Editorial: A radical route toward moderation
The campaign to shut down the government and default on America’s debts was initiated by 80 of the most conservative Republican members of the U.S. House. Virtually all of them come from districts gerrymandered to make it nearly impossible for a Democrat or independent to win. As journalist Ryan Lizza, aided by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, pointed out in The New Yorker recently, those districts reflect a political America that was – not the America that our country is becoming. The districts are less urban than average, whiter than average and less well-educated. Seventy-nine of what conservative political columnist Charles Krauthammer dubbed “the suicide 80” are white, and all but four are male. None are from New England or the Pacific Northwest.
Safe districts created by gerrymandering; the power of unfettered campaign contributions by billionaires, corporations and interest groups; and a primary election system geared to nominating candidates from the fringes of the political spectrum have made Congress and some other legislative bodies across the country dysfunctional. They have led to the near-universal sense that the system is broken and, by discouraging voting, they have damaged democracy.
There are several ways to counter the ill effects of gerrymandering and unlimited campaign contributions. Two of the most promising have been pioneered by the states of California and Washington, and the result has been the election of more moderate lawmakers capable of compromise. Both changes had the support of then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first, accomplished by referendum, took politics out of redistricting by giving the job to a bipartisan commission. In time, that should put an end to geographically tortured districts drawn up by the party in power to isolate its opponents. Since New Hampshire is not a referendum state, that change could not be made by voters, but they should pressure the Legislature to adopt the bipartisan commission approach before the next decennial census.
The second change was the switch to an “open” primary in which all candidates, whatever their party designation, appear on a single ballot. The top two vote-getters, no matter what their party, then face each other in the general election. The result can pit Democrat against Democrat or Republican against Republican. Since winning a general election requires the ability to appeal to voters in the middle of the spectrum,open primaries greatly increase the likelihood that the winner will come from the moderate rather than extreme wing of a party. Open primaries would, and in California already have, increased comity and compromise and made the legislature run more effectively. New Hampshire should adopt the open primary system for all elections save for the presidential primary.
Until such changes are made, voters who feel disenfranchised because their state representative, senator or member of Congress rarely reflects their views, should register as independents. Then, on Election Day, choose the ballot for the dominant party and cast your ballot for its most moderate candidate. Then, stop holding your nose and spend the minute or two it takes at the polls to reclaim your “independent” affiliation. If everyone who is fed up with political partisanship and legislative dysfunction does so, it will dramatically increase the odds that the winning candidate won’t be a left- or right-threaded wingnut willing to shut down government to get their way.