Contemplating the devastating effects of redistricting on democracy and the transformational effects of knowing Ondine and Ed Lowry.
The several-decades-old redistricting efforts by both Democrats and Republicans may prove our democracy's cancer. Not the beliefs and policies of liberals, progressives, and/or Democrats, nor those of conservatives, right-wingers, or Republicans: The founding fathers' vision was great enough not simply to accommodate but to welcome the clash of ideas. The potentially fatal disease is the deliberate, ongoing, partisan dissection of the core democratic nervous system of electoral politics (a process that demands dialogue, debate, disagreement, argument, and compromise). Redistricting the populace into politically safe, geographically distorted districts minimizes the number of genuinely contested electoral races; thus, assuring seats guarantees partisan allegiances. Against the Constitution's clearest intentions, this completely undermines the need for negotiation and compromise as a way of governing.
This is one of the reasons that I find all extremist positions so distasteful. Any agenda that is based on some portion of the population hating or mistrusting another is lazy, anti-democratic, and basically un-American. This includes true believers of all stripes: talk-show radio hosts claiming the worst threat to this country is from within and partisan operatives labeling Democrats as communists, as well as love-it-or-leave-it "patriots" who would love to see a one-party government; liberals asserting that all conservatives are fascists, pundits arguing that participatory democracy is a fraud, as well as those, claiming to be more humanist than thou, who know everyone else's motivations are basically corrupt. Which is not to argue against policy differences, ideological debate, electoral maneuvering, political protests, and so on. Instead, it is a contemplation on context.
Marginalizing those you disagree with and distorting history are ancillary diseases. The partisan gloating over the current redistricting battle in Texas is not just ignorant, but also more than disturbing. Listening to the GOP rants would have you believe that the liberal Democrats have had a stranglehold on this state for a long time, and now it's the Republicans' turn. Texas has always been conservative; we didn't manage to get to last or near-last place in most kinds of social spending in just the past few years. When LBJ led a congressional coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans to pass the early Sixties civil rights legislation, he sadly acknowledged that one consequence would be the one-party South moving from Democrat to Republican. Ideas, established power bases, and political agendas didn't change; only the partisan label did. Consequently, as so many Democrats pointed out when they switched to the Republican Party, they hadn't changed their beliefs, just their party.
The leadership and legislative majority of Texas has changed parties but not ideology. Certainly, issues have evolved over the years. The legislative focus was more rural than urban when agriculture, oil, and ranching dominated Texas' economy. As urban populations came to constitute the vast majority of Texans and the economy expanded to embrace intrastate business and international trade, it shifted. The rise to prominence of mostly Republican-dominated suburbs is currently determining state priorities. But make no mistake, this has always been a state dominated by conservative politics.
The accusation that Republicans are now just doing what the Democrats did for 130 years is more reactionary fantasy than history. Texas was one-party for most of that time, with so few Republicans elected that gerrymandering wasn't even needed for control. Over the last couple of decades, egregious redistricting was orchestrated by conservative Democrats, not liberal ones. Regardless of how outrageous the construction of districts, central to the overall map was the preservation of incumbents -- both because that benefited the state in Congress and in order not to spill unnecessary blood on the floor of the Legislature. DeLay's drive for an ideologically pure America has ignored those concerns, his redistricting being neither about representation nor Texas' best interests, but about national partisan concerns and his own ambitions. In the long and short run, this new map is in the worst interests of the state, most immediately because seniority and strategic committee seats will be lost. Historically, American politics have always moved like a pendulum or, more accurately, one of those gravity balls on a rope that slowly moves in every different direction. Thus, this is damaging in the long run because Republican dominance will not last a thousand years, maybe not even a decade, which means the artificial partisan architecture of this map will collapse under the weight of shifting politics and demographics. The only consequence of that collapse that safely can be predicted is that it will cost the state financially and politically.
Most liberals, progressives, or what-have-you that I know, though they may have voted overwhelmingly Democratic over the years, rarely identify themselves too closely with the party. Most are as critical of Democrats as they are of Republicans, in terms of performance feeling more aligned with the former mostly because of ideology (not accomplishment). Liberal Democrats have long been among the state government's most vocal critics, beginning at least in the Fifties, if not earlier. Read early Molly Ivins, where she spends a lot more time criticizing conservative Democrats than Republicans. Nationally, the defense of Clinton certainly included partisan loyalists and the personality-enthralled, but most were driven more by outrage over the vicious partisan assault than unquestioning loyalty. In fact, many wished the mobilizing attack campaign would abate so they could return to criticizing the president and Democratic lawmakers.
Currently, conservative and right-wing believers seem more driven by Republican partisan loyalty than deeply rooted beliefs and long-held ideas. The ludicrous rationalizations offered in support of any and all Republican actions ignore all principles and policies. The notion that there is some uncontrolled hate campaign against Bush rather than disagreement with his policies rests on little evidence. The ongoing attack on "liberal" media as editorializing rather than reporting is clearly just the opposite. Instead of the news of American deaths and details of reconstruction problems in Iraq, they want celebrations of American achievements. This is like criticizing news media for reporting on traffic deaths and accidents rather than the hundreds of safe miles driven by commuters each day. Heads are not only buried in the sand, but they insist that those who haven't done so are traitors. Where have conservatives' passions, traditions, and deep love of their country above party gone?
About the reporting focusing on the bad news and ignoring the good: It is way too early to makes those judgments. I'm not buying the Vietnam comparisons in regard to Iraq; the overall circumstances are too dramatically different. Even accepting the most optimistic accounts of rebuilding and restoration efforts by no means leads to the accompanying conclusion of a democratic, stable Iraq. An artificially constructed country with boundaries drawn by European imperialist powers, Iraq has no history of democratic governance. Not only are there Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni, but each hosts competing, sometimes-hostile factions. Think about Yugoslavia, where after 50 years of a much more benign dictatorship, the country degenerated into vicious, factional warfare encouraged by corrupt leaders for their own gain. Reconstruction and restoration, impossibly expensive and logistically complex, are only baby steps toward a cohesive, harmonious, and functioning Iraq.
Right after I dropped my son off at school (my week for car pool), Kevin and Kevin on KGSR-FM played Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Having been thinking so much about Ondine and consequently Ed Lowry (see p.54 and p.56), I started, as my son says, tearing up (this was said in derisive tone as in "Dad, you're not tearing up at that commercial are you?"). The startlingly fresh day, defined by the song, offered proper mourning for their memories. Ondine I write about in this issue. Ed -- our leader, our teacher, and our friend -- was teaching film at SMU when he died in 1985. Recently in Toronto, when I noted that hardly a month goes by that I don't think of him, both the Chronicle's Marjorie Baumgarten and Sony Classics' Michael Barker offered that not a day went by that they didn't, either. Barker told me a story that I hope he doesn't mind me retelling. About to board a plane, he bought Andrew Sarris' American Cinema, the auteurists' bible. He looked at it some on the plane. Some time later, Ed was visiting, noticed it, and asked to borrow it. A few days later he returned it, influenced, impressed, and inspired, this loan cementing their life-defining friendship. Sure, Ed would have found that book anyway (the third copy I've owned is falling apart, and I'm a decade and a half away from the time when there wasn't a day I didn't pick it up several times). But there this morning, listening to "the colored girls sing," dreaming of Ondine, missing Ed, I thought about how much of my life was influenced by that moment when Barker handed Lowry Sarris' book. Cherishing the small moments as well as the great ones was easily one of Ondine's themes, and right to this moment, with "Page Two" ridiculously late, every day of my life has been informed and formed by both Ondine and Ed. I can not even begin to conceive how much less it would have been without them.