In his classic allegorical novel, Lord of the Flies, William Golding tells the story of a group of schoolboys marooned on a desert island while trying to escape the ravages of war. At first, the boys elect as their leader a responsible lad who tries to maintain a sense of order, but soon some of boys give in to their wilder, darker instincts and turn on the others.
The story traces order's descent into chaos in a bloody showdown between civilization and savagery. It's no contest; savagery carries the day.
The plot line is pretty much the same in Baton Rouge these days as state lawmakers struggle to draw new district lines for themselves and Louisiana's congressmen. Legislators summoned themselves into the special session amid high-minded signals from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who promised not to interfere in the process. Jindal, a Republican, even urged everyone to play nice.
Fat chance of that happening.
Within days, lawmakers turned on one another, much like the "hunters" in Golding's novel picked on the "littluns." After just two days, Jindal joined the fray, pushing a plan that pitted suburban Republicans against New Orleans Democrats. That effort failed, and rival legislative tribes continue to gird for war.
Leges broke last week without sending a single redistricting plan to Jindal for his signature. They are scheduled to return Monday (April 11). The session must end by 6 p.m. Wednesday; the odds favor more political bloodshed by then.
Too bad the legislative story line can't follow that of the novel, which ends with a naval officer arriving to restore order. In Baton Rouge, there is no proverbial adult in the room. Moreover, the boys in the novel at least started out as lovable innocents. One cannot say the same for Louisiana politicians.
Much like the rules of desert island survival, the rules of legislative redistricting are straightforward and unforgiving. They are, in descending order:
Rule No. 1 — Save yourself at all costs.
Rule No. 2 — Help your friends and build your team — but only if it doesn't interfere with Rule No. 1.
Rule No. 3 — Screw your enemies and their team — unless you need them to satisfy Rule No. 1.
Rule No. 4 — If necessary to fulfill Rule No. 1, screw your friends as well.
Rule No. 5 — Justify any treachery by saying, "It's all about the numbers. The numbers are driving this."
There is a more civilized way to draw district boundaries, of course. Thirteen states use nonpartisan commissions to accomplish that task. In most cases, the commissions include Democrats and Republicans in equal proportions, plus a handful of no-party commissioners. They are charged with ignoring factors like incumbency and focusing instead on the numbers.
Skeptics doubtless would argue that it's impossible to take politics out of the equation, but there are ways to select fair-minded people for the job. First, however, lawmakers must be willing to put the public's interests ahead of their own.
In Louisiana, that's a tall order.
Yet lawmakers have a golden opportunity to do that this year, and they should act upon it soon — while the blood on their hands is fresh. The redistricting process won't happen again until at least 2021, after the next census. Thanks to term limits, no Louisiana lawmakers will be eligible to run for their current offices in 2023 — which means they can change the system now without violating Rule No. 1.
All it takes is enough of them to realize it's time to be the adult in the room.