I was recently thinking about the effects of gerrymandering on American politics, and I came to a somewhat concerning realization: It probably weakens checks and balances significantly. Of course, there are other problems with gerrymandering, such as decreasing proportionality, but many of the putative downsides are actually overstated. That being said, I think the damage it does to checks and balances presents a fundamental problem to the American system of government, as the concept of coequal branches is fundamental to the U.S. system. As Evan and I have both pointed out, the U.S. federal government has many more “veto points” than most other democracies, decreasing efficiency and lowering government responsiveness. This might be an acceptable price to pay in order to ensure that no one branch gains excessive power. But if checks and balances become increasingly ineffectual, all of this inefficiency serves no purpose beyond degrading our quality of government.
So, how does gerrymandering weaken checks and balances? It does so by undermining median voter pressures and, therefore, biasing voter options toward a candidate generally in line with the President. Take the GOP today: Despite Trump’s appalling record and frequent flouting of traditional Republican values, his transgressions have barely elicited a peep out of his Congressional GOP allies. Of course some of this is partisanship, but I think the broader issue is much more systemic in nature. Consider a random Republican district in North Carolina, one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. In this district, whoever wins the GOP primary wins the district. In other words, there is absolutely no need for the Republican candidate to worry about her Democratic rival, so she can be as extreme in her support of the President as she needs to be to defeat her primary challengers. As long as Trump remains at least acceptable to a majority of GOP voters, this Republican candidate has every incentive to fully support him. And this is true even if the majority of people in her district and in the country more broadly hate President Trump. This dynamic breeds a pool of sycophantic Representatives and Senators who, due to the fact that they only have to compete within a Republican field and must never face a Democrat in any meaningful sense, inevitably drift toward supporting the President. If you don’t believe me, just look at the platforms of Republicans running in districts won by Clinton and compare them to those running in districts won by Trump. Simply put, having to actually compete with the other party forces one to be more critical of the President, strengthening checks and balances.
If a majority of Congress is systemically pushed toward backing the President irrespective of his or her positions or aggregate popularity, we end up with a rubber stamp legislature. This is not a bad thing per se, but it makes no sense to design a system with lots of inefficiencies if the ultimate result is to simply pass the President’s agenda more or less by default. Of course, this problem goes away once the President drops below some arbitrary level of popularity, but as we have seen with Trump, this cutoff is pretty low. To be fully transparent, I think our system is way too inefficient, and I honestly wouldn’t mind subordinating Congress to the Executive. But as long as we claim to stand for a system of coequal branches, we shouldn’t allow partisan redistricting to undermine checks and balances.