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More on Mann & Ornstein’s “Blaming Republicans for Polarization” Narrative

At the Washington Post’s The Fix, Chris Cillizza has this to say about Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s must read op-ed from the Sunday Post:

The truth of the matter though is that most House Members — Republicans and Democrats — are not (nor do they aspire to be) inspirational leaders. What they want to do is not lead the country but simply keep their job. And, in a representative democracy, the best way to keep your job is to, well, represent the people who sent you to Washington.

That those people are increasingly uninterested in compromise speaks less to the quality of their representation in Washington than to the fact that deal-making has become a bad word in our (political) culture.

None of the above is to take away from the points made by Mann and Ornstein in their thought-provoking essay (and book). Instead, it’s simply aimed at pointing out that few things in politics are as black and white as we would all like to believe they are — or at least could be.

Like Mann and Ornstein, Cillizza makes some strong points, but I think each should be focusing readers’ attention on the role of the primary system in driving ideological purity within both parties.  If we are going to mitigate polarization, following the 2012 election, there needs to be heavy investment in creating a movement for political reform, starting with changes to the primary system.

The primary system remains a central mechanism blocking compromise in government.  Only 5 to 7 percent of the electorate votes in primaries, and these voters tend to reflect the ideological tail ends of each political party.  This means that activists and donors can support the most ideologically pure candidate they think capable of winning, while also targeting in primaries any remaining moderate incumbents within their party ranks. As political scientist Seth Masket documents in a recent book, incumbents rarely lose primaries, but given that elected officials are risk averse, news of just a few successful primary challenges by the Tea Party or a progressive coalition is enough of a warning to keep Congressional members ideologically consistent in their voting and unwilling to work in support of compromise.

Just this past week, labor and green groups bumped two moderate Democratic members from the House.  And in Wisconsin, despite the millions spent on generating a recall vote for Republican Governor Scott Walker, the liberal and moderate wings of the state Democratic party are locked in a dispute over who should be the party nominee, with labor unions opposing the moderate (and more electable) candidate favored by the state party leadership.

As I wrote yesterday, the more we get stuck in a “us vs. the radical fringe” frame blaming Republicans for our political dysfunction, it distracts liberals and moderates alike from the fundamental reforms we need to make in our political system.  Each side is pouring  billions into an ideological arms race, the problem on the liberal-moderate side is the extreme imbalance between the money spent on a “my side” message machine and the investments needed in reforming our electoral system and rebuilding our civic infrastructure, investments that will ultimately benefit liberals by enabling more moderates to successfully run for office and to participate in politics.


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