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.

GOP Mourns the Loss of a Good Thing

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Harold Meyerson reminds Republicans, cheekily but correctly, that they have no reason to complain about the congressional districts drawn by California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission. The Republicans did this to themselves.

You can read Meyerson to get the story. But I’ll just note one thing he leaves out. The House districts were inevitably going to come out worse for Republicans in a 2011 redistricting. Why? Because Jim Brulte, state senate minority leader during the 2001 redistricting, dutifully following the lead of Karl Rove and the Bush White House, put a priority in last decade’s bipartisan gerrymander on protecting GOP seats in the House. As Peter Schrag reported then, the combination of Brulte’s savvy and Gray Davis’ indifference gave Republicans more safe seats in the House than most experts expected going into the process.

If Republicans are unhappy with the commission’s House district, it’s at least in part because they have forgotten what a good thing Brulte gave them in 2001.

Redistricting: Did the Earth Move for You?

As we point out in California Crackup and as political scientist Jennifer A. Steen lucidly explains at Zócalo Public Square, redistricting reform had the heartbreak built in. Given how Californians have sorted themselves into communities of the like-minded and given the requirements of law, the best we can hope is that the Citizens Redistricting Commission created in 2008 by Prop 11 will produce a handful of competitive legislative districts.

And that is just what it has delivered in its draft maps. The open question is: How big is a handful?

Phillip Reese of the Sacramento Bee projects the new maps would increase the number of legislative swing districts from 3 to 7 (out of 120). Political scientist Vladimir Kogan estimates the maps will increase the number of “competitive” seats from 9 to 20. Democrat activist and writer David Dayen scorches PPIC political scientist Eric McGee for counting as competitive any district where Democrats’ voter registration advantage over Republicans is less than 10 percentage points but greater than -5 points. Using that standard, McGee projects the number of competitive legislative seats as growing from 12 to 25.

The problem here is that the word “competitive” means different things to different people.

To political scientists, a “competitive” district is one that has attributes like those of districts that have been observed in the past to swing from one party to another. The attribute Kogan uses—”a 0% to 3% Republican advantage in voter registration or a 0% to 10% Democratic advantage”—is one created at UC Berkeley because it was the range in which districts were most likely in the 1990s to swing from one party to the other.

And if you look at elections conducted over the last decade under the 2001 redistricting, what was true in 1990s was still true: every election that resulted in a party turnover fell into that range of voter registration. All seven of them.

To normal people who don’t talk PolySci, “competitive” means something more.

Here again, a look at the Assembly elections of the last decade (Senate and House elections had so little competition they aren’t worth remembering) is useful. After the 2001 redistricting, there were six Assembly seats meeting the test of competitiveness that Kogan uses. Of the 30 subsequent general elections held in those districts, only 11 were “competitive” in the sense that both major parties offered credible candidates backed with enough money to reach voters. Only two of those elections resulted in swings from one party to the other.

In other words, to be “competitive” in the normal-people sense of the word, a district needs not just to be the kind of place where real elections have sometimes been observed to break out. It needs to be a place where strong candidates are ready to jump in and big-money donors and groups are ready to invest scarce dollars. And to be a swing district, it’s almost always necessary that there not be an incumbent. Of the 400 Assembly general elections conducted under the 2001 districts, only six resulted in a party turnover and none of those unseated an incumbent.

So how big is a handful? Big enough that we will see additional “competitive” elections in the coming decade, in both the PolySci and normal senses of the word. But only because there couldn’t be fewer. And so small a handful that Californians will feel no happier with their legislature or their ability to influence California’s future.

Budget and Redistricting: If They Had a Hammer

Kevin Yamamura and Jim Sanders have a story over at the Sacramento Bee that says Democrats are hoping that the maps to be released by the redistricting commission will free up some Republicans votes for a budget deal.

The story is remarkably thin. Yamamura and Sanders don’t quote a single Democrat as expressing such hopes. They do quote several people, all of them reasonably smart, as suggesting the release of the redistricting maps will have no effect or even the opposite effect. (Alas, the Capitol bureau of my old paper is well known for not letting complicating evidence get in the way of a good story angle or the conventional wisdom.) 

But what’s most remarkable about the story is that it fails to tell readers the big news this year about redistricting and the budget: that California voter approval in 2008 and 2010 of initiatives that removed the redistricting power from the Legislature and governor and handed it to a citizens commission has robbed leaders in the Capitol of a powerful tool for reaching budget agreement.

If voters had not passed the measure, Democrats would not be “hoping” that somebody else’s redistricting maps will change budget votes. It seems reasonably certain that they would be brandishing their redistricting power as a carrot and/or stick against recalcitrant legislators.

So far, Democratic attempts to leverage Republicans to vote for the budget have come to naught. Rounding up business support; threatening to concentrate spending cuts in GOP districts; scaring business by proposing to expand the taxing power of local governments: no tactic has worked.

But redistricting would have been a much bigger cudgel. The redistricting power touches on something Republicans care about even more than taxes: their own skins, and their party’s hold on the U.S. House of Representatives. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders might have used control over the shape of districts to win over enough votes to break the minority veto on the 2011-12 budget.

Instead, because voters listened to the siren call of “good government” “reformers” who believe that democracy can be improved by taking the politics out of politics, the state’s elected leaders this year have one tool fewer for rounding up a budget consensus. If the result is even deeper cuts in higher education and schools, the goo-goos will have a lot to answer for.