The unintended upside of Maryland redistricting

Striking a blow against like-mindedness wrought by 'The Big Sort'

October 17, 2011|Dan Rodricks

A man in predominantly white northern Baltimore County, currently represented by a white conservative Republican from Frederick County, doesn't like that he might soon be represented in Congress by a liberal African-American man from Baltimore City. "The citizens of northern Baltimore County have different issues than the citizens of Baltimore City," the man told the political sausage-makers working on Maryland's new district maps.

At the same time, a liberal African-American woman from Prince George's County, who won re-election to Congress with 83 percent of the vote in her district in 2010, expressed dismay that her district might soon include some white, conservative voters inAnne Arundel County.

The latest round of redistricting in Maryland seems to have grossed everyone out in one way or another. For starters, the politically ambitious governor and his heavy-handed Democratic cohorts fashioned new maps to increase the chances of Democrats winning seven of the state's eight seats in Congress, up from the current six. Gerrymandering is a greedy business.

Republicans, who have done little to register new Maryland voters to the GOP in recent years — falling further behind the already dominant Democrats — bellyache about the whole thing.

And, as we learned from the reporting of The Sun's John Fritze, some of our fellow citizens are disturbed that redistricting will put them in bed with strange fellows. The redrawn maps Mr. O'Malley proposed will move about 30 percent of Maryland's residents into new districts, "sometimes with neighbors who would appear to have little in common," Mr. Fritze reported.

OMG. Shocking. The world turned upside down.

But the prospect of a man from Parkton being represented by Elijah Cummings, or of Donna Edwards having to represent people in Severn — of all places! — should neither cause alarm nor prompt litigation.

In fact, it's the plus side of something that didn't appear to have one. The unintended (because I can't imagine Mr. O'Malley had anything so noble in mind) consequence of Maryland's 2010 redistricting is that it strikes a blow against like-mindedness, a trend of at least 30 years that works against the best interests of the country.

I was convinced of this after reading "The Big Sort," a 2008 book by Bill Bishop, a journalist who covers rural America, and Robert Cushing, a Texas-based sociologist and statistician. The title refers to population and migration trends of the last three decades and how Americans have "sorted themselves" geographically, economically and politically.

In looking at all kinds of data, including the demographics of congressional districts and individual counties across the country, Mr. Bishop and Mr. Cushing found a massive flight to homogeneity: people living in like-minded clusters. The trend parallels the shift of population density from cities and small towns to suburban and exurban life. Many Americans, from housing developers to mega-church leaders, helped make "the big sort" happen.

Homogeneity, the authors argued, may seem like a cool thing — the choice we have in a free society to live among "people like us." But Mr. Bishop and Mr. Cushing found that the trend toward like-mindedness has bred extremes in economics and politics, and it has led to cultural misunderstandings and legislative gridlock. One of its chief casualties has been the moderate politician; Congress, as a result, is mired in conflict.

"Ways of life now have a distinct politics and a distinct geography," Mr. Bishop writes in the book. "Feminist synchronized swimmers belong to one political party and live over here, and calf ropers belong to another party and live over there. As people seek out the social settings they prefer, the nation grows more politically segregated. The benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups."

Mr. Bishop and Mr. Cushing tracked all kinds of trends to support their conclusions — the economic impact of migration patterns of Americans with college degrees, the effect of mega-churches on suburban demographics — but the most striking was this: In 1976, only about a quarter of American voters lived in a county where a presidential candidate won by a landslide. By 2008, nearly half of us lived in landslide counties.

So Maryland's redistricting process has been appalling to watch, but some of the new congressional districts will be more diverse, requiring representatives to represent more diverse groups. You got a problem with that? I don't.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is

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