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Interview: Rep. Jason Altmire on Being a Congressional Moderate

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“It’s been proven that the more centrists there are in Congress, the more bills get passed and are enacted into law.”

On December 28th, 2017, former member of Congress and author Jason Altmire joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss his recent book Dead Center, what he believes is driving polarization today, and what can be done to fix it.

Thank you for being with us today, Congressman. You wrote an excellent piece for us this past summer, but for our readers who aren’t familiar with your background, could you tell us about what makes you particularly qualified to discuss our current age of polarization?

I was first elected as a Democrat in 2006, and I served three terms. I represented a district that was a classic swing district, about half Republican and half Democrat. There were blue-collar conservative Democrats and pro-business Republicans. Both of these factions leaned towards the center. And while I was in office, I had a very moderate voting record.

The National Journal does a summary of the votes that occurred in the previous session, and they rank members statistically based upon most liberal to most conservative. So out of the 435 members of the House, somebody has to be in the exact mid-point, and that was me—they placed me in the exact center during one of my terms. That is why the title of my book is Dead Center, because that’s where I was.

I voted on major substantive issues half of the time with Democrats, and half of the time with Republicans. And I had a district that was a classic, purple swing district, so I had the benefit of hearing from both sides in my town hall meetings. Sadly, a lot of members of Congress don’t have that [experience] since their districts are drawn in a way that they only hear from one side. Thankfully, I usually heard two sides to every issue, and I was called upon to decide on votes where half my constituents were going to be angry with me, and the other half were going to be happy with my decision. But, on every vote, that’s the way it was in a district like that. So I had a very centrist voting record.

What you come to find is, over time, the people who vote in primaries are the people on the extremes. This is what my book talks about. The closed primary system emboldens the extreme voices; if you want to win, you must appeal to the people on the fringe rather than the people on the center.

As someone who had a centrist and very moderate voting record, and was known to compromise with both sides of the aisle, this was actually used against me in primaries. After my third term and running for my fourth, there was gerrymandering, and my district was eliminated. That’s what my whole primary ended up being about: that I worked with both sides and a had a very moderate voting record, and that was viewed as a negative. Ultimately, the Democrats used that against me, and I ended up losing the primary.

So I do think that we need to talk about the benefits of centrism, what it’s like to be a centrist in Congress, and what the implications are of making that decision to be that kind of member when you’re elected.

I know that the primary process is something you mentioned in your June op-ed.  Do you have a theory as to why states like Pennsylvania as opposed to California might want to stick with the closed primary system?

Absolutely. It’s because members of either Congress or State Legislatures are unlikely to pass laws that hurt their chances of re-election. The current system is working very well for people who are ensconced in these gerrymandered districts, where their party has the majority. They have a solid grip on the incumbent fundraising, and the primary system works to their advantage because its their base voters who are deciding the election. Why would they want to change that?

So it is very difficult to get politicians to vote against their own self-interest. But as you said, in California, they have the referendum process so it is more of a “citizens’ decision” rather than a political decision, and it has worked very well there. It has moderated the electorate, and it has made the candidates move to the center. Your electorate in that primary [in California] is not just your own party, but the other party, and everybody in between — Greens, Libertarians, Independents. You have to appeal to the majority of those voters, and that is a very different calculation than when you only have to win the extremes.

In October, John Boehner did an elaborate profile in Politico Magazine, where he talked about the rise of polarized media. Namely, Republicans get their news from strictly conservative sources, and Democrats get their news from liberal ones. I know you have talked about social media, so I was wondering what intersection you see between the social media’s so-called echo chamber and people’s tendency to seek their news from media sources they already agree with.

That article about Speaker Boehner was probably my favorite article of the entire year, because he was so genuine: he told it like it is, and he didn’t have to worry about the political implications of what he said. I would definitely recommend reading that because it gives a very good, high-level, and in-depth overview of what it is like to be in that position in Congress, where he speaks freely of his colleagues.

What you find is that when Speaker Boehner’s party was moving away from him, he had to deal with what was initially the Republican study group, which was a group of members who pulled away from the party because they wanted to be more conservative than the mainstream of the Republican Party. From that, a smaller group broke off that became the Tea Party, and basically, they wanted to hold him hostage for the decisions of the entire House. As a block, they held the swing votes for everything that came before the House, including who would be the Speaker. That was not healthy to the process, so I think he did the right for himself, which was to step aside.

I see in this review of your book that, in your view, “Cable news programs inflame passions rather than inform viewers.” Is there a situation where there exist certain financial incentives that encourage the media to show discord rather than compromise?

I talk a lot in the book about the polarized traditional mainstream media, but I also talk quite a bit about social media, which is what you asked about earlier. I have a whole section in the book about psychological studies that have been done about the way partisans think, how they react in group dynamics, what is their bias on different issues, and how will they react when they are shown evidence that conclusively proves their point-of-view is wrong. These studies have shown that the people who are most certain of their opinion are usually the people who know the least about the subject matter they are so certain about.

And when you add all of that up (and combine that with the closed primary system), those types of people are the ones who decide who our leaders are. And that’s the unfortunate part about closed primaries. This is where social media fits in: if you are not interested in politics, you end up following and reading about the Kardashians and other kinds of entertainment topics or you follow sports and keep track of your favorite teams.

But the people who are interested in politics, they follow their own point of view in political news. They line up their hundreds, maybe thousands, of like-minded followers and they follow news organizations that re-affirm their own opinions. They end up not being exposed to other points of view. They’re not interested in them, and they’re not exposed to them. What that does is reaffirm in their minds that they are always right.

As an example, people usually think about Twitter and Facebook in that vein, but you can also look at YouTube: almost more hours of YouTube videos are watched than hours of television during the course of the day. If you watch a YouTube video on an Elvis Presley conspiracy, or a 9-11 conspiracy, or a moon landing conspiracy, then your receive recommended videos that will suggest further videos about other outlandish conspiracies. Over time, your point of view becomes the only point of view, simply because you are not exposed to anything different. And that does not make for a healthy democracy, where people don’t have the interest to learn other points of view and they’re not even exposed to them even if they were interested.

I’m wondering if could respond to an opinion piece we ran last month, in which the author, Eddie Ferrara, talked about the possible positive aspects of polarization. He writes: “A year ago, liberals were heaping opprobrium upon a Republican Congress for obstructionism; now the president is leveling the same accusation against Democrats. But once your party’s out of power, you might be a little more sympathetic to the idea that governments should move with deliberation and humility rather than speed and zeal.”

I have heard that argument. It’s not a silver lining to have our political and electoral system dominated by people on the extremes, because most people in the United States are not on the extremes. They might be Democrats or Republicans and have strong opinions; but at the core, they want a functioning Congress and a government that actually works, finds compromise, and gets things done. But that’s not what they’re getting. Instead, they get politicians who are on the fringe and are incapable of working together. And as a result, the people who are elected to public office are not representative of the nation as a whole, and that is a big problem. So I don’t see a benefit to polarization.

The other argument that you will hear is that the reason extreme partisans dominate closed primaries is because most people don’t care, as they are more concerned with if their sports team is going to play this week, or what activity their kid has, or what their work week looks like. The people who wake up every day, living and breathing politics, those are the people on the extremes who may determine our elections.

So the argument is made: why shouldn’t the elections be determined by the people who care the most? Doesn’t that make sense? That does make sense, until you consider that these people are also the most biased, most factually misinformed and most unaccepting of other points of view.  Those things go together, and if those are the folks deciding elections, our country is worse for it.

Polarization has ebbed and flowed over the course of American history. I was wondering what you think might be some of the inflection points—it might be a cocktail of causes—that make polarization worse at some points in time?

In my book, I get into the psychological analysis of the way partisans think, which is a big part of it. It’s like sports; you view the referee’s call based on how it affected your team, and that’s how people view politics, too.

The traditional causes that are known to cause polarization include gerrymandering, campaign finance, the electoral system, and partisan media. All these things play a role in contributing to polarization. When you add all of that up, what you find is that the people who are the most polarized are the people that are determining our elections. That’s the problem we have to solve.

Is there a centrist solution that you think both Republicans and Democrats can get behind, in this or the next session, to remedy these issues that fuel polarization?

There’s probably not a realistic solution that the current elected officials would find appealing. As we talked about earlier, the people in power benefit from the current system, so they are unlikely to change it in any way that would hurt their chances at re-relection. But that’s not most of America.

I do think, at heart, that the way you solve this problem is by recognizing that the people in power today may not be extreme themselves, but they are accountable to the extremes for their re-election. So, if you’re running for office, and you have to appeal to people on the extremes, you’re going to govern in an extreme way. But, if there is a benefit to them in changing the system, they don’t want to be accountable to the extremes. Look at Speaker Boehner, he even talked about the difficulties of being the puppet for the people on the extremes, and that it’s not an appealing place to be.

On the surface, it would appear that it’s unlikely that any of these changes would happen. But, in reality, the members of Congress who are beholden to the extremes, are not necessarily philosophically in that position themselves. If we could change it in a way that would allow them to moderate their point of view to represent their constituency, I know we would be better as a country, and I think many members of Congress would be willing to go along.

Could you give our readers some concrete examples of when you worked a with the other side of the aisle in Congress?

There was an enormous public lands bill that combined dozens of major pieces of legislation, involving everything from waterways to the public areas and national parks all across the country. They had combined all of these bills, but it had failed to pass over numerous sessions of Congress. It was something that continued to languish as it was being held up in the Senate until it was finally passed.

When it was sent over to the House, it failed by two or three votes over an issue regarding the rights of hunting, trapping and shooting within national parks. Since I had heard both sides of the issue in my district, I brought the guns groups together with the environmental groups—who do not work together very often—and I formed a compromise and offered that as an amendment to the bill. This broke the log jam, and the law passed.

That, I think, is a pretty good example of bringing constituencies together that don’t seem to work together very often. But if they have a shared core interest, you can get past the partisanship if you just have the ability to negotiate.

Did you get any pushback from leadership from working with the other side? We’re familiar with the idea of members being punished by leadership for cooperating with the other side such as happened with New Jersey Republican Chris Smith.

There was some, but it wasn’t unanimous. The people who voted against it were on the extremes of both parties, and that’s what usually happens when you have a compromise.

It’s been proven that the more centrists there are in Congress, the more bills get passed and are enacted into law. That is a fact. When you diminish the polarization, you add more moderation and centrism to the equation, you are going to get more done.

Thank you so much for being with us, Congressman.

My pleasure, thank you.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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