When I was a youngster and lived with my family in Cypress Hills, in the borough of Brooklyn, NYC, I often dropped by the local Democratic club. These clubs had buildings where they met and conducted their business and they were the citizen’s gateway to the government. Every Friday if you dropped in you could see and talk to the Congressman Eugene Keogh, the last to wear a straw hat.
If you wanted to see your state representatives they were there also as was the party district leader around whom the clubs organized. In the days before Baker v. Carr (one man one vote) districts were often geographically based, e.g. one representative per county or a state senate district consisting of three state house districts. With the Supreme Court rulings that electoral districts that served to elect representatives to legislative bodies had to be equal in population (with a wider discrepancy allowed the smaller the districts were) counties and neighborhoods became less important to the concept of district representation.
Because the Courts have refused to rule that political based partisan gerrymandering is contrary to the federal constitution we have suffered under forty years of ever increasing politically motivated redistricting – with computers making partisan calculations even more precise and using population equality to hide behind.
The nature of representative democracy in America has changed. In the 19th century district representation played a great role but districts themselves not so much. Congressmen were people who went to Washington to act on the nation’s problems, state legislators went to state capitals to do the same on state matters. For local representation, that one could go to for assistance with problems, one went either to the local county officials or in the cities to the aldermen (precursors of the Councilmen who were a combination of elected officials and party officials).
In the 20th century the nature of representatives duties and compensation changed. From annual state elections we went to two and four year terms. From rotation in office for Congressional nominations (the norm by which a party gave its nomination to state representatives who waited their turn) we went to incumbents and even incumbent families “owning” Congressional seats. These federal and state legislators also took on the role of constituent servants. They opened offices in the districts and assisted with red tape problems; at first all problems and then eventually a hierarchy of helping only with the problems that related to bureaucracies at the level of government they served in.
As the nation continues to increase from its’ nearly 4 million in 1790 to its’ 312 million now - the nature of representative democracy has again changed. Rather than bemoaning it and yearning for the good old days- that trust me weren’t that good - we should understand and accept and use the changes. When the nation started the founding fathers wanted one representative per 30,000 persons – now it’s one per 705,000 (precise number may vary by state).
Districts today have become masses of election precincts combined for the purpose of electing a Congressman or a state legislator. Often that elected official is the only thing the people of the district have in common with municipalities and postal areas and shopping zones divided. These legislators should be looked at as representatives and the citizenry should use the social networking and the Internet and the 24/7 news media to follow what their representatives due in Washington D.C. or the state capital and judge them accordingly.
Local municipal government and councilmen and party officials should again be handling citizen constituent. Representatives should represent. With the demise of earmarks and the public outrage at the insider trading antics of federal representatives we may see a new Congress where members vote and speak and are judged accordingly. Again with the use of social networking, online petitioning, and the availability of information about the legislative branches activities district lines will become even less relevant. If we impose federal Congressional term limits (both Houses) and, if we ever get a handle on the money that is poisoning our politics (we need open public funding not backdoor public funding by the contributions of corporations that take federal money) we might see a return to real Representative Democracy in America.
22, Dec. 2011