn’t take an active role in trying to influence the outcome. (If Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans really ignored the redistricting of the largest state, ProPublica has missed the story here—one of the greatest acts of political malpractice in American history.)
  2. If the Democrats “fooled” the commission, as Robert Cruickshank and Calbuzz write, they did it in the odd way of throwing Democratic incumbents into districts with each other. And ProPublica reaches its conclusion that Democrats achieved unnatural gains by simply ignoring the evidence and analysis it received from political scientists Vladimir Kogan and Eric McGhee, who found that the commission maps yield the expected amount of competition.
  3. The law creating the commission forbids it from considering the place of residence of any incumbent or drawing maps to help or hurt any party. As John Myers of KQED points out, had the commission done what ProPublica criticizes it for not doing—looking at the partisan effect of its maps—the commissioners would have been criticized too. Damned if they don’t, damned if they do. (I’ll go one step beyond John here. They would not only have been criticized—they would have been criticized by these very same ProPublica reporters, who would have taken the commission’s knowledge of the political consequences of their maps as evidence the commission was in cahoots with the Democrats. The first rule of journalism written from the anti-partisan, anti-political perspective is that the person in the public sphere must always be wrong.)

What interests and appalls me most is the craziness of that perspective—that you can have politics without politics. It pervades the story and explains why it has the elements and all of the subtlety of an old-fashioned melodrama of virtue debauched: wily seducer slips by inept chaperone to ravage the unprotected virgin.

The ProPublica reporters go to great lengths to tell us the villains plotted their debauchery in “secret.” (As opposed to all the times that political or business operators conduct their strategy discussion in public?)

They tell us that Democrats slipped by the commission’s defenses to testify at hearings in the guise of “ordinary citizens.” Such language betrays how deeply ideological is the reporters’ anti-partisan view. The most ordinary and common activity of a citizen in a democracy is to advance his or her partisan political identity by organizing, arguing, contributing, or voting. Yet to ProPublica, that activity is less legitimate than that of the economic and ethnic groups that went before the commission to plead for narrower and more selfish interests.

They tell us how the seducers inveigled the virgins with the sweet words of “communities of interest” that they wanted to hear, when all the seducers really wanted was to get into the commission’s maps.

If the ProPublica reporters had approached the story without anti-partisan ideological blinders, they might have seen the meaning and irony of this. After all, political parties are the largest and most pervasive “communities of interest” in our politics. But the law creating the commission, written from the same anti-politics, anti-partisan ideology that blinds ProPublica, explicitly prohibits treating parties as such. So California was trying a grand experiment: What happens when you piss into the wind?

We can see pieces of the answer to that question in ProPublica’s story. Politics doesn’t go away. Parties and incumbents adapt and jostle for advantage as they always have. Though the law tries to elevate other redistricting criteria over party, the thing that continues to matter most in public discussion—to activists, voters, and journalists, including ProPublica—is how redistricting affects partisan balance and the careers of incumbents.

But someday we’ll get the fuller answer, told by someone competent, who both understands and doesn’t hate politics. In other words, someone other than ProPublica.