Slay the Dragon (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): American citizens against gerrymandering

I remember well when I heard about gerrymandering for the first time. On one day in 1991, I was going through the third year of my elementary school education, and I and other students of my class were studying elementary sociology under our classroom teacher. At one point, we came across a brief section on gerrymandering in our textbook, and the classroom teacher explained a bit on the origin of gerrymandering, which came from a review of Massachusetts’s redistricting maps of 1812 set by Governor Elbridge Gerry.

At that time, gerrymandering merely felt like an old cheap political tactic to me, but I later came to learn that gerrymandering has been pretty alive and well in the American society even at this point, and Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance’s documentary film “Slay the Dragon” powerfully reminds me of that undeniable fact again as closely observing several groups of good American citizens fighting against this deplorable political tactic. Although they surely face many obstacles here and there, they keep fighting nonetheless, and we come to see that there is still lots of hope for American democracy despite what has happened to it during last 10 years due to that orange-faced prick and his deplorable enablers and supporters.

As closely following their righteous political activities, the documentary also presents to us the long history of gerrymandering in US. The American laws demand that electoral district maps are redrawn every 10 years for correctly reflecting how voters are changed decade by decade, but how to redraw an electoral district map is ultimately determined by the members of state legislature, and that means the incumbent members of state legislature can have more chance of winning as willfully readjusting the boundaries of their electoral districts here and there. For example, you can simply pack all the potential voters against your party into one isolated electoral district, or you can just scatter them all over many different electoral districts where they are bound to be a minor faction.

As a consequence, some of newly modified electoral districts look quite funny due to their weird shapes. In case of Governor Gerry, one of the newly redrawn electoral districts in his state actually looked like a big salamander, and that was how his deliberate partisan tactic and numerous following similar cases came to be called gerrymandering. In the 21th century, gerrymandering tactics have become more skillful and sophisticated mainly thanks to the advance of digital technology, but they still result in a number of truly bizarre cases, and the documentary cheerfully presents some of them for our little amusement.

Although it does not deny that gerrymandering has been time-honored bipartisan activities among Democrat and Republican politicians, the documentary sharply points out how the Republican party has gone all the way with gerrymandering for prolonging its political power and influence during last 10 years. When Barak Obama was elected as the new US President with the overwhelming support for not only him but also the Democratic party in 2008, many leading figures of the Republican party came to fear more for the approaching crisis upon their party due to the constantly decreasing number of white conservative voters, and they were willing to do anything for compensating for this irreversible trend. Once they saw that effective tactics of gerrymandering are the only option for getting their political power back, they hired a number of gerrymandering experts, and they were all willing to finance this political project of theirs, called Republican Party’s Redistricting Majority Project, as much as they could.

The documentary gives us the detailed explanation on how they accomplished their aims step by step. First, as happily riding on the Tea Party movement in the early 2010s, they supported lots of hardcore conservative Republican candidates here and there around many different states, and, what do you know, this led to a lot more political success than they expected as most of their candidates actually got elected to join state legislature. Once these Republican politicians entered their respective offices, they focused on redrawing the boundaries of their electoral districts for guaranteeing the stability of their positions for 10 years at least, and they consequently became far less concerned about those millions of citizens they were supposed to serve and represent.

One of such cases was from Scott Walker, a Republican politician who got elected as the new Governor of Wisconsin in 2010. Shortly after he started his 4-year tenure in the following year, he embarked on introducing a legislation proposed to effectively eliminate collective bargaining for most Wisconsin public employees, and that understandably caused lots of protests from many people in Wisconsin, but Walker and his fellow local Republican politicians did not have to worry about that much from the beginning because next several years of their political career were already quite safe thanks to the gerrymandering operation behind their back.

Although Governor Walker eventually got what he wanted, that was at least followed by the local grassroot efforts on stopping his and other Republican politicians’ gerrymandering tactics, and the subsequent legal dispute was eventually brought to the US Supreme Court in 2017. We see how much a bunch of decent lawyers and activists tried and prepared for presenting a good legal argument in front of those justices of the US Supreme Court, and the mood becomes quite suspenseful and frustrating when they are waiting for the following decision of the US Supreme Court on their case.

Meanwhile, the documentary looks into the inspiring efforts of a young activist named Katie Fahey and the fellow members of her grassroot organization in Michigan. Once they miraculously succeeded in collecting more than 350,000 voter signatures for a ballot initiative amending the state constitution to create an independent redistricting commission, they were certainly delighted to say the least, but there were still several blocks to be overcome thanks to their mighty Republican opponents, and you may find yourself becoming quite anxious during the scene where Fahey and her colleagues are cautiously waiting for the confirmation on whether the citizens of Michigan say yes or no on that ballot initiative in question.

Overall, “Slay the Dragon” may depress you at times for its incisive and alarming picture of the ongoing crisis of American democracy, but it is ultimately uplifting as vividly presenting the stubborn efforts of many decent American citizens out there. To be frank with you, I have no idea on what may happen on next Tuesday in US, but I can only hope that they will not be let down by their dear country.

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