Sunday, January 20, 2013

Undermining Representative Government

Michael Tomasky's latest article for The New York Review of Books, "Obama's Big and Quiet Transformation," is ostensibly about how much Barack Obama managed to accomplish during his first term in office in spite of the many efforts to undermine his every move. The most important part of the article, however, is his discussion of why his opposition had so much power in the face of the definitive majority that put Obama in office. That analysis all boils down to one word: gerrymandering. Through the redrawing of the boundaries of Congressional Districts, Republicans with the power to do so managed to create a House of Representatives whose demographics in no way represents those of the United States. In other words opposition to Obama was empowered by those who could use their authority to undermine the very principles of representation found in our Constitution.

To be fair, this practice is pretty much as old as the Constitution itself. Indeed, the word itself comes from the name of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry managed to change the boundary of a state senate district in Massachusetts into a bizarre shape. When someone joked that the shape resembled a salamander, some wit replied that it was a "Gerry-mander;" and so the word was born.

I have written in the past about the extent to which the phrase "elected representative" has become a prime example of Max Weber's forecast of "loss of meaning" in a society that places the priorities of the market about all others. It is, so say the least, ironic that the model for such loss of meaning is the House of Representatives itself. In the face of that irony, Tomasky's punch line about Obama have to shift from comprise to combat during his second term takes on particularly relevant meaning.

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