If opinion polls and comments in the Observer Forum are any indication, most of us are deeply concerned about the inability of Democrats and Republicans in Congress to work together. These concerns are shared by moderates as well as liberals and conservatives; Independents as well as Democrats and Republicans.
Monday’s Observer Forum offered a novel solution that just might work. Reader Steve Justus proposed that “Independents and Democrats change their voter registration to Republican and vote in the primaries.” That would not depend on legislation; the voters themselves could make it work. I would prefer one fundamental refinement, but will get to that in a moment.
Many factors have caused the worst polarization in American politics since the early decades of the Republic. The result is that most of those elected, Democrats and Republicans, no longer have to listen to the other side: that’s not where they got their safe majorities. Many thoughtful observers have identified the causes of the problem, but their reforms and solutions have not moved those who write the election laws. That’s not a problem for the Justus Plan.
1. Most obvious has been the practice of the majority party in every state legislature to adopt electoral districts favorable to its national, state and local candidates, known as “gerrymanders.” That name “honors” Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry for signing a redistricting bill with one district whose distortions resembled a salamander. That was in 1812, which tells you this self-serving abuse is not a recent invention.
2. Gerrymandering alone did not produce as much ideological polarization a few decades ago. Back then, county lines were observed more often than not. When few counties were divided in redistricting, there would usually be a cross-section of voters with more political diversity than we now have. Once the Supreme Court required identical numbers of voters in each district, that courtesy to county lines was abandoned. Redistricting computers were soon programmed without regard to county boundaries, with the sole criterion being to obtain the maximum advantage for the majority party. There is no obvious way to get the courts to remedy this unintended consequence of an otherwise fair decision.
3. Another factor today is the current congressional practice of meeting Tuesday through Thursday. Families stay back home. During my terms (1973-84), we met generally Monday through Friday. We were allowed to fly to our districts only 26 weekends a year, so most of us moved our families to the Washington, D.C. area. That resulted in getting to know members of the opposing party at church, PTA, team events, and various neighborhood parties. It may seem like a small thing, but when you and your family enjoy normal, friendly associations with colleagues of the other party, you are less likely to demonize your colleague in hot debate. Things were more collegial and cordial then. Even when the stakes were desperately high, issues were debated, but we were not allowed to malign another’s motives. There may be no practical way to put that back like it was.
4. Now Mr. Justus has identified a new factor, and has come forward with a modest proposal. It depends only upon the willingness of individual voters to register with the political party they wish to influence. The contemporary trend, however, has more Democrats and Republicans leaving their party and choosing No Party registration. That may “send them a message,” but it deprives both parties of the more moderate voters who favor more reasonable representatives. This abandonment of both parties has abdicated to more radical demands upon our representatives.
It goes both ways
The one difference I have with the Justus formulation is that it would be better if both parties got a strong dose of moderation in their ranks. For that reason alone, I would hope that moderate Democrats would stick with their party, and invite Independents to help mitigate their party’s excesses, just as Republicans should. There have been times when each party encouraged a subversive movement to distort the primary nomination process of the other, but that was unsustainable among concerned voters whose loyalty was a matter of personal honor, and has deserved the editorial denunciation it usually received.
It is true that registering No Party lets you wait to select the party in whose primary you prefer to vote. Prospective moderate candidates cannot count on that, however; not knowing which party, if any, will be chosen by most independent voters. Independent voters wait until the last day to decide which party’s ballot to take, which offers little encouragement for centrist candidates to run. Consequently, the political debate is dominated by the extremes of both parties.
In short, if you don’t like the excessively polarized direction of politics today, you can either watch from the sidelines, or you can get back in the game, and help influence the outcome. If both parties shift back to where candidates must consider a range of voters’ opinions, a greater opportunity to fix the redistricting abuses should follow.
Think about it. Then do something.
James G. Martin, a Republican, was N.C. governor from 1985 to 1993 and served in Congress from 1973 to 1985.
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