Posted by Patrick McWhortor on July 13, 2015 at 10:31 AM
Are We Deeply Divided?
Nationally, nearly 89% of Americans give Congress a failing grade for their performance.
In Arizona, 90% of our residents do not believe our elected officials represent us.
These dismal ratings for our democracy surely stem at least in part from the toxic partisanship and political gamesmanship which constantly informs the American people that everything in the public sphere is about “us vs. them.” Every issue – no matter how serious or fleeting – is another opportunity to establish the lines of demarcation between Republicans and Democrats, between liberals and conservatives. Every media channel must frame the issues in a simple Position A vs. Position B format. We are bombarded constantly with either/or choices – usually false choices.
These false choices interfere with our ability to seek and find compromises which could advance a common interest. And thus the inability to compromise leads to dysfunctional and dismally ineffective legislative and executive maneuvers, truly exercises in futility. Those who want to find a “middle ground” have nowhere to turn.
But are we really that divided as a People? Is the political theatre that we witness day after day in the public sphere representative of who we really are and what we really believe? In short, are these the politics that We the People want and deserve?
According to authors Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America, this growing polarization of American political elites is a phenomenon which has been developing since the 1960’s, and reflects organized efforts to produce such polarization. But it does not mean that we as a people are that divided.
McAdam and Kloos recommend that we pursue some kind of reform, including (and they suggest this specifically) a reform to the way primary elections are conducted, as a way to mitigate the extent to which the current partisan primary election system is a weapon for extremism:
“How much weaker we are today as a result of the deep and growing economic and political divisions documented in this book [Deeply Divided]. To reclaim our greatness as a country, we must begin to bridge these divides. This process must start with our politics and in particular with our elected officials…”
The fascinating tale told by these authors is about the evolution of today’s political system beginning in the 1960’s. Believe it or not, much of the architecture of today’s primary election system were considered democratic reforms 50 years ago. These reforms were an attempt to undermine the influence of back-room dealing and unrepresentative party conventions, which used to be the most common method of selecting nominees for political parties. A very small group of political party insiders would decide who could wear the party’s jersey in the general election contest.
So activists took to the streets during the 1960s to fight against these “smoke-filled rooms” and the undemocratic maneuvering of political power brokers. They wanted democratic reforms. This animated the protesters outside the building during the infamous protests surrounding the national Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. And these protests, reinforced by efforts inside the convention hall by a small group of reformist lawyers, would lead to major changes to elections in the 1970s, putting great emphasis on the use of popular primary elections. (With little fanfare, the Republican Party would also adopt these same reforms during the same years.)
In other words, these primary elections that today we consider to be so unrepresentative of us as a people, were actually designed as a democratic reform 50 years ago to make our politics MORE representative. As the McAdam and Kloos state:
“In barring the use of closed, elite-controlled methods of delegate selection, the New Left insurgents were advocating more popular, and by implication, more representative, participation…The irony is that in achieving the former, they may well have sacrificed the latter. That is, while many times more people now take part in the nominating process than was true under the old, party-controlled system, research on the characteristics of primary voters has generally shown that they tend be more ideologically extreme and non-representative in their views than the average party member.”
This story puts our current reform efforts into important historical context. Our movement for election reform in 2015 is but another chapter in the long story of the people trying to reclaim democratic rights from partisan insiders who want to control the political process for their own benefit.
Our movement in Arizona is inspired by nothing more than the same beliefs of the people in both the Democratic and Republican Parties in the early 1970s who changed the rules to make their parties more democratic. While partisan power brokers have since moved away from those beliefs and carried out a successful campaign to interpret and change election rules so that party elites have more power again, people within both parties who believe in a representative democracy are not giving up their fight for a more representative system.
These people – people like you – are average voters in both parties, joined by a growing number of independents (who are independents because they are turned off by the gamesmanship of today’s political parties), who want to turn the tide against extremism and simple either-or politics. They reject the centrifugal forces attempting to drive us all apart from one another, which stems from hyper-partisan behavior. They want to reverse that trend and create a more powerful force in the other direction, one which pulls us together. McAdam and Kloos put it this way in the closing sentence of Deeply Divided:
“…what is needed now is a centripetal movement to reclaim and reinvigorate the political middle and repair our badly frayed democracy.”
That’s exactly what we’re doing. Stay tuned.