Every 10 years, the United States conducts a census, and politicians redraw the borders of our congressional districts. In an ideal world, this would matter very little, but in the practical world, it matters a great deal.
Voters are not evenly distributed. Pockets of Republicans live in the midst of Democratic wards. Soccer moms, urban activists, and environmentalists are not evenly distributed. And the location of ethnic neighborhoods matters a great deal.
How these political boundaries are redrawn - the history, policy, and art of it, who is included, who excluded, and who is to decide - is the subject of Mark Monmonier's new book, "Bushmanders and Bullwinkles."
"Bushmander" is Monmonier's term for contorted Congressional districts created by computers that isolate voters on a bloc-by-bloc basis and try to ensure that the preferred party wins. It's a term adapted from gerrymander, a word coined in 1812 to describe a mildly convoluted district in Massachusetts - Gerry was the governor, and some wag thought the district resembled a salamander.
"Bullwinkle" was the nickname for a district in New York that bore a vague resemblance to the moose of cartoon fame.
Throughout his book, Monmonier pays particular attention to new districts that began to emerge in the late 1980s under President Bush. Many of these intricately sinuous districts were designed to ensure that there would be more districts in which ethnic minorities would be in the majority, allowing them to elect minority representatives.
Monmonier suggests that such efforts were part of a Republican plot to increase Republican representation in Congress. By isolating minority voters, Monmonier asserts, Republicans ensured that surrounding districts were increasingly white, thereby increasing the chance that those districts would vote Republican.
But here arises the problem. Monmonier asserts these charges but offers no real evidence, no real proof. Instead, we are left with a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland logic. If participants' motives were actually this convoluted, it would be a fascinating - and important - tale. But scant evidence is provided, and little insight into participants' motives is produced. There is no documentation of Republican motives for creating African-American majority districts. Indeed, no proof is given that Republicans were even responsible for the Justice Department's crusade to enthrone minority-majority districts as a new principle of American politics - a crusade that did, in fact, continue through both the Bush and Clinton presidencies.
One case in which a minority activist apparently co-opted the Justice Department is given in brief, but that hardly supports Monmonier's assertion that Republicans were engaged in a rare feat of Machiavellian gymnastics.
That said, the book is valuable and should prove an enjoyable read for the policy wonk in the family. General readers hoping to understand the recent census and upcoming Congressional redistricting battles will find the book a serviceable guide. Even a quick browse through the maps and graphics is wonderfully informative.
Wm. Bradley Stock is a former faculty member at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor