IF THERE is one thing most people can agree on, it’s that our political process has seized up — and it should be equally obvious that Congress is the shattered gear at the center of the problem.
This year, The Boston Globe’s Washington reporters have chronicled the many dysfunctions that beset our democracy in a compelling series entitled “Broken City: Politics in an Age of Paralysis.”
It’s easy to come to see the sorry state of affairs they’ve documented as the new and irremediable normal.
But we shouldn’t. American politics has always been a contact sport, yet during the decades when the Soviet Union loomed as a dire threat to the West, our political system performed well enough to lead the free world in meeting the challenges of that era. Now, with that threat removed and nothing nearly as ominous replacing it, US governance has deteriorated into a period of regular brinkmanship, showdowns, cliffs, and crises.
“I think we are at a low point in the quality of modern American politics,” says Cal Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College. “I don’t think we could create a system that is more dysfunctional than the one we have now.”
Different people cite different causes. My own view is that the problem lies largely, though not exclusively, with a Republican Party that has sailed steadily to starboard since George H.W. Bush left the White House — so much so that Jeb Bush has expressed doubts about whether either his father or Ronald Reagan could be nominated by today’s GOP. Motivated by inclination or self-preservation, the GOP’s congressional wing now caters to a Tea Party base that considers absolutism a virtue and compromise an abandonment of principle.
Can changes be made to fix Washington? Congress certainly doesn’t show either the impulse or the ability to heal itself. Meanwhile, it’s hard to regard any change requiring a constitutional amendment as particularly plausible, given the cumbersome nature of that process.
But two ideas the Globe examined are intriguing: 1) Taking redistricting out of the hands of elected officials and turning that task over to independent state commissions and 2) having all candidates run in what’s known as a “top two” primary system, where the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, then proceed to the final election. Both hold the promise of promoting more moderate politicians and thus a less polarized politics.
Currently, the majority of House members run in districts drawn to be safe for their party in a general election. That means the only real threat they face is from a possible primary challenge, which puts a premium on staying in good standing with the activists, ideologues, and interest groups that are disproportionately influential in the primary process.
If, however, House districts were redrawn by nonpartisan commissions based on geographic rather than political considerations, that could change. More politically heterogeneous districts would be more likely to reward candidates who had some genuine cross-party draw.
Similarly, at least in theory, a top-two primary system should favor candidates with more appeal to the middle, rather than those whose support is concentrated on the right or left. (FairVote has suggested advancing the four top finishers to the final election — and then choosing the winner under a system by which voters rank candidates in order of preference.)
Louisiana has a variant of the top-two primary system; Washington state has used one since 2008, while California adopted such a system in 2010. It’s too early for definitive conclusions, but in California at least, the first cycle of elections under that system has shown some interesting results.
“We are already seeing clear signs that smart candidates are learning the benefits of reaching out across party lines during their campaigns,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Mind you, those ideas face a strong head wind. Neither major party favors them, which means they would have to spread via ballot question. Given the roots of current woes, it’s particularly important that they be transplanted to Tea Party soil, which could be doubly difficult.
Still, both reforms are worth experimenting with.
They might just make our democracy better. It’s hard to imagine how they could make it worse.