Short Story: “Imbalance”

Step back from your life for a moment, so you can examine the staging.  This sequence started with “Street Theater“.

Part 2 of a Series
by P. Orin Zack

“I’m what?”

Ferdy Miller gaped at Paula Marks like the thirty-something activist was incapable of reason, which he was beginning to think she was. “Just what I said. You showed your enemies exactly how to defeat you. That street theater you staged the other day was worse than a waste of time. It actively undermined your case.”

Marks had just come out of a long-planned meeting with the state’s attorney general, and Miller had been waiting to buttonhole her in the main floor elevator bay. “Look,” she said, edging towards the exit, “I don’t know who you are, but I’ve been running street theater for a long time. I really don’t think I need your critique. Now, if you don’t mind, I–.”

“Hey,” he said, spreading his hands, “chill. I’m not trying to tear you down. But if you want to change how congressional districts are drawn, you’re gonna need to understand the dynamics.”

“Of the political process?”

“Of negotiation; any negotiation.”

She shook her head. “What are you talking about?”

“A mismatch.” He paused, watching her expression. “A mismatch between the reds and blues on the one hand, and the mob of minor parties on the other.” When he saw the blank expression on her face, he frowned. “Look, can I buy you some coffee?”

“If it will get you to finish whatever it was you wanted to say and then leave me alone, then sure. There’s a barrista on the next block.”

The street theater he mentioned was a symbolic game of ‘monkey-in-the-middle’, with color-coded teams of Democrat blue and Republican red keeping a large ball marked with gerrymandered congressional district lines away from a disorganized mob of third party players. On their way to the coffee shop, the activist asked Miller how many street theater performances he’d been to.

He shrugged. “I wasn’t even there for yours.”


“I watched it… well part of it, anyway, on the Internet. Watched your street theater until the camera guy turned around to pick up the interview you were doing for CQ, the alternative weekly.”

“It’s see-cubed, really, the Capitol City Colloquy… three ‘C’s. But then, that’s one of the problems with relying on video over print for your news.”

“In any case, Ms. Marks,” Miller said, annoyed that she was drifting off topic, “I don’t think you grasp the real reason why those third parties have been locked out of the system, even though you demonstrated it right there in front of the capitol.”

By this time, they’d reached the coffee shop, so they placed their orders, and put the discussion on hold until the drinks were ready. She peeled the lid off hers and took a sip. “What did you think we were demonstrating out there, anyway? From what I’ve gathered, it’s not what we were trying to do for some reason I can’t fathom.”

“Oh, I got the surface symbolism, all right,” he said easily. “Most people, if you could get them to stop and think about it for a minute, would understand that the major parties redraw the districts for one of two reasons. Either they want to pack as many of the opposition’s voters as possible into the same district, so that every vote beyond the 51% needed to win is essentially wasted, or they want to crack a block like that among a number of districts, so none of them will be a majority. Rearranging the taped lines on that ball got that bit across well enough, especially since the teams were narrating the schemes as they went along. But you really blew it with your third team.”

Paula Marks said nothing. She just continued to sip her coffee.

Instead of continuing the train of thought, Miller craned in his seat, taking stock of the other patrons. “See those two people by the gift rack?” he said, indicating a balding man in a suit jacket and a much younger man whose right foot was tapping the table leg.

She nodded. “Probably a job interview. What about them?”

“What interests me is the imbalance. It’s a dialog between a corporation and a person. The person is at a disadvantage.”

“And how is that relevant to the redistricting problem?”

“What it’s relevant to is the third group in your street theater. The first two are actual teams. The two major parties act as a unit for some purposes, so it doesn’t matter which person had their hands on that gerrymander ball they were tossing around. But the other group… Now, they–.”

A sudden clatter of furniture silenced the store. The interviewee was standing, his chair was on its back behind him, and he had a fist raised in anger. “Sure, you are,” he said loudly. “And I suppose now you’re going to tell me there’s no such thing as a do-not-hire list at the company either.”

The man in the suit was quickly reddening, his icy glare turning away any patron who dared make eye contact with him. “We both know there’s no way to make a charge like that stick. So if you had any wish to work in the industry around here, I suggest you just suck it up and make believe it never happened.”

The young man breathed heavily, and glanced around the store, at a crowd that was studiously ignoring him. He opened his mouth, but instead of saying anything further, he turned and fled, leaving a half-finished drink behind.

Miller pointed at the door behind him, which was already swinging shut. “As I said, a person is at a disadvantage when negotiating with a corporation. It’s a matter of size. And that’s if the corporation is willing to speak with the person at all. That’s not always the case.”

“I still want to know,” Paula Marks said tightly, “what that has to do with redistricting, or with our street theater.”

“It’s that third group. They’re not really a team, not like the two major parties. And I have to assume you knew that, because you didn’t dress them in any sort of team outfit.”

She shrugged. “Of course we didn’t. Each one represented a different minor party. Their outfits did reflect something about several of the minor parties, though. But so what?”

“So this. The two major parties consider themselves equal, so they’ll negotiate with one another. That’s how you get sweetheart gerrymanders that strengthen both of them against the rising number of voters who are choosing to side with one or another of the minor parties. It wouldn’t matter which party was in power when the lines are redrawn. Any district that threatened to have a majority of a minor party would be cracked, even if the only way to accomplish that were to give control of a district to the other major party. They work together, just like your racketeering suit charges, but you’ll have about as good a chance of airing that in public as that interviewee had of getting the people in this room to intervene for him.”

“Hold it,” Paula Marks said when Miller finally paused for air, “wait a minute. Are you suggesting that the minor parties would do better if they all threw in together?”

“At the very least, that way they’d act in some coordinated way if they ever got their hands on that ball. But do you really think that’s ever likely to happen? I mean, the whole point of there being all those parties is that they appeal to people in a variety of different ways. So as long as the majors keep the independents split up like that, they can’t constitute any kind of a challenge. And that’s something that your street theater made abundantly clear. All it takes to keep the minors at bay is to keep them each focused on their own agenda. Divided we fall, and all that.”

By this time, the normal hubbub of competing conversations had reasserted itself, and the interviewer had started bussing the table. Paula Marks had been eyeing him ever since the younger man left the shop, and her divided attention was again starting to annoy Miller. Since she hadn’t responded to his last comment after a prolonged silence, he raised his arm to try getting her attention, but put it down again when it became obvious that she was watching someone just coming in.

“That’s Erica Oerstblander, the reporter from see-cubed,” she said, pointing towards the door. She started to raise her hand to signal the newcomer, but lowered it again when she realized that Oerstblander was zeroing in on the interviewer.

Miller turned in time to see the reporter stoop and right the interviewee’s chair. He nodded.

“Just what was that all about, Marty?” Oerstblander said, glancing back towards the door. “I just ran into a friend of mine outside, and I can tell you he was pretty upset. Are you so threatened by a little competition that you can’t see an offer of collaboration when it bites you?”

Marty snorted. “You might want to be a little more careful about the friends you pick, then. That squirt thought we needed some kind of freelance video crew tagging along on stories. Acted like he had some kind of legitimate credentials just because some website lets him stream low quality phonecam footage. Jerk.”

The reporter’s eyes narrowed, and she visibly struggled to control her temper. “Look,” she said forcefully, “I wouldn’t have gotten the name of the corporate stooge that threatened me the other day if a freelance citizen videographer hadn’t been streaming the incident. In fact, the person who IDed the guy was just someone watching the feed.”

“Yeah. But that just makes my point. Your ‘source’ has no more credibility than the idiot I just spoke to. If that’s your idea of journalism, then maybe you ought to think about getting into another line of work.”

She nodded. “I just might.”

Miller watched dispassionately as the man blew past Oerstblander and left the store. “Geez,” he said, “that guy could use a time-out.”

Paula Marks rose and called the reporter over. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“Sure,” she said as she pulled out a chair, “but I don’t think they have anything strong enough in this place.”

Miller extended a hand. “Hi,” he said, “I’m here because of you, you know.”


“Yeah. I’m your ‘source’, the one who IDed your attacker. And I’d like to help the both of you expand this story a bit.”

“Hmmm,” Oerstblander said happily, “maybe I should be buying you the drink.”


[Afterword: the fallout from the street theater continues in “Wedge Issues“]

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack


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