Short Story: “Wedge Issues”

Food for thought can be a good trade. This sequence started with “Street Theater“.

“Wedge Issues”
Part 3 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
[1/6/2009]

Irfan Chandury thanked the waitress who took their pizza order, and turned her attention back to Wendy Lawrence and Marlin Clovis, the two political organizers she’d asked to join her for lunch. “I really do appreciate your help on this,” she said, the jewelry in her hair rustling softly as she moved.

Marlin snorted. “Not that it’ll do any good.” He glanced at the sportscast on the wall-mount TV. “Ever since that video of Paula Marks’s gerrymander-ball street theater fiasco hit the social networks, all of the minor parties have been ridiculed in the blogosphere. They’re calling us Keystone Kops! What was she trying to do, anyway?”

“Don’t be so hard on her,” Wendy said, her hand hovering unsteadily, just short of touching him. “It was a valid point, even though her staging was insulting.”

“Yeah, right. Good for her. So now everyone thinks the Democrats and Republicans are doing a public service by keeping us third-party rabble out of the halls of power. It’s demeaning!”

Irfan took a breath and eyed them each in turn. “This may sound cruel,” she said quietly, “but unfair as it might be, I think we’re falling into the caricature her players laid out. Fighting one another won’t solve anything.”

“Do we have a choice?” Wendy said incredulously. “Our political parties may have different priorities, but truth be told, we really are all fighting over the allegiance of the independents. It’s a zero-sum game, if you ask me. The only way any of us can gain votes is to win them away from one of the others.”

“She’s right,” Marlin said. “I don’t know, maybe we are just comic relief as far as the bulk of the voters are concerned. You’ve seen how we’re treated. We’re lucky if we can get one of them to take a flier, let alone read it.”

Irfan tried valiantly to stifle a grin.

“What’s that for?” he said irritably. “Do you think it’s funny?”

“Not funny. But Wendy just did a good job of reframing our lunch.”

They looked at one another, and then at Irfan.

“The pizza. Everyone wants a bigger piece of the pie, but we’ve only ordered the one.”

Marlin looked away in annoyance. “And I suppose the toppings are the issue clusters we’re each focused on?”

“Works for me. But think about it, the situation Wendy just laid out is no different from any number of arguments of who gets which slice of a garbage pizza.”

“Speaking of which,” the waitress said affably from behind Marlin, “here’s yours. Make some space, would you please?”

When she’d gone, he looked at the pie, at the pizza wheel, and then at Irfan. “You asked for it uncut on purpose, didn’t you?”

She nodded. “I suppose you could call it ‘dinner theater’. But the point is that given the situation, we can either argue over who gets what, or cut it evenly and each get a random pizza demographic.”

He picked up the pizza wheel. “Okay, I’ll play. What kinds of issues do the pepperoni represent?”

Wendy reached out and traced the area of highest pepperoni density. “Whatever it is, the center of their community looks to be over by the crushed pepper shaker. Pepperoni’s round like the Earth, so let’s call that the greens.”

Marlin poked the wheel at a strip of green pepper. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to call these things greens? I mean… if you’re assigning symbols, they ought to be easy to remember.”

“Call them whatever you want,” Irfan said agreeably, “but remember this: we’ll all get something to eat – and by that I mean voters – if we stop fighting among ourselves and focus on what’s really important.”

Wendy made a face. “Eating voters? Wouldn’t that be symbolic cannibalism?”

Marlin laughed, and was just about to put wheel to pizza when something on the TV caught his attention. The local news had cut into the sportscast for a report from the capitol. Somehow, all the attention given to gerrymandering in the wake of Paula Marks’ street theater blow-up had inspired someone to leak an explosive story about the upcoming redistricting plans.

“According to our source,” the reporter said, “there has been collusion, in the form of secret backroom discussions, between strategists from the Democratic and Republican parties, about how to deal with a particularly sticky situation that they’re facing in this state. According to projections made by their respective polling firms, by the time of the next redistricting, the majority of voters in the eighth congressional district will have left the ranks of the two major parties.”

Irfan glowed. “Yes!”

“If you recall the massive anti-war rallies of a few years ago,” the reporter continued, “they were coordinated as a coalition of dozens of small groups. The strategists are reportedly concerned that the various minor parties among which those voters are currently divided might attempt something similar. If they succeed, it would be much like the umbrella organization that coordinated the efforts of all the groups protesting George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.”

Someone muttered “Traitors, all of them!” from the table behind Marlin.

“Our source asserts that the two parties have drawn up an agreement stating that, from now on, whichever one performs a given redistricting will crack any district like that in order to prevent such a loss of control over the district. This agreement, if it really exists, states that it would not matter whether the Democratic Party or the Republican Party ended up with a majority in the resulting district or districts, as long at it was not possible for a coalition of minor parties to claim it.”

“Jesus,” Marlin breathed, the cutter slipping from his hand into the cheese. With a jolt, he fished it back out, dropped it onto his plate, and sucked at his singed fingertip. “Ow!”

“I’m not sure I followed that,” Wendy said, handing him a clean napkin, “but it did sound like the same kind of schoolyard bullying I saw in the video. What’s ‘cracking’?”

“I was about to offer an explanation, Marlin” Irfan said, watching him clean off the handle, “but I get the distinct impression that you know what that’s about far more intimately than I do.”

He nodded. “Okay, and I’ll use our lunch for a visual aid. But first, we’ll have to redefine the toppings. Our pepperoni community over near the crushed peppers represents the potential coalition of all minor-party voters. We’ll call that district eight.” He made an imaginary set of cuts around that area. “If the election were held today, and that coalition held, we as a group would have a member of congress on our side. But what those Democratic and Republican strategists want to do is change how the pie is sliced, by cutting that community of independent voters down the middle, putting half of our pepperoni in district eight, and half of them in district nine. That way, the pepperoni can’t win a seat in either district. Neither of the major parties cares which of them gets it in either district, as long as it isn’t us. That’s called cracking.”

Wendy reached out and touched a piece of pepperoni. “You mean it wouldn’t matter if we could win an election legitimately? That even if we did, they’d just make sure it couldn’t happen again?”

“Exactly,” he said, “the system is fixed,” his voice reflecting his growing ire. “Gerrymandering has been going on for a long time now. As long as elections are winner-take-all and the party in power gets to mess with the rules — which in this case means moving the lines — they don’t need a majority of voters in the state to have a majority in the state house, or in congress, for that matter. And that’s just one tactic. The other one is called packing. That’s where you draw the lines so you end up with an overwhelming majority in one district so the surrounding ones can get a seat. They have to sacrifice a seat to do that, but it still screws the voters and makes a mockery of democracy. Talk about wasting your vote!”

The people at the table to Marlin’s back had stopped talking, and were eyeing him in annoyance. One of them, a stocky man wearing a Baron Construction ball cap called out. “Hey, keep it down, huh? We’re tryin’ to eat, here.”

Marlin turned around. “Baron, huh? The company that forces employees to sign a GOP loyalty oath and attend prayer breakfasts? I might have guessed a Republican sympathizer would get in my face.”

The man stood. “Sympathizer? SYMPATHIZER? I’ll have you know I’m proud to be a member of the only truly patriotic force in this country, the Republican Party.”

Irfan tapped the table. “Marlin,” she said emphatically, “that’s Sam Baron himself. The owner.”

“Thanks, honey.” Baron winked at her. “Now, from what I had no choice but to overhear, your little lunch companion here seems to think that there’s something inherently unfair about adjusting district boundaries to maintain the one-man-one-vote equality mandated by the Supreme Court.”

“Equality?” Marlin said, rising to the bait. “You think the only basis for equality has to do with numbers? With how many voters there are in a district, regardless of what kind of people they are? Well, forgive my bluntness, Mr. Baron, but nothing could be further from the truth. Your party’s perverse obsession with obedience to authority has colored everything you see and do. It has poisoned the revolutionary dreams of the rabble that founded this nation and rejected the authority of the foreign businesses trying to suck the colonies dry.” He jabbed a finger towards Baron. “Equality, Mr. Baron, is, and must be, about how we treat one another, and how the government we created treats each and every one of us. And unless the people are empowered to elect representatives that reflect their view of what this country and their role in it are, they do not have equality.”

Baron smirked and turned away. He grabbed his jacket, said, “Good luck with that,” snatched the tip from his table, and ushered his group out of the restaurant.

“Now, then,” Wendy said in relief, “can we finally cut the pizza? It must be ice cold by now.”

“That won’t be necessary,” their waitress said, holding a tray with another pie. “This one’s on me. I’ve been hoping for a way to keep that slime from coming back, and I think you just did it.” She set it down. “I would ask one favor though.”

Marlin grinned. “Name it!”

“I’d like to join you, if you don’t mind. And there’s something I’d like to ask.”

“Shoot.”

“Well,” she said, while slicing the new pie, “you’ve been talking about the pizza as if the layout of the citizen pepperoni and all the other toppings were ordained by god or something.” She quickly slid pieces onto several plates and passed them around. “But since we make the things, we see it differently. To us, it’s like there’s a bucket of pepperoni citizens and a bucket of green pepper citizens, and they could end up anywhere, unless of course you’d asked for some special arrangement.”

Irfan took a bite. “Go on…”

“Well, I was thinking. The city doesn’t use election districts for city council members.”

“Sure,” Marlin said. “They’re at-large, so they all really represent everyone in the city.”

“Except they don’t. Not really. People vote for the ones who represent their particular issues. Political party doesn’t seem to figure as prominently in the council races. So I was wondering whether it would be possible for congressmembers to be elected that way, instead of by geographic districts. That would also eliminate the whole problem of gerrymandering.”

“Wait, wait,” Wendy said excitedly. “I just had an even better idea. What if, instead of declaring for a political party that stood for some cluster of issues, candidates could declare directly for the issue clusters?”

“You mean to say,” the waitress said, her eyes narrowed in thought, “that if each topping were an issue cluster – say renewable energy, or gay rights — people could vote directly for the toppings they wanted in office? But then the congress, or the state house or whatever, would be a direct reflection of the interests and concerns of the citizens. Is that even possible?”

Marlin grinned. “If it isn’t, maybe its time to really reinvent government.”

THE END

[Afterword: The exploration continues in “Political Quilt“]

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack

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