When reporters talk about divides in American politics, they tend to use geological metaphors. Landscapes are said to shift. Social movements are said to send out shockwaves. When a reporter finds a “fault line” in society, you most likely would not be able to locate it on a map.
Except here in Northeast Ohio, that is, where the map might deceive you into believing a quite literal fault line in America’s political landscape exists. You would seem to find it at the border between two neighboring congressional districts that stretch south into Cleveland’s suburbs: the heavily Democratic 11th district and the swing-y but largely Republican 16th district. At that proverbial fault line, which runs along Broadview Road through North Royalton and bisects a golf course in Broadview Heights, one would expect to find the tectonic plates of red and blue butting and grinding against each other in a contest of wills.
That is, of course, not the case. While some of the cities along it are technically in the deep-blue 11th, the entire “fault line” is firmly Trump country. In 2020, the now-former president carried the bulk of Cleveland’s southern exurbs, even ones on the blue side of the border in the 11th, like Broadview Heights. The crack in the mantle is purely an illusion, a byproduct of drawing the borders of the 11th so that, like a limb hanging off Cleveland proper, it dangles through the Republican-dominated suburbs of Cuyahoga County before kicking into Akron to pick up additional Democratic votes.
The 11th-16th fault line facade is one of the most telling examples in Northeast Ohio of the forces that are shaping American politics for the worse: our tendency to group into communities where similar ideologies are overwhelmingly dominant, and the gerrymandering of districts to capture those voters and weaponize them.
Single-party districts have long been a feature of American politics. But in the past, moderates and other minority groups could still make themselves heard in districts dominated by one party, cooling the fires of hyper-partisanship by demanding that issues of local import, like fixing a specific bridge or bringing home school funding, be given just as much weight as national ones.
That model now seems decidedly antiquated. But it shouldn’t be. As Ohio embarks on a new round of House redistricting later this year, deeply gerrymandered districts could (and should) be disposed of, in the process reviving local-first governance to its old prominence.
There is much value in drawing House districts to follow city and county lines, as voters called for when they overwhelmingly approved the reformed system in 2018. Districts united first by a shared city or regional identity used to force representatives into at least some positions that ran counter to the dictates of their party. Even if their district favored one party, a politician could still justify an eccentric position by pointing to the district’s diverse local needs.
Take the localism of politicians like Louis Stokes, who represented the 21st district, the forerunner of the 11th, or Ralph Regula, a moderate Republican of the 16th district who referred to himself as “a conservative on spending, a progressive on programs.”
Bad things happen when the local identities once harnessed by politicians in the Stokes and Regula mold is muddled or uprooted. Look no further than the current 11th and 16th, where city or regional identities are all but irrelevant. Both districts are drawn nonsensically. The 11th includes the fake-out fault line running all the way from Cleveland to Akron, and the 16th somehow unites the wildly disparate communities of Wooster and Rocky River, which are an hour’s drive away from each other. In districts like that, voters are Democrats or Republicans first and Clevelanders second. General elections thus become formalities, and primaries are battles waged almost exclusively over the direction of the national parties.
In the 11th, for instance, the race to replace Marcia Fudge is entering its final stretches before an Aug. 3 primary, and will be a test of a national question: should Democratic power rest with fighters or compromisers? Nina Turner, a fierce progressive and former Bernie Sanders surrogate, has painted herself as the can-do fighter, ready to do battle with foes inside and outside the party ranks. She is a supporter of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free public universities and the cancellation of all college debt. Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, meanwhile, has presented herself as the voice of the party’s more restrained wing and a faithful supporter of President Joe Biden. She favors a public option, limited student debt cancellation and free college for families with incomes less than $125,000.
A similar, if far more exaggerated, national-first pattern has emerged in the 16th district, where the central question of a primary that will be fought next year has thus far been whether Republicans must swear absolute fealty to former president Donald Trump to get elected. Despite voting in line with Trump’s positions nearly 86% of the time, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez is already facing considerable intraparty ire over casting a vote to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. Several candidates, including Max Miller, a former Trump advisor and son of local power broker Sam Miller, are hoping that Republican voters’ unhappiness over Gonzalez’s impeachment vote will boost them into the former Buckeye football star’s seat.
Both races illustrate the wider problem: even when the candidates themselves have deep local roots, as they do across the board in the 11th and 16th, they are forced to emphasize national issues because that’s what the bulk of voters in their deeply gerrymandered districts care about.
That’s why the upcoming round of House redistricting, which will be taking place this fall, is so important. The new rules will be tested for the first time. But they are hopefully restrictive enough that communities won’t be sliced and diced so egregiously. Contiguous districts would give representatives cover to respond to the heterogeneous demands of whole cities or counties, tamping down on hyper-partisanship.
It is sadly true that drawing maps to follow sensible boundaries and undoing the worst gerrymanders won’t convince Americans to start living in communities with people who do not share their political opinions. But drawing new, more contiguous districts in place of districts like the current 11th and 16th will, hopefully, relegate the hardest-core partisans from the soloist role back to being part of a diverse chorus once again, injecting at least some much-needed moderation back into our hyper-partisan politics. That may feel like tinkering on the margins. But the margins are where change tends to start, and this is one change we cannot do without.