The shooting of Steve Scalise, the Republican House whip and second baseman, has inspired a new round of soul-searching about why politics is so mean these days.
The answer is not in our souls. It’s in our laws.
The June 14 shooting of Scalise and three other people by a left-wing nut at a Republican team baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., might in fact not be a symptom of the vitriol everybody accuses everybody else of these days. Violence has been a feature of American political culture from Hamilton to “Hamilton.” If we’re going to blame political violence on anything, blame it not on our divisive decade but on our divisive 250 years.
Still, it might be true that politics is meaner now in some new way, and that fixing the problem is vital to the health of our democracy. In which case we should look for the real roots of the trouble and not put it all down, as many commentators have done, to some momentary national character flaw.
If elected officials have turned more partisan, their supporters and ad-makers more vicious, the media more opinionated and the public more contemptuous of one another, the reason could be that they all have powerful incentive to do so.
Three incentives leap to mind, all the products of the actions of legislatures and courts:
• Gerrymandering: Manipulating legislative district boundaries to boost the election chances of the party in power is not new. The practice is named, after all, for Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts governor who became vice president under James Madison. But it has played a big role in shaping today’s political landscape.
After Republicans’ sweeping victories in the 2010 congressional and state legislative elections, GOP majorities in many states took advantage of once-a-decade redrawing of district lines in a concerted effort to protect the party’s House incumbents. The maneuver is having its intended effect — and a side-effect.
When voters of one party dominate a district, an incumbent must…