“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” – Sir Walter Scott
Over the past week, I have been tuning into the debate over the imminent changes in consistuency boundaries and the allegations by the opposition parties that this is a blatant attempt at gerrymandering. Given my ignorance on the issues involved, I decided to do my research and to deconstruct the concept to see if I can make a contribution in creating more light than heat, or in our latest lingo, helping us to imbibe more mauby than froth.
According to Wikipedia, gerrymandering is defined as follows:
In the process of setting electoral districts, gerrymandering is a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan advantaged districts. The resulting district is known as a gerrymander; however, that word can also refer to the process. When used to allege that a given party is gaining disproportionate power, the term gerrymandering has negative connotations.
In addition to its use achieving desired electoral results for a particular party, gerrymandering may be used to help or hinder a particular demographic, such as a political, ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, or class group…
I came across an insightful article, Gerrymandering is Alive and Well by Richard A. Hogarty, that gives the origin and history of the term:
“Manipulating district lines for partisan advantage goes back to the legendary Elbridge Gerry, who is credited with inventing the practice in 1812. A Harvard graduate and a man of great wealth and stature, Gerry belonged to the so-called “codfish aristocracy” of Marblehead, his father having made a fortune shipping dried cod to Spain and the West Indies. In the words of John Adams biographer David McCullough, “Gerry viewed mankind as capable of both great good and great evil.” An ardent patriot who was independent by nature, he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but he refused to sign the national constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights, though he ultimately became the fifth vice president of the United States.
Gerry was also known for his cunning and political craftiness. Twice elected, in 1810 and 1811, to one-year terms as governor of Massachusetts, Gerry switched his party allegiance from Federalist to Jeffersonian Democrat. Led by Gerry, the Democrats redistricted the General Court, as the state Legislature is formally known, consolidating Federalist strength in just a few seats. The Federalists cried bloody murder, and Gerry’s map became the talk of the Commonwealth. Elkanah Tisdale illustrated how the Democrats carved up the Essex state Senate district in order to gain unfair advantage over the Federalists in a famous cartoon that appeared in the Boston Gazette. One observer remarked that the cartoon looked like a salamander, which gave rise to the term “gerrymander.” It was an addition to the American political lexicon that has yet to outlive its usefulness.”
Hogarty makes some interesting points and comes to some provocative conclusions, which I highlight below:
“Despite all the lofty talk about representation and communities of interest, redistricting is always about political advantage–a subject there is always more than one way to look at…
As redistricting winds its way to an end this fall, don’t be surprised if more political scores get settled. And be prepared to hear from the losers that they are the victims of gerrymandering.
It can be no other way. For, in the end, there are no idealized, perfectly representative districts from which any politically crafted map is a corrupt and self-serving departure. There are only conflicting versions of political self-interest: the self-interest of individual politicians, of political parties, of specific communities, and of the state as a whole…”
Having listened to the Prime Minister’s monthly press conference yesterday (July 24, 2013), it dawned on me that what was being discussed was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, which I would call constitutional gerrymandering. Deeply submerged and entangled in the whole discussion are three other layers of implicit gerrymandering, that are more malleable and more cunning and serve the bidding of unscrupulous leaders while at the same time absolving them of all culpability. Let me explain.
The first layer I will call institutional gerrymandering, which deals with the appointments of persons to crucial positions of influence where they are charged with safeguarding the integrity of the institutions, and by extension the trust of the people for whom they were appointed to serve. It is no secret that the Heads of the Commissions, the National Assembly and the State, Directors of Boards, Directors of Audit, Permanent Secretaries and high-level managers of the Civil Service are more likely to be compromised or conflicted and be more partisan and more likely than not to act in the vested interest of their incumbent leaders, rather than the people they were appointed to serve. Some may say that many of them were appointed on party loyality rather than merit, and for many “the person does not fit the post.” Many say that having weak managers in positions of influence allows the ultimate chief civil servant unbridled power and elbow room to micromanage, to serve his/her vested interests with the unintended consequence of unproductivity, inefficiencies and wasted resources. And some feel that this is the root cause of not only our fiscal debt, but also of our social, moral and spiritual debts.
The second layer I will call electoral gerrymandering, which is less subtle and deals with people voting where they do not live, padding of voters list and voters boxes, bribing people for support and votes with jobs, contracts, houses and lands, and last but not least, the disenfranchisement of the resident citizens by their votes being debased by overseas voters who do not have to live with the potentially negative consequences of the policies of the winning party. I do not have to say more regarding how the managers of the electoral processes from registration to counting votes are already infected with the institutional gerrymandering bug mentioned above.
The last layer is the most pervasive and the most sinister and I will call it cultural/ideological gerrymandering, as the mindset of our people and the narratives of our land are manipulated for political advantage, and this is what we are seeing right now being played out in all of its tainted glory. Here we are seeing the battle lines being drawn between serving party over serving country, between the rule of men (and lawyers) over the rule of law, between the letter of the Constitution over the spirit of the Constitution, between political tribalism over national unity, or to sum it all up, between the people in power over an empowered people.
As a case in point, we are told that two previous ministers of the ruling party were imposters, traitors, ungrateful and have committed treachery for crossing the floor and turning their backs on the party that facilitated their political ascendancy, and on moral grounds, they should resign their seats and go back to the electorate for a new mandate to represent them. WHAT HYPOCRISY!! Let us not forget that the party’s ascendancy was facilitated by the electoral victories of these two ministers plus one. Let us not forget that before the last two elections, a mandate was given to the winning party by the electorate based on false promises of fiscal soundness, not closing the sugar industry, no VAT or raised electricity rates, and failed capital projects, just to name a few. And in this light, one can extend the argument higher up and ask who were the true imposters, traitors, were ungrateful and have committed treachery of the highest degree in putting the party’s interest above that of the country?? Sometimes I wonder why we did not have more Motions of No Confidence. Although the opposition did not have the numbers back then, at least the exercise would have benefited the country in that citizens would have been more informed of the decisions made by their government.
Interestingly, the three past ministers of the ruling party remind me of the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. All three were initially called to serve their country, but out of naïvité, or lack of courage, or just being sincerely misguided, they initially limited their potential to do so in the best interest of their party. After becoming more mature and awakened to the injustices of political tribalism they were entangled in, they tried to effect change from within. A storm of contention brewed within the party, and when change was deemed futile, alas, again due to gerrymandering within the party itself, they were eventually thrown overboard, to quell the torment. During their time of reflection and meditation, they have now seen the light to serve the whole country, and I hope they are now committed to answering their true calling of highlighting the errors of our tribalistic ways and leading us to repent as we break free from the shackles of political tribalism and blossom forth to the promised land of national unity.
For those of you who support the ruling party, many of you will of course have doubts, and question whether the political system can be changed. You may say, “That’s the way the system works.” Some may say that the constitution calls for changing the boundaries in the spirit of fairness and equity of its citizens, and is long overdue. But if the lack of changes in the past, and the timing of the changes in the present is done only in the spirit of political expediency, how is this fair, and for whom is this equity?
The consequences of our divisive political system, whether by accident or design, from constitutional, to institutional, to electoral and finally to cultural/ideological gerrymandering, are very destructive and do not serve the best interest of our country. They only serve to empower the people in power, at great cost to its citizens, now and in the future. I am very troubled and disheartened when we see and hear the apologists for the incumbents triangulating and gerrymandering the substance of the public debate on the airways and the internet around three implicit principles: 1) Those with might are always right, 2) When you are wrong you have to be strong, and 3) Two wrongs make it right. If we do not change the course of our mindsets now, we would sooner or later find these principles enshrined in the laws of our land.
We now know better, and as a people, to whom much is given, much is expected. We will from now on hold all of our politicians to the highest standard, and let them know, that also much is expected from them too. If they think we were being harshly critical of the incumbents now, we will be even more brutishly critical and maybe unforgiving if they do not live up to our expectations.
If gerrymandering is alive and well, let us start by changing our cultural narratives, our electoral systems, our institutions and our Consititution to give advantage to an empowered people, and not the people in power. Although gerrymandering generally has negative connotations, it can be transformed in a positive way, as the group no longer is defined by the party, but now by the whole country. I honestly believe this is possible, and our political crisis is an opportunity for transformation that should not be wasted. I am playing my part in this “gerrymandering for transformation” project in the best interest of our country, via this blog, the SKNList, and Facebook. We should ascribe to the vision of Mahatma Gandhi “To be the change we want to see in our country,” and to let “Our lives be our message.”
By changing the boundaries of our discourse and narratives, with the focus now the self-interest of the country and an empowered people, we would have been true to the spirit of our National Motto of putting “Country above Self” and true to the spirit of our National Anthem “as Stalwarts We Stand, for Justice and Liberty, with Wisdom and Truth, We Will Serve and Honor Thee.”