The word “gerrymander” is American, coined to describe the strange salamander-shaped congressional district carved by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and his party to deliver an electoral advantage in 1812. Today, parties controlling state legislatures have used gerrymandering, refined with computing technology, to dilute the political efficacy of voters from the opposing party.
While gerrymandering may be uniquely American, the dynamics underlying the practice — in which purportedly representative political institutions are, in fact, anything but — have been found throughout history. The resulting political inequality can be more destabilizing to a government than outright repression or economic misery. Nowhere do we see this more clearly or profoundly than in France, where the practice provoked a revolution.
While we don’t usually connect the French Revolution or Bastille Day to American gerrymandering, we should. If political institutions come to be seen as unfair, and lose their legitimacy as they did in 18th-century France, change will come about by other, more dramatic, means. Today, as Americans lose faith in their political institutions and democracy, the prospect of more revolutionary change should loom large in compelling us to reform our institutions before it is too late.
In 17th- and 18th-century France, the king enjoyed absolute rule. While a structure for political representation — the so-called Estates-General — existed, that body had not met since 1614. Kings theoretically ruled on the basis of “Divine Right,” or the idea that they were appointed by God, but their power in this period practically depended on weakening the nobility who, historically, exercised enormous local influence. Building a modern, centralized government, and especially the standing army and navy that were its key attributes, was costly — a problem when these noblemen were exempt from paying nearly all taxes.