Centrist Democrat Jason Altmire (D-Pa) outlines his vision for a less polarized future in which moderate voters participate more in primaries to ensure that fewer hardliners make it to Congress.
Political polarization has paralyzed Congress and thrown the country into turmoil. Town hall meetings have become nothing more than orchestrated shouting matches, while major protest marches occur with regularity in cities across the country. Replies to politically-themed Facebook and Twitter posts often degenerate into vile, angry commentary more akin to barroom brawls than appropriate social discourse. How did we get here, and more important, what can we do about it?
Having represented a true swing district in the United State House of Representatives, I know firsthand how difficult it is to maintain a centrist position while serving in Congress. Party leaders pressure centrists to vote the party line, even if those votes are inconsistent with the views of those back home. Well-funded outside groups threaten to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat vulnerable members who stray outside traditional party orthodoxy or vote against whatever single issue the group happens to favor. Members of Congress representing swing districts must decide whether to vote in favor of the majority of their district or those with the loudest voice.
Unfortunately, people who participate most actively in the political process are often the most partisan members of the community. Those who are more moderate become frustrated by the political dysfunction they see all around them, so they stay home on Election Day. This leaves to the ideologues the choice of which candidates will appear on the general election ballot. When each party nominates a candidate from the extreme wing of the party, general election voters are left with choices outside the mainstream of the district. In this all-too-familiar scenario, moderates continue to go unrepresented.
Much has been made about the role of gerrymandering in this scenario. Because states decide how to draw the lines of their own congressional districts, many of those districts are drawn to the advantage of the party in power. This has resulted in hundreds of safe seats, where incumbents face no threat in the general election and are incentivized to avoid a primary election by accommodating their most extreme voters—who also happen to be those most likely to vote in primary elections. Today, only about 80 of the 435 congressional seats are considered to be competitive. This means the overwhelming majority of members of Congress have little to no incentive to work with the other party, because doing so is discouraged by their more ideologically-motivated voters. Creating more independent commissions to draw district lines, thereby limiting the ability of incumbent politicians from influencing the process, would lead to an increase in the number of districts that are competitive and fairly drawn.
Another important factor is the prevalence of money in campaigns. More than $6 billion dollars were spent on federal campaigns during the 2016 election cycle. The outsized role of money pushes candidates to the extremes, because that is where most of the money comes from. Individual donors, both large and small, tend to be much more ideologically-motivated. Equally important, a small but mighty group of wealthy individuals provides the majority of funding for the “Super PACs” that plow millions of dollars into federal races. Political candidates know that straying too close to the center will draw the ire of these donors, likely resulting in a primary challenge from the more extreme wing of the party.
Because the Supreme Court has ruled that money equals free speech, we are not likely to see much change in the role of money in politics for the foreseeable future. However, one change that would make a difference is to strengthen public disclosure laws so that voters are able to see who is funding the advertisements they see and hear, rather than have “dark money” donors remain anonymous.
The best way to reduce the partisanship on Capitol Hill is to elect more centrists. Right now, our system has been skewed to advantage partisan candidates, making it much more difficult for centrists to win election and survive multiple election cycles once they get to Congress. In addition to the problems of gerrymandering and campaign finance, closed party primaries play a major role in locking out centrist candidates.
When Independent votes are locked out of the primary system, candidates are free to tailor their message to the most ideological elements of the electorate. Opening up primaries to Independent voters would force candidates to moderate their message in order to appeal to this new group of voters. Similarly, California has moved to an electoral system where all candidates running for an office appear on the same primary ballot, regardless of party affiliation. This “jungle primary” system means that candidates in primary elections would have to appeal to voters across the ideological spectrum. Under the jungle primary system, the top-two vote getters move on to the general election, even if both candidates are from the same party. This new system has made California’s elections more competitive at both the federal and state level.
Reducing polarization won’t be easy. But America may have finally reached a tipping point where the outrageous behavior of some on the fringe has highlighted the problem of a political system dominated by the extremes. Congress won’t change until the people who show up at the polls on Election Day make clear that they have had enough. By increasing the influence of moderate voters in determining the outcome of elections, we can take a step in the right direction.
Jason Altmire (D-Pa) served three terms in the United States House of Representatives from 2007-2013. During his time in office, he was a bipartisan centrist who was known to work with both sides of the aisle. He has spent his professional career in the healthcare industry and has a Masters Degree in Health Administration from George Washington University, and B.S. in Political Science from Florida State University. He lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.