Producers: Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance Directors: Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance Cast: Katie Fahey and Chris Janowski Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Gerrymandering—the manipulation of the areas included in electoral districts by state legislatures for partisan political purposes—has been a fact of American life for more than a century; this activist documentary offers a brief history of the practice, tracing it back to the man who gave it its name—Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor who, in 1812, created a Boston district that was said to resemble a salamander. It’s a device used by both parties over the decades, but Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance that it was weaponized to the fullest as a tactic by Republicans beginning in 2010, resulting in such assurance that members of that party could not lose their seats that they could effectively implement their ideological preferences without any concern about the possibility of being turned out of office by voters.
One of the interviewees here is the man who spearheaded the decade-long drive to take over state legislatures—a process funded by major Republican donors. Chris Janowski, a cherubic-looking fellow, looks an unlikely mastermind, but the mild-mannered fellow blithely explains how modern technology permits increasingly exact analyses of how best to fashion districts for maximum partisan impact. The resultant legislative majorities can then make major policy changes with little fear of being defeated, however unpopular they might be overall.
The makers and the majority of their interviewees see this “perfection” of gerrymandering as a pernicious assault on American democracy, using two Midwestern examples of the possible result: the election of Governor Scott Walker and a Republican majority in Wisconsin, whose assault on union influence among public employees (among other changes) unleashed angry demonstrations that were nonetheless ineffectual, and overwhelming Republican dominance in Michigan that allowed the appointment of unelected local “czars,” not answerable to voters, one of whom took actions that created the notorious water crisis in Flint.
As the title suggests, however, the film’s emphasis is on efforts to combat the effects of gerrymandering. It follows the attempt of a group of activists to mount litigation to have the extreme form of the practice in Wisconsin declared unconstitutional; the case finds its way to the Supreme Court. It also documents the grassroots campaign of Katie Fahey in Michigan to put an initiative on the ballot to replace legislative control of redistricting with a non-partisan panel. Those opposed to both efforts are portrayed none too positively, while those in favor of them are celebrated. (Efforts similar to the Michigan one in Missouri and Utah are also mentioned, though not covered in detail.)
Those who have followed all of this over the years will already know how things turned out; but even after apparent victories, opponents still try to overturn the results by a variety of machinations, and in the end the issue has not been definitively resolved. The film does not take the story up to the present: only this month, the Virginia legislature itself voted to put a measure to divest itself of the power of redistricting and turn it over to an independent commission up for voter approval, suggesting that it’s possible to bring about change through elections, as unlikely as that seems.
“Slaying the Dragon” is hardly a balanced presentation; it will obviously infuriate Republicans who see the positive effects of gerrymandering on their electoral prospects (along with the voter suppression laws that follow from success) as key to their continued control despite demographic changes, and argue that changes of the sort suggested here would unjustly dilute the influence of their voters.
But they can, of course, make those arguments in a film of their own if they like, and a debate such an alternative picture might generate would be a beneficial one. As it is Goodman and Durrance offer a formidable, if one-sided critique of what they see as a dangerous perversion of American democracy. Cinematographer Sam Russell has photographed the interviewees well, and their comments, embellished with graphics and archival footage, have been intelligently assembled by editor Seth Bomse, while Gary Lionelli music score adds a note of urgency to the proceedings.
Of course, the notion that a pristine, entirely honest democratic system has ever existed in the United States is a delusion; there have always been inequity and corruption in the system. But the way in which gerrymandering is now being employed is, in fact, a new level of malignancy, and even Governor Gerry might be appalled by what has become of his invention.