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Column: 'Cliff' disaster likely to reoccur


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INDIANAPOLIS — So, the deep thinkers in Congress managed to get a deal that would avoid the fiscal cliff disaster they devised themselves, but not before demonstrating, once again, how dysfunctional our political culture is.

The deal our leaders arrived at pleased almost no one. And the way they arrived at the deal managed to inspire fear in the markets and doubts around the world about our government’s ability to meet challenges in any rational way.

The worst thing about it is that we will get to do it all over again in another couple of months.

I’d like to say things will go better next time, but I would be lying if I did.

The truth is Congress will continue to careen from crash to crash like a blind man behind the wheel of a race car.

That’s because we’ve set up a system of choosing legislators that rewards unyielding intransigence and rigid ideological obstinacy.

Most people’s eyes glaze over when the discussion turns to gerrymandering, the sordid art of carving legislative districts for partisan advantage. It’s not just that they see the subject as boring. It’s also that they think gerrymandering really doesn’t affect them.

They’re wrong.

Gerrymandering in large part created the dysfunctional political culture we now have.

In the first place, it distorts election results to suggest a greater dominance by one party or the other.

In the 2012 election, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives picked up 49.1 percent of the vote across the nation. Republican candidates won 48.1 percent.

But the districts had been drawn so that the GOP actually ended up controlling the House, 234-201.

In Indiana, the results were even more dramatic. Republican candidates for the Indiana House of Representatives captured roughly 54 percent of the vote in 2012 but were able to lay claim to 69 of the 100 seats in the

chamber.

When a system distorts the voters’ preferences that violently, that system eats away at its own foundation — the principle that our government draws its authority from the consent and support of the governed.

But that’s the big picture problem.

Closer to the ground, gerrymandering gives us leaders who lack basic leadership skills. Put simply, gerrymandering gives us candidates who not only don’t know how to reach out to people who disagree with them, but who don’t even see the value in doing so, even when common interests are at stake. Gerrymandering gives us deal-makers who haven’t the slightest idea how to strike a deal.

That’s because these candidates emerge from districts that are specifically crafted to have overwhelming majorities of people who think exactly the same way. In order to get elected — and re-elected over and over again — they never have to work with anyone who thinks in a different way. They might as well spend all their time talking to the mirror.

This country and this state are far more rational than our political system would suggest. Most Americans and most Hoosiers are neither stubbornly conservative nor unyieldingly liberal. They are a combination of ideological traits, conservative in some ways, liberal in others and ambivalent or undecided in still others.

But the system we’ve got now tends to send people who are unfailingly liberal or conservative to represent us. They then spend all their time fighting because they came to leadership believing that their side or their party has a monopoly on both wisdom and virtue.

That’s not the way things were supposed to work. Our system of government was set up to balance enlightened interests. Our elected officials were supposed to resolve our differences, not exacerbate them.

But we now have a system in which our elected representatives are more strident and less reasonable than the country and state they serve.

The only way we can solve that problem is by changing the way we elect our leaders, by taking the power to draw the maps away from the folks who want to use it for purely partisan gain.

That won’t be easy, but the only alternative we have is to continue giving the blind man the keys to the race car.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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