The Great Divide, Take Two: What’s the one political practice that needs to die?

Last month, I wrote a piece titled “Is the ‘Great Divide’ in America Actually…Healthy?”, in which I reflected on our current state of political dividedness, calling upon Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind to help explain my position. Mine is contrary to the prevailing ethos that our system is not working because of the widening gap between the ideologies of those on the left and right. I tried to make the point that, in fact, both lines of thinking, conservative and liberal, in their own ways, serve as checks and balances on one another to keep us safely moving forward on our inexorable path to the future. Near the end of the piece, I echoed Haidt, offering some widely supported but heretofore unimplemented solutions to make a system that is already primed to work well for us, work better. These solutions included redistricting congressional lines, taking the corporate and special interest money out of politics, and simplifying our nominating process. Haidt also offers a fourth solution: extending the congressional workweek to four or five days and requiring representatives to move to the capital, which, as he argues, would increase collegiality between sparing members of congress when they are forced to spend downtime with one another. I didn’t include it in my initial thoughts as I wasn’t sold on its universal appeal, but I mention it here because of its potential viability. Recently, I listened to a podcast by Freakanomics that discussed similar possible fixes to make our politically polarized system work better. The notes for this podcast can be found below:

“The senate had been shut down.” Those are the words of former republican senator from Maine, Olympia Snow, a 34-year member of the US Congress. She goes on to say that the least productive congress she had ever been a part of was her last, in 2012. The political gridlock came to a head in the debt crisis in 2013, when Snow says that congress eventually just “devolved”. Realizing the change wouldn’t come from the inside, she did not run for reelection in 2014, and now works outside of government with the Bipartisan Policy Center. Her work today focuses three of things I mentioned in a prior piece: reversing gerrymandering, limiting the power of PACs, and conducting open (rather than closed to all but party members) primaries, in addition to allowing a five-day work week in congress (just like Haidt!). Snow’s story is one of many that act to highlight one unsettling fact: centrism is disappearing. There are only four centrists in congress today¹ – that’s less than one percent of all members. This fact alone is less troubling than the gridlock that accompanies it. So, the Freaknomics team went about talking to political who’s whos to find out “What’s the one political or electoral practice that needs to die?”

Another Northeasterner, albeit on the other side of the aisle, Howard Dean, suggests doing away with the practice of “one person, one vote.” He states that if voters were able to voice their preference for a slate of candidates in order of best to worst, where candidates earn points based on their relative positions to one another, politicians would be forced to be a little nicer to their opponents so as to avoid offending others’ supporters. This would work best in primaries with many candidates, since Candidate B would have to avoid alienating Candidate A’s supporters by attacking Candidate A too harshly, otherwise, Candidate C may step in to steal Candidate B’s second place position on Candidate A voters’ ballots. Ok, maybe it’s a little confusing. Imagine it this way: There are four people running for county council. You like Alex the most, but you think Barb is also a good choice. Chris is your third choice and Dennis brings up the rear. If Barb starts attacking Alex, you would sour on voting for her, placing her at the bottom of your ballot and giving her zero electoral points, while Alex gets 3, Chris gets 2, and Dennis gets 1. Because of her attacks on your candidate of choice, Barb is penalized where it counts. Gov. Dean believes this would work because it incentivizes candidates to be less negative and assailant toward one another, thereby elevating political discourse. He calls this “ranked choice voting” and says that opinion polls suggest voters would prefer it to our current system of one person, one vote. He notes that this system also works to elect the person most liked and respected by the electorate as a whole.

If Dean’s idea to make elections a little friendlier doesn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, how about the idea that everyone wins on election day? Rob Richey’s idea to eliminate winner take all elections (his idea is called the “Fair Representation Act”) may do the trick. Instead of one person representing one congressional district, he forwards the proposal of larger voting districts that elect multiple representatives. For instance, where there were three districts all electing their own rep to congress before, now there would be one large mega-district from which three representatives are sent to congress. Richey argues that this would make it much more likely that a liberal, conservative, and a centrist would get elected from each mega-district, since that’s the general makeup of the electorate as a whole. Wouldn’t election day be more fun, if everyone, commies, fascists, and centrists alike all have a winner in the race?

I like the ideals behind the next practice, but question how much it would really help. Straight ticket voting, as it exists today, is essentially allowing voters to walk into a voting booth, push one button (thereby voting for all the candidates for a single party) and walk out. Doing away with this basic efficiency measure, Joaquin Castro argues, would compel voters to do their homework and research the candidates instead of, as he puts it, “walk into the ballot booth on autopilot.” The good ethics of it aside, I fear making people push ten blue buttons instead of just one big blue button does little to improve the process. But anything that compels people to more deeply involve themselves in the political process is a step in the right direction.

There’s a lot to like about Australia. The Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable monuments to the arts in the world. The Great Barrier Reef is one of our planet’s seven great natural wonders. And every single darn Aussie reports to the polls on election day². The US, for its part, has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the world. Norman Ornstein’s idea of mandatory attendance at the polls (instead of choosing to vote or not to vote) forces politicians to talk to the persuadable voter in the middle, rather than to only their base. Knowing that everyone will vote, even those who aren’t particularly aligned with either side, makes politicians more likely to speak to the middle in order to get elected and govern from the middle once in office. Trust in government is at a multi-generational low. If everyone has a chip in the game, perhaps our sense of unity will return. Having just traveled for a few days with an Australian, it sounds like election day there is something of a national holiday, where people go out for a breakkie (breakfast) with their oldies (parents) or cobbers (friends) before heading to the local polling place to cast their ballot for the least of the village drongos (idiots). Not doing so would be daggy (out of fashion) and cost you a bit of quid (money). If you ask me, mandatory attendance at the polls seems like a bonza (very good) idea.

Some of the less interesting, probably less effective suggestions were one: To remove the role of money in politics (and the stigma accompanying it) by effectively increasing taxes ever so slightly to provide everyone with some “democracy dollars” that they are able then donate to a candidate or organization as they choose. Two: National referendums on constitutional reform (thereby making it easier to amend the constitution), given that it’s a 200-year old document that has such enormity of control over a vastly different world from the one in which it was written. Three: Remove the town hall debate format because of the influence that audience members can have, based on their reaction to a candidate’s responses to moderator questions and opponent’s rebuttals. And, four: Carl Rove’s zany idea that we should keep the electoral college in place (which I surprisingly agree with), as it helps to preserve the US tradition of a peaceful transfer of power between administrations/presidents.

For more detail on the proposals I’ve summarized, click on the Freakanomics link above to be taken to podcast and listen to it yourself. I’m curious to hear feedback on these ideas and encourage everyone to be an advocate for whatever they believe will help improve our country and the way we govern it. In the apocalyptic future that is every political pundit’s January 20, 2017, let’s hope some of these ideas can deliver us from the barrage of political ugliness that is about to ensue.

¹Snow defines centrists as moderate politicians on either side of the congressional aisle, i.e., Democrats that are more conservative than the most liberal Republicans and Republicans that are more liberal than the most conservative Democrats.

²Their two options for choosing to not vote in Australia: Submit a plausible excuse or go to the polls and sign a form stating that they choose not to vote. If the individual does neither, they are subject to a small fine.

Rosalinsky, G. (Producer). (2016, July 27). Freakanomics Radio – Ten Ideas to Make Politics Less Rotten [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://itunes.apple.com

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