Wednesday, February 21, 2018

BTRTN: Can't We All Just Get Along? A Plan to Reduce Our Polarized Politics

Tom takes up a challenge to look beyond tribal warfare in these polarized times.

We had dinner with friends the other night, a couple we had not seen in several years, not since well before Donald Trump turned the world upside down, and with it, upended polite dinner conversation across the country.

The subject turned, of course, from pleasantries to politics, and I quickly got on my high horse and delivered my standard pitch – we need to flip 24 seats in the House come November to stop the Trump Agenda dead in its tracks.  If we can just gain control of one chamber of Congress, then we Dems can control what bills go to the floor, and on what terms those bills will be signed.  It’s a start on the path to defeating Trump himself, in 2020, or Pence, if Mueller has incontrovertible goods.  And blah, blah, blah.

This is boilerplate Dem red meat (or blue, in this case), and it usually falls on welcoming ears, and a jolly good wish-fest is had by all.  Maybe it nets us a little more juice to get us all in the game, perhaps translating into donations and even phone calls to “get out the vote” – for our side – come the fall.

Image result for red blue handshakeBut our dinner companions did not want to hear it.  They had something else in mind.  Turns out she runs an education not-for-profit for inner city kids, and he’s an independent/Libertarian, and neither were particularly interested in tribal bloodlust.  They had a worthier goal in mind – how do we make our politicians work together again, and find common ground?

So, with my friends as inspiration, I offer my non-partisan “magic wand” solutions to bringing “compromise” and “moderation” back to our national politics.  I say “magic wand” because I have no illusions about the odds of making any of this happen.  But they are concrete actions designed to appeal to those who want real solutions to fight for, and these ideas are legitimately within the realm of political possibility.

Each of the three parts seeks to remove aspects of our political system that incentivize polarization.  If implemented, politicians would need seek the votes of those more toward the middle of the political spectrum – presumably on more moderate platforms -- because those voters will have more power in the process, while their extremist counterparts (and those who fund their causes) would have less.

1)     Fix gerrymandering. This one is actually in play, with the Supreme Court in a strong position to rule, for the very first time, that certain congressional district maps are unconstitutional.  We will know by June what they have in mind.  Now, one of my friends pointed out, “fixing” gerrymandering is no magic bullet, as a recent Nate Silver podcast made clear.  Nate’s point was eliminating gerrymandering will still leave many districts that are still heavily slanted to one party of the other – but it can restore balance to some districts.

The facts (according to Nate) are that as recently as 1996, there were more than 160 of our 438 congressional districts “in play,” where the “partisan lean” was 10 percentage points or less.  That number was down to 72 by 2016, but that 90-district reduction was not all due to gerrymandering – much of it was due to all of us self-selecting into living in like-minded districts.  But Nate estimates that with proper district boundaries instead of the salamander shapes that predominate in North Carolina and Pennsylvania (and many others), the number of districts in play would increase by 30.  Not all 90, to be sure, but 30 more competitive races would sure help.

2)     Open primaries.  It’s a well-known phenomenon that the modern primary process is controlled by the people who vote in them – and they tend to be at the extreme wings of each party.  The people who vote in primaries are rabid politicos, clear on where they stand on issues, the ultimate zealots. Moderates and independents don’t vote, don’t caucus, and don’t pay much attention to primaries.  If you make all primaries “open,” – that is, open to independent voters and voters of the other party – then the candidates don’t necessarily have to cater to the extremes.  They also would have to pay attention to the independents and the crossovers, forcing them to take less extreme positions to cater to the base, and ultimately attracting more moderate candidates running on more moderate platforms.  The “open primary” acts as a moderating incentive to the candidates – and thus they don’t get locked into extreme positions right out the gate.

It may surprise you to learn that 23 states have some form of open primaries in presidential races right now.  If we could move this to 100%, you might see a different outcome.  It is hard to fathom, but there was a time when there was not too much distance between a Gerry Ford and a Jimmy Carter, or even a George W. Bush and an Al Gore.  Perhaps a healthy-sized gorge, but not the Grand Canyon that exists between, say, a Ted Cruz (who might have snagged the GOP nomination in 2016 had there been no Trump) and 2020 wannabee Kamila Harris.

3)     Public funding.    The third step is to get the money out of politics, and require public funding of all presidential and congressional elections.  The money flows from all sides, and the people and corporations who hold this firehose are interested in one thing:  influence.  You don’t find many entities with this type of money who are disinterested in the outcome, and whether it is the Koch brothers or Tom Steyer, they are demanding something in return: fealty to a cause. Eliminating private money would allow politicians of all stripes to be more flexible in finding the middle ground, without fear of reprisal from Sheldon Adelson or George Soros, the NRA or the Sierra Club. 

The framework could be the 1974 Campaign Finance Reform Act.  You may recall that, under this law, presidential candidates used the public funding option, until candidate Barack Obama determined he could raise far more money by opting to go private.  No one has gone public since.  (My magic wand will be busy indeed on this on, casting aside Citizens United and getting rid of "soft money" as well.) Public funding failed because it was simply an option, and in time the private appetite to influence elections overwhelmed it.  Ban the private option, make the tax contribution a requirement and not an option (yes, a “mandate”), develop funding rates for each class of election (president, senator, representative) and we’re off to the (fair) races, where no one can wield influence other than the American voter.

None of these are miracle working solutions, but each alone (and all together) would have the effect of pushing everyone more toward to the center, thus more able and willing to compromise.  Our politics would certainly be less polarized as a result.   Any other ideas?

Note:  On this same topic, we encourage you to read David Brooks’ recent column on the “Better Angels” group, who have another approach to reducing partisan conflict:  talking respectfully to one another:

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