01 September 2011

'No person can be independent in a political process'

In New York State, there's a push underway for the creation of an "independent commission" to take charge of redistricting for assembly, state senate and congressional districts. The widely-shared hope is that such a commission will end the practice of gerrymandering to create safe seats for the two major political parties, and that more rationally drawn districts will result in more competitive elections. The Albany Times Union supported the idea in a recent editorial to which Edward S. Lurie, a former Republican committeeman, responded in a letter published yesterday. In Lurie's opinion, the cure of a "so-called" independent commission is worse than the disease of gerrymandering, as long as the commission members are not accountable to voters. Taking the redistricting power away from legislators, he argues, means taking it away from the people as a whole.

On principle, Lurie opposes the idea of an independent commission because he doesn't believe in the possibility of an independent commission.

Where do we find people "free of even a hint of political motivation," as the editorial recommends? It is easy to throw around words like "independent" and "right." But once a person forms an opinion, he or she is no longer independent. If the members of a commission know how to draw district lines, they know who they are helping and hurting and, if they know that, then they are partisan.

Lurie's core assertion is breathtaking: "once a person forms an opinion, he or she is no longer independent." He either misunderstands what it means to be independent, or what it means to have an opinion -- though he may misunderstand both propositions equally. An impossible standard is implicit; to be independent, as Lurie implicitly defines the term, is to be independent of everything -- practically speaking, to stand for nothing. Indeed, as the final sentence of the excerpt suggests, to help or hurt anyone, purposefully or not, is not just not independent, but also actively partisan, whether or not you belong to a political party. Lurie appears to deny the possibility not just of independence, but of objectivity. Any claim to objectivity would fail for him, it seems, if objective policy "hurt" an entrenched interest or "helped" an excluded one, intentionally or not. Lurie himself eliminates any possibility of an ambiguous reading by adding: "no person can be independent in a political process."

Having refuted the myth of independence to his satisfaction, Lurie appeals to democracy.

While no person can be independent in a political process, at least the current process recognizes that the state Legislature is a body duly elected to serve the public's interests. Checks and balances already in place, such as the governor's ability to veto proposed maps, will help ensure that a fair redistricting solution can be reached.
No matter how you define it, government and politics are intertwined. The best way to ensure that the public is represented in redistricting is continuing the process under way now, with the public engaging those elected by the voters -- not an appointed body of non-elected individuals with private agendas.

The "process" may recognize partisan legislators as public servants, but the public increasingly thinks differently. The reason the subject of "independent" redistricting comes up is because citizens increasingly question whether parties really "serve the public's interests." But by his own standard, Lurie can't have it both ways. He tries to draw a distinction between the inherent "public" agenda of political parties and the inevitably "private agendas" of "non-elected individuals." But if no one is or can be independent, what distinguishes a private agenda from a public agenda? All that seems possible is that Lurie sincerely believes that elections render private agendas public, which means practically that only agendas shaped by or into political parties -- and, realistically, only the agendas of the two major parties -- can ever be public, all others being not independent but private. In effect, to assert independence from the the duopolistic legislature is never independent in Lurie's mind, but factional, while the major parties' duopoly over the redistricting process is always in the public interest, and cannot be factional, even when self-evidently self-interested, because they always control the legislature and can claim the mandate of the people. No asserted interest, no matter how widely shared, can become a public interest until it wins an election, and elected representatives can ignore it until then. And you wonder why some people criticize the whole idea of representative government, partisan or not. Its defenders, of course, will just say: go and win an election if you don't like things now....but isn't that where this article started?


Anonymous said...

Which is why I think district lines should be permanent, the number of representatives is what should change, with a minimum of 1 rep/district.

Or, my better alternative, eliminate the state governments in favor of a strong federal government.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your first suggestion seems reasonable enough. Setting an upper limit to the number of legislators is a vestige of a time when a truly large legislature seemed unworkable for many reasons that are now obsolete. On the other hand, I'm not sure how abolishing the states solves the districting problem any better. The lines still have to be drawn somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Abolishing the states removes an entire unnecessary layer of government. As things stand now, corporations make out by constantly pitting states against one another for tax incentives, grants, etc. Eliminating states eliminates government waste and a large amount of leverage useful only to corporate America.

TiradeFaction said...


I don't know about abolishing the states. You're right they've pitted state government against state government in the "race against the bottom", but it's not like our Federal government isn't boughten out by those very same elements.

Also, in a nation with 300 million people, some devolution of responsibility and governance is not only expected, but necessary.

Anonymous said...

@tirade I'm not saying there needs to be a major overhaul of federal government to streamline and make it a sleeker, more efficient machine for enacting the will of the people. But as it stands we have at least 51 governments trying to run the country and uncounted smaller governments trying to run our locales on top of that. Every layer of government demands payment in the form of taxes. Every layer of government demands a certain amount of "fealty".

To me, in a democratic nation such as ours, where we elect our representatives directly, WE ARE THE STATE and, conversely, the state is us. But it seems every time a federal government is elected that a relative minority doesn't approve of, an ugly word starts making the rounds: secession. Eliminate the states and there is nothing left to secede.

For some reason, a large sector of this nation is paranoid over the idea of government. It doesn't matter that at least a part of that government are the people THEY elected to represent them. They are simply paranoid about "gubbermint". One can only assume a couple possible reasons: 1) They are mentally ill and their paranoia is based on feelings of subjugation and/or persecution that in turn are baseless or due to chemical imbalance. or 2) They are up to no good and don't want an ultimate authority to keep them from harming the public.

To guard against potential enemies from within as well as without, a nation needs a strong government. As Roosevelt said, a strong people have no need to fear a strong government. We have a very weak government, yet even that is feared. So one must assume that those who fear such a weak government are very weak individuals. Or they are "bullies" who are afraid a strong government will put them in their place.

But I stand by my words. We must decide whether we wish to remain "one nation, under god" or 50 separate nation states, each competing with the others for resources, capital, business, educated population etc. Should we decide to go that route, no state will have a right to whine when they end up the losers. Because it will be the coastal states who remain on top.