When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gill v Whitford last month, there was a surprising face seated upfront with Bill Whitford, the retired law professor who helped bring the case that could curb extreme partisan gerrymandering: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, it set off a selfie storm at the high court.
The veteran actor and former two-term Republican governor of California remains cast in his favorite and most important role: Helping save democracy.
As governor, he says, he realized how redistricting not only created uncompetitive elections, but pushed both parties to their extremes. Fearing only a primary challenge from the base, no one wanted to come together and solve problems. So Schwarzenegger invested his political capital in reforming the system, and didn’t stop when his first effort failed.
Two successful referendums later and suddenly politicians were no longer able to draw their own districts. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission had that job and began to chip away at the powerful iceberg of incumbency.
This summer, those efforts earned a prestigious honor from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government. The Commission, a dean wrote in announcing the award, “shows how citizens can take the lead in redistricting efforts to construct maps that respect communities and citizens and are fair to political parties. It is an innovation that other states should consider emulating."
But if something as technical as gerrymandering is having a star moment, it’s in part because Schwarzenegger has lent his star power. His institute at the University of Southern California is dedicated to ending gerrymandering and solving international climate change. On television appearances – and in viral videos earning millions of views – he has assailed Congress for an approval rating that’s lower than herpes.
He takes a simple but serious approach: America has given him a lot. But what he sees as two decades of gridlock and dysfunction in Washington have divided us, seemingly endlessly, across a red and blue divide. It’s repaired only by grown-up leadership willing to prioritize people, and country, over narrow partisan interests.
He’s also brought Republican leaders into the fight. Schwarzengger helped organize a key amicus brief in the Whitford case that generations of iconic GOP officials joined – making the key point to the Court that political reform is an American issue, not a partisan one.
We spoke last month, after the Supreme Court case, while Schwarzenegger broke out one of his trademark cigars.
David Daley: You were sitting with Bill Whitford at the Supreme Court, and it felt like you earned that place of honor by virtue of assembling an amicus brief with so many distinguished Republican governors that makes it clear we don’t have a partisan problem – we have a democracy problem. How did you go about doing that? Was it difficult to persuade these people? And why was it so important to the case?
Schwarzenegger: Well, first of all, I always say there's no such thing as a self-made man. Everything that I accomplish is always because of a lot of people working together. People always say the actor is the star and without him you can't do a movie. But I always tell them that everyone on a movie set is a star, because if we wouldn't have the set builder or the cameraman or the electricians, we would have nothing.
It’s the same with redistricting reform. I'm very passionate about this subject, but I need help. Let's all get together, Democrats and Republicans, and not make it a political issue, not make it about Democrats or Republicans, but make it about America. Let’s make it about the people that we serve and that we're supposed to serve. We should be public servants and not party servants. The Constitution doesn't say, "We the politicians." It says, "We the people." I was able to convey that to enough Republicans that they came on board – and of course, some Democrats, also. We can make this a post-partisan or bipartisan issue.
Have we lost that spirit in this country? And what extent do you think extreme districting plays in pushing politicians into their silos? What role does uncompetitive districts play in how polarized and gridlocked our politics has become?
Well, as you know, gerrymandering has been around for 205 years, so there's nothing new about that. But I think that the technology has become such that now you can figure out in the minute, minute details where the voters are that you want. As we always say, gerrymandering is about politicians picking the voters rather than the voters picking the politicians. That's what they have done. They've gotten so smart with the technology to know exactly how to draw the district lines so that they really get the perfect Democratic district and the perfect Republican district. You now have to now be so far to the left to win the Democratic district, and so far to the right to win a Republican district, that when they go to work and get to the Capitol and try to work together, they can't because they are so far left and so far to the right that they can't meet in the middle.
This has become a real dilemma. The other big challenge is that 20 years ago we didn't have specific media that is for the left and a specific media that's for the right. That was all created in the last 20 years or so, and now that has become really extreme. I mean, the right wing is really extreme about the way they attack the left, and the left-wing media is really extreme in the way they attack the right. People watch the news and they get affected by that.
The answer is redistricting reform. We will have it done in states where we have an initiative process to do it the same way as in California, by creating an independent commission and take the power away completely from the politicians. And the rest of the country you just have to do it through the Supreme Court, or through lower courts where they can maybe come up with a system that is a better system than what we have today.
You served as a governor, and you actually sat and had to try to bring some of these partisans together to solve problems. How do we bring people together when we have polarized media, when we live in geographic silos, when we have the kind of clustering that we have? And then you have the district technology that allows you to cleave people so perfectly that you form these perfect and uncompetitive districts. It's a really toxic combination. Does it threaten democracy? And how do we fix it?
Of course it threatens democracy. I come maybe from a little bit of a different angle than most people because I don't just look at it as political reform. I look at it also as an immigrant that came over here to America because America was the number one country, and so I witnessed firsthand how great America is and how much it has helped me become who I am. Everything I've accomplished in life, in bodybuilding, in movies, in politics -- it's all because of America.
I'm very intense about keeping American number one and keeping it that great nation for future generations. It's not just political reform. I want to protect America, and America is in danger because redistricting creates a very safe atmosphere for the incumbent. When the incumbent politician can comfortably stay in their position, they don't have to really perform. There's no motivation because there's no competition. Only competition creates performance. If there's no competition and they're in a safe district and they win by 37 percentage points over their opponents. That is huge! Show me one sports event where the first guy wins by 37 percent!
It was even worse than that last year: Incumbents won by an average of 37 points – 98 percent of them returned to office, by that margin, even while the institution had an approval rating around 10 percent. Something’s wrong.
Yes, we know that something's wrong and we know the system is fixed. It's a corrupt system, and it's a system that is designed for the politicians.
You make, and this brief makes, such a powerful argument about how broken our governing process is in America. Yet at the Supreme Court, you had nine justices talking about how the mathematical standards to measure this are, in the words of Chief Justice Roberts, "social science gobbledy-gook."
So can this be measured? And is the court going about this the right way? On one hand, this democracy is clearly in crisis. We all recognize this. On the other hand, you have justices who want a standard to show them when districts are drawn to an extreme, and others who say that kind of quantification is too random or too complicated?
Well, it was a real eye opener to sit there and to listen to the arguments from both sides, because the Supreme Court was very clear that their concerns about getting involved is different than yours and mine. We basically say, "Look, if you have an initiative process, we can go directly to the people. If we don't have one, what other way is there than the Court?"
That’s why we went to the Court. But their way of looking at it is, "Is this really what the Supreme Court has been created for, to interfere with democracy and for us to decide that this is threatening democracy or democracy is declining? And then if we do so, how do we know that that system then would be better than what we have? Maybe it would be worse, and then what happens? Then the people would be pointing their fingers instead of the politicians and saying, 'They fixed the system and created this gerrymandering 205 years ago and then after 205 years, the Supreme Court came in and fixed it even worse.'"
That’s a dilemma and it gets very complicated. That’s what the Supreme Court has to figure out. And they have to figure it out in the next few months! Can they in fact produce a better system? I think they can. It may not end gerrymandering, but at least reduce the extremism of gerrymandering. For instance, when we see that a party has 50 percent of the vote but only 35 percent of the congressional representation, you know there’s something off. Maybe they’ll come back and say, ‘Ok, if it is more than a 5 percent spread, then it is unconstitutional. Maybe they can come up with a formula where they can really ease the pain and save the day without themselves getting into a weird, risky situation with voters. They’re brilliant people and they will figure it out.
This case is a plea to save us from toxic partisanship.
Exactly. That’s right.
But if I heard Chief Justice Roberts correctly, he’s not eager to sign up to have the courts in the position of choosing between competing partisan maps.
Exactly. So they’re in a dilemma, too. We’re all in a dilemma. They have to figure out how to get over theirs. But politicians, our leaders, they have to figure out how to get over theirs.
During oral arguments for Gill v. Whitford, Paul Smith, the attorney for the Wisconsin citizens, spoke often about how this could be the last chance for the Court to take on extreme partisan gerrymandering. If this ruling goes the other way, would you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the state of American democracy?
Well, first of all, I'm the forever optimist. So right now, I'm not sitting here saying, "What is if this goes south?" I sit here and I say, "What is if this goes north?" I'd rather spend time on that.
What's your vision in that case? What could our politics could look like if we were able to solve these structural electoral problems?
We always have to do everything that we can to create coherency to the system and to serve the people. This is not serving the people. For 20 years, we have been talking now about building more infrastructure. We've talked for 20 years now that we're going to have to comprehensive immigration reform. We have to create true universal healthcare, and we have to lower the debt and get rid of the deficit. All of issues have to be addressed, and right now they're not.
Those have all proven to be tall orders, even with clear majority support. It’s a heavier lift still when the system is structured in such a way as to deepen polarization and incentivize gridlock.
That's right. I think that it needs leadership from politicians who have to really make an effort -- and not just listen to the party, but to listen also to the people.