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Pennsylvania offers a reminder: If we get polarized enough, things fall apart

Pennsylvania
National Atlas of the United States
A map of Pennsylvania's congressional districts.

Maybe, probably, I’m too alarmist. I do see a steady stream of indications that our system of politics and government is breaking down. Maybe that’s too strong, but here’s a recent case to ponder.

A Pennsylvania legislator named Cris Dush is circulating to his Republican colleagues a petition that, if successful, would lead to impeachment charges against the majority of the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Because why? Because they made a ruling with which he disagrees.

In a 5-2 ruling, based on provisions in the Pennsylvania Constitution that they are sworn to uphold, the Pennsylvania justices have invalidated the extremely gerrymandered map dividing the state into congressional districts.

A slightly blue lean

Pennsylvania is a purple state that has a slightly blue lean. True, Donald Trump carried it in 2016, but only by 48.2 to 47.5 percent. Republicans control the Legislature but the governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat, who won in 2014 by a convincing 55-45 percent margin, over his predecessor, a Republican. The U.S. senators are one from each major party. Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by 10 points in 2008 and by five in 2012. That’s my case for purple but leaning slightly blue.

But because Republicans controlled both the Legislature and the governor’s mansion in 2011 — the last time the congressional district map was redrawn — Pennsylvania’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives is currently 13 Republicans and just five Democrats.

The modern tools of computerization and the current shamelessness with respect to gerrymandering in some states, make that kind of thing possible when one party has control and is willing to be shamelessly partisan.

If that control is Republican, as it was in Pennsylvania in 2011, you just draw whatever crazy shapes you need to pack as many Democrats as you can into as few districts as you can, leaving the rest of the state to be divided into whatever shapes will enable Republicans to win without “wasting” too many votes.

Of the five Democrats who won House elections in 2016, four of them received more than 80 percent of the vote. Three of them exceeded 90. The key is to torture the map so most of the Democratic acreage is tucked and twisted into as few districts as possible.

But of the 13 districts that were carried by Republicans, five of the winners took 50-some percent of the vote, and five took 60-some. Get it? That’s how computer-assisted gerrymandering works, but it leads to some pretty weirdly shaped districts.

'Goofy kicking Donald Duck'

The New York Times wrote: “Pennsylvania is considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, with congressional districts twisted into fanciful shapes, including one that has been described as looking like ‘Goofy kicking Donald Duck.’”

Here’s what that Goofy district looks like.

And, I should note, Republicans have won all 13 of the congressional districts that were designed for them to win in all three elections since the map took effect in 2012. That’s 72 percent of the seats for Republicans in a state in which the Republican gubernatorial candidate received 45 percent of the vote.

So the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (which, I should note, currently consists of five Democrats and two Republicans) recently ruled (and the vote broke down on party lines) that the map should be thrown out and replaced by a new, fairer one that will take effect right away, in time for the 2020 elections.

Republicans appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and asked that its effect be stayed pending the appeal (so the old map with the goofy district would remain in place while the case worked its way up to the Supremes).

But (in part because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling was based on the state Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court likes to defer to state Supreme Courts on matter of their own state constitutional law), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (a Republican appointee, I should note) refused to strike down the Pennsylvania court’s ruling or issue a stay on its application.

And, bear in mind, as I mentioned above, although the Pennsylvania Legislature is still controlled by Republicans, the current governor is a Democrat, who has veto power over the map. So the new map will have to be a lot less partisan to become law. There are some estimates that a fairer map might flip three or four red seats to blue.

Deadline to redraw: Friday

Alito’s action left  in place a deadline of this Friday (!!!) for the legislature to draw a new, fairer, less-gerrymandered new map so candidates for the 2018 congressional elections can get organized. Primaries for all those races in U.S. House districts that currently don’t exist are scheduled for May 15! The Pennsylvania high court is prepared to impose its own map if the Legislature won’t do it in time.

 (If you are not a regular Black Ink reader, I should note that this story has many elements in common with something that happened in Minnesota in 1931-32. The Republican Legislature and the Farmer-Labor governor didn’t agree on a new map of congressional districts, and Minnesota ended up electing all of its U.S. House members in a statewide at-large election with no districts at all.)

I said at the top that I worry about our system breaking down. The situation in Pennsylvania suggests a worrisome breakdown of normal levels of bipartisan compromise. But that’s a trend that’s been building for many years in many ways in many places.

Dush's hoped-for solution

As I also mentioned at the top, the bit about a systemic breakdown focuses on a particular member of the Pennsylvania House named Cris Dush. He may be of no importance. I don’t know if his big idea of how to deal with this situation will get anywhere. But when I read about it how Dush wants to handle the problem, it set me off on this post to warn against hyper-partisanship and a political war that will seek, find and exploit the soft spots in our system.

As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dush’s response to the crisis is to start circulating a petition to Republican legislators to start impeachment proceedings against all of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of the ruling to invalidate the existing district map.

I have no idea whether he will get far with this. I suppose the legislature has the power to impeach and remove state Supreme Court justices. But you would expect such an action to be for some high crimes more serious than making a ruling that the party controlling the Legislature dislikes.

The Inquirer said of Dush’s impeachment plan:

It’s unclear exactly how far that attempt will go. Dush said he expects to introduce legislation that will move quickly through committee. But House Majority Leader Dave Reed said Republican leaders in the House had not yet discussed the effort.

In 1987, for the bicentennial of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, scholar Michael Kammen wrote a highly regarded book about the Constitution called “A Machine that Would Go of Itself,” referring to a belief by some (not necessarily Kammen) that the fabled “checks and balances” of the Constitution were so cleverly designed that they virtually guaranteed success to the American experiment with self-government.

Yes, impeachment was among those famous checks and balances. Some Democrats are hoping to see the current occupant of the White House impeached and removed, although I don’t take that seriously, especially since it would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict and remove a president.

Nor do I take Dush’s impeachment scheme seriously, except as a reminder that if we get polarized enough, things fall apart.

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Comments (44)

I agree that things are

I agree that things are breaking down, but it inevitable when you pack too many individuals together.

Splitting the country is not the worse thing that could happen, in my opinion, especially if it was an amicable split that retained elements of mutual protection and commerce.

We had a war about that

.... some people are still fighting it.
If you want more recent examples, see the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

We did have a war about that.

We did have a war about that. It was preceded by things like the Nullification Act, wherein a state declared themselves a Sanctuary from federal law.

Sound familiar?

As I say, if we're gonna repeat history, I hope we can do so peacefully this time.

Well, we're not going to repeat history.

A certain segment of people are going to have to come to grips with the fact that America is filled with people of different ethnicities and religions who have just as much right to live their lives without fear of reprisal. It's 2018 for chrissake...

Learn Your History

There was no "Nullification Act."

The nullification crisis was a good 30 years before the Civil War. That war was prompted by the idea of some states that they could secede from the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery (or, if you prefer, the rights of states to allow certain people to own other human beings as chattel). Secession was not about defying or breaking a law, it was about preserving something that was already legal and protected by law.

You are also under a misapprehension about sanctuary cities.

Huh. I was under the

Huh. I was under the impression the 30 years or 5 years or 1 year before any incident could be referred to as proceeding it.

But you're right; there was no act, it was called an ordinance.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordinance_of_Nullification

I may be just as misinformed about declaring a state a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, and refusing to comply with federal law, I guess, but you haven't pointed out how.

Misinformed

Nullification involved a declaration that certain federal laws did not apply within the boundaries of a given state. A declaration that a city is a sanctuary city does not say that federal immigration laws do not apply. Instead, it says that local law enforcement will not work to enforce federal immigration laws (considering that local law enforcement does not concern itself with enforcing most other federal laws, this seems eminently consistent).

An event that precedes another in time is not always a causative factor ("The inauguration of Donald Trump as President was preceded by a rash of lynchings of African Americans throughout the United States."). Nullification was not the cause of a war.

"A declaration that a city is

"A declaration that a city is a sanctuary city does not say that federal immigration laws do not apply. Instead, it says that local law enforcement will not work to enforce federal immigration laws."

What the heck? Are you serious??

Declaring a state a Sanctuary is an incontravertable statement. It says "we will shield you from the law".

Refusing to turn over illegals to ICE for processing is a deliberate act to thwart law enforcement.

Pardoning illegal immigrants convicted of felonies, some involving guns and assault, with the specific intent of keeping them out of reach of federal enforcement is not only a deliberate act of defiance, it's an utter derilection of the duty to keep American citizens safe.

They're not "saying" federal law doesn't apply, they're actively demonstrating it.

And I never said nullification was the cause of the war, I said it was an act of a defiant state that later followed up with a complete division. Adding things never said is called a red herring fallacy.

What the Heck!

No, you still don't know what a sanctuary city is.

Saying that the police will not participate in ICE raids or interrogate those in custody about their immigration status is not "shielding" anyone from the law. The local police are not "shielding" you from federal law when they don't arrest you for federal income tax violations, so saying that not sending local police on a round-up of illegals is "shielding" them is preposterous.

"We did have a war about that. It was preceded by things like the Nullification Act, wherein a state declared themselves a Sanctuary from federal law." It's called "linkage."

"The local police are not

"The local police are not "shielding" you from federal law when they don't arrest you for federal income tax violations.."

Right. But who said anything about arresting anyone for the feds? I said "turn them over", which means someone already in custody....or in the case of some of the felons California pardoned, already in prison.

The correct analogy is Barney Fife turning Al Capone loose from custody before the feds came to pick him up for tax evasion, despite a phone call telling him they were on their way. "Not my job to hold him for you", says Barney.

You're linking like a Boss, I give you that. Problem is, you're linking the wind to the breeze. You've not provided anything close to what a reasonable person would consider a logical argument for your position....But I aver, there really isn't one to make.

"Someone Already in Custody"

Do the feds have a warrant? Or an extradition request? Or are they just making a phone call, not backed by any legal process?

Since when is anyone turned over to law enforcement on the basis of just a "phone call?"

"You've not provided anything close to what a reasonable person would consider a logical argument for your position." Let's find a logical person, and see what they think.

Sanctuary cities do not hand

Sanctuary cities do not hand over known illegal immigrants who have committed crimes to ICE which is not the same as not asking for immigration status.

If . . .

A "known illegal immigrant" who has committed a crime first faces the criminal process in the US before they are excluded.

How are they "known illegal immigrants" if the Man isn't checking status?

Hmmmm...

Let's hope the dissolution of our union is not mapped by PA GOP legislators. We would have a lot of very convoluted walls to build. And could we keep the Cheeseheads out of Upper Midwest-astan?

...amicable split that

...amicable split that retained elements of mutual protection and commerce...

Now if only there were a country where there were a number of individual sub-divisions, just for example let's call them "states", and those states would have some degree of autonomy as to how they approached various issues, but all of those "states" recognized that there were certain issues that needed a united approach, such as commerce and self-defense. You could call that group of "states" the "United States". And the people who loved the sorts of policies that were prevalent in the state of Missippistan could move to Missippistan because of the rights of free travel in the "United States" and leave the citizens of Minnesonia to their miserable lives without the wannabe Missippistan agitating to make Minnesonia into Missipistan.

You may not be aware, but we

You may not be aware, but we once had that kind of system. If a fellow didnt like what was going on in Minnesotaburg, they could move to Mississippistan and live a happy life. Unfortunately, the federal government, aided by an activist judiciary have pretty much put the kibosh on that.

To make matters worse, we have pseudo-countries like the People's Republic of California that have decided to create their own open border with a foreign country, but expect the rest of America to deal with the mess that creates.

It's not a good deal.

Well...

"You may not be aware, but we once had that kind of system. If a fellow didnt like what was going on in Minnesotaburg, they could move to Mississippistan and live a happy life. Unfortunately, the federal government, aided by an activist judiciary have pretty much put the kibosh on that."

One will never really know until they actually give it a try...

Well, that was kind of my

Well, that was kind of my point.

Yes

The Articles of Confederation were a failure.
Been there, done that, went broke.

You're right. That was 122

You're right.

That was 122 years ago. This is the current year; different time, different economy, different issues.

I doubt

that relying on the States to voluntarily fund the Federal government would work any better now.
The Articles failed because they made it impossible for Washington to pay his soldiers.

I wasn't aware

that the heavy hand of government is forcing anyone to stay in a state that they don't like. Perhaps it's just frustration that all of the good paying jobs are in Minnesotaburg and not Mississippistan. As for California it seems to be doing quite well. Sounds like a good deal to me.

California is not doing very

An op-ed piece

doesn't make your argument, especially when conservatives love to tout GDP as a basis for economic health. That alone dismisses your claim that California is"not doing very well."

The Kibosh

"Unfortunately, the federal government, aided by an activist judiciary have pretty much put the kibosh on that."

The activist judiciary has said that we have the right to move anywhere we want to. Of course, a "happy life" in Mississippi no longer includes social cohesion in the form of freedom from cultural diversity (the Sovereignty Commission has been out of operation for yhears), so bear that in mind.

I'm confused

Having visited Mississippi on a couple of occasions, I have zero desire to live there, but just out of curiosity, wonder how, or in what way(s) the federal government has stepped in to prevent me from moving there to live if I chose to do so. I came to Minnesota after a dozen years in Colorado, and to Colorado after more than half a century in Missouri, and to my knowledge, the federal government made no attempt whatsoever to "put the kibosh" on any of those cross-country moves. Is there a subtext or dog-whistle message you're trying to convey, or have I missed something more obvious? As far as I've been able to tell, based on my own, admittedly limited, experience, we still **do** have that kind of system.

You're overlooking the

You're overlooking the legislative and judicial baggage we are now forced to carry around with us now from state to state.

What good is geographical freedom if you must drag legislation a politician from Minnesota thought was a good idea for everyone, or a decision a judge in the 9th circuit court of Leftistan made about how life must be lived in Mississippi, or Texas, or South Carolina?

Overreach by federal government and judicial activism has removed the option of removing ourselves from the problem.... that's my point.

What problem?

What are the constraints that so bind you to a life situation that you seemingly detest and can't be escaped from in any of our fifty states? Maybe there is hope out there:

Is it mostly just taxes? Well, Mississippi offers the best case alternative: a 25% or so improvement on we, the Bold North.

You can have all the guns and ammo you desire and you can conceal and tote around all that you can carry. That said, "Georgia is very friendly to gun owners. The state has a “shall issue” concealed carry permit system that became even more friendly to gun owners after the state enacted the “Guns Everywhere” law in 2014 which (among other things) legalized concealed carry by license holders in hospitals, churches, restaurants, and bars. The state also has “Stand Your Ground” and “Castle Doctrine” laws on the books to protect law-abiding citizens who use firearms in self defense."

Maybe the concept that you could be forced to bake a cake for a LGBT person? Well sorry, that darn judicial activism has taken hold on that front. You could consider Iran or Iraq where homosexuality is illegal.

Help me out here, I just don't feel oppressed...

Except of course

That those bastions of conservative governance just can't seem to make a go of it without taking funds from the good people of a place like California. You wanna go it alone, be my guest, but do it for real.

Wealthy people helping poor

Wealthy people helping poor people…

Well, the way it is now, you

Well, the way it is now, you can move to the state that the happiest place for you, and as you helpfully mention, there are those states that feel a greater independence from federal law than other states (need I point out the manifold marijuana, grazing-rights, immigrant-rights, minimum pay, voter restrictions, abortion policies, etc., that spangle this land ?) Obviously different places agree with different people--living a life in a place that doesn't suit you is a sad choice.

disturbing but familiar

What's happening in Penn. is a frightening sign for anyone who believes in American democracy, but the attack by one branch (legislative) toward another (judicial) reminds me of what happened in Minnesota this year between the Governor and the (GOP) legislature. Lest we get too invested in Minnesota exceptionalism, I fear this kind of thing could happen here too.

Jim Hightower Redux

"No matter how cynical I get, it's almost impossible to keep up."

2018 not 2020

The article says the map was to be changed "......should be thrown out and replaced by a new, fairer one that will take effect right away, in time for the 2020 elections" and I'm pretty sure it's target is actually the midterms in 2018 as noted later.

The Republicans who drew the

The Republicans who drew the current PA legislative district map should be ashamed of themselves. No one sane and fair-minded could come up with those crazy districts!

And impeachment of the Democratic PA Supreme Court judges will not happen--anyone in the state can sue to stop it.

We get it

its always the other guy/party who polarizes..gee I wonder why we are polarized?

Exhibit A

Your first (and, as far as we can tell, your only) reaction to this tale of polarization is to complain about who is identified as responsible.

Yep, it's always the other guy, isn't it, Mr. Smith?

I'll leave you now to engage in your search for counter examples.

Districts

Districts should be as compact as possible. It would be possible for computers to take this on, with district shapes being constrained in favor of compactness. That would put an end to this kind of baloney where politicians pick their voters instead of the other way around.

The other side of this

The other side of this gerrymandering is that Democratic districts are totally secure but Republicans may not be considering that their advantage is in single digits there….

I also read the article about 1931-32 elections… and now think that this is an example of how we have to hold our elections now…

Again with the "polarized" narrative?

Listen: a "polarized" society is one in which two extremes dominate or are fighting for domination of the sociopolitical landscape, or government power. That is NOT the situation in the United States or Pennsylvania.

Eric is not describing a battle between extremes, he's describing ONE extreme that has captured power. There is absolutely nothing extreme about fair or representative district. Republican gerrymandering IS the expression of extremism here.

This constant insistence that EVERYONE is equally extreme not only defies logic, but it's it's fundamental misrepresentation of reality. The problem in Pennsylvania isn't polarization, the problem is Republican extremism.

When you have clear majorities rejecting Extreme Republican policies you do NOT have a "polarized" society or electorate. The majority has not been radicalized, it's just to the "left" of Republican extremist.

I had to look them up

"This constant insistence that EVERYONE is equally extreme not only defies logic, but it's it's fundamental misrepresentation of reality. The problem in Pennsylvania isn't polarization, the problem is Republican extremism."

This is my favorite definition of the thing involved in the first half of that paragraph:

"False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not. This fallacy is categorized as a fallacy of inconsistency."

Because that says it so well I tend to look it up every time I want to clearly illustrate what I mean when I say, "Hey . . . Cut it out! All you're doing is using the false equivalence trick again."

The use of false equivalence is something Republicans have just about mastered: Anytime they get caught with their pants down the Republican (and, weirdly, way too much of the journalistic) "message" turns into wall-to-wall "both sides do it, so it's not a big thing." It happens all the time -- here and everywhere else -- and, if you ask me, it's nothing but a weasel move Republicans use to slink their way out of having to just stand up and defend the negative impacts of their ideology and actions in a straightforward, straight-spined way that includes consideration and defense of empirical evidence . . . A primary go-to method of avoiding accountability.

The other word that popped into my mind just before I looked up that definition was "pernicious." But in that case I really wasn't clear on its specific definition. And while I had the feeling it might fit, I figured I'd better check before using it. Here it is:

1) highly injurious or destructive : DEADLY

2) archaic : wicked

— perniciously (adverb)

— perniciousness (noun)

Turns out that definition was quite a bit "stronger" than what I was thinking it meant. I was thinking of it in terms of something more along the line of annoying and persistent (as in, "annoyingly persistent false equivalence") which, obviously, wouldn't have earned me an "A" on the test. But even more suprising (in terms of being "stronger") were the words on the "Synonyms and Antonyms for pernicious" page:

causing or capable of causing harm

-- the pernicious effects of illegal narcotics on society

Synonyms of pernicious

adverse, bad, baleful, baneful, damaging, dangerous, deleterious, detrimental, evil, hurtful, ill, injurious, mischievous, nocuous, noxious, harmful, prejudicial, wicked

Words Related to pernicious

hostile, inimical, unfriendly

contagious, deadly, infectious, infective, pestiferous, pestilent, pestilential, poisonous, venomous

insidious, menacing, ominous, sinister, threatening

hazardous, imperiling (or imperilling), jeopardizing, parlous, perilous, risky, unsafe, unsound

nasty, noisome, unhealthful, unhealthy, unwholesome

destructive, fatal, killer, lethal, malignant, ruinous

"Huh," I said to myself.

And then I double-checked the other sentence in that paragraph . . .

"The problem in Pennsylvania isn't polarization, the problem is Republican extremism"

. . . and thought, "Well, yeah . . . 'Pernicious' seems to fit that pretty well too."

And here we are.

And, given all that, I'd say your entire comment hits it on the head and, in regards to that specific paragraph, I'd say it's fair to say there has been, still is and will continue to be, a whole lot of pernicious false equivalence emanating from the Republican messaging machine (professional and amateur) in Pennsylvania and every other state in the union.

Yes but...

Is this example of pernicious false equivalence emerging from the Republicans, or the "centrist" media? When I see these polarization narratives I tend to see them as centrist laments rather than serious socio-political analysis. And of course, it was centrist accommodation of the radical right over the decades that empowered Republicans in the first place.

Learn from Iowa...or Canada

For the life of me I just can't figure out why on Earth all states can not do what Iowa does, and have a non-partisan, independent commission draw up district lines. Any other advanced democracy does it that way, too. Iowa is the best state in the nation for fairly drawn district maps. While we're at it, why do we allow anyone partisan to have anything to do with administering elections, such as secretaries of state, and why do we allow states to have different standards for voting for federal offices, such as president and Congress? I am continually gobsmacked by how Americans are not up in arms about gerrymandering; anyone with an ounce of sense could see how we cannot be a democracy when there is such chicanery within our electoral process. I don't like it when my party does it, either. It's just plain wrong.

Two Party systems...

We have a two Party system, and the unfortunate fact is that both Parties serve the elite. Therefore it's in both interests to preserve the gerrymander power they acquire when they are in power, it puts them in a better position to solicit favor from the elite. On a level playing field, they might actually have to produce results in order to win elections.