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November 12, 2003
Kristof: Hold the Vitriol

Some words of warning to the left (and the right), courtesy of Nicholas Kristof in today's NY Times:

Liberals have now become as intemperate as conservatives, and the result — everybody shouting at everybody else — corrodes the body politic and is counterproductive for Democrats themselves. My guess is that if the Democrats stay angry, then they'll offend Southern white guys, with or without pickups and flags, and lose again.

We could argue about the origins of this polarity or who was angrier earlier, but at this point, both sides are equally guilty of irrational political hatred and it needs to stop, or at least those who indulge in this sort of behavior need to be marginalized. We are all Americans, and most of us come to our beliefs through heartfelt experiences, observations, and philosophy. We can learn from one another and we can compromise where necessary so that we can all feel as though we are part of the system. What drives the lunacy is the increasing suspicion that we are not.

Why do we have seemingly exclusive trends towards political apathy and heightened quasi-hatred? These could be contributing factors:

* Increasing federal jurisdiction over local and state matters
* Gerrymandered political districts that create no partisan tension, practically guaranteeing a specific district for one political party
* Closed primary systems excluding centrist candidates in state elections
* Useless primary elections in 80% of states for presidential elections

It is no coincidence, I think, that as the federal government claims more and more jurisdiction over local and state matters, such as crime, education, and transportation, that individuals feel a loss of political power and as a result become angrier at policies they have little hope of changing. One prime example of this is education, where unfunded mandates for social programs of questionable worth eat up significant portions of school budgets. Instead of local control over school curricula and districting, parents discover that many issues aren't even open for debate. Even when control is exercised by the state, policy decisions can cause a storm of outrage. In the early 90s, California attempted to replace their standard, multiple-choice comprehensive tests -- which had been ruled discriminatory by a federal court -- with a complicated essay test that California blocked from parental review, or even from state legislators. The result: massive numbers of children were withheld from the test, and California was forced to withdraw it.

Electoral structure contributes to this same sense of hopelessness. Conservatives in one district find out that redistricting has left them with only a 30% constituency, guaranteeing that they will be unable to present any meaningful opposition to the policies of a string of liberal candidates, and vice versa. Often, minority political groups won't even bother to put an opposing candidate on the ballot, preferring to focus time, energy, and money on those few races still seen as competitive. I posted about this phenomenon earlier, in response to an excellent Washington Post editorial. It leaves significant portions of the populace stripped of their voice for purely partisan reasons, fueling outrage and dooming civility.

Under these conditions, all of the mystery is in the primaries, and in closed-primary systems candidates are forced to sway to the extremes in order to captured the voters still motivated to vote at all. In California again, the result is a general election choice between the evil of two lessers, neither of which can remotely be said to accurately represent the majority of the constituency (in those constituencies that have not yet been completely radicalized or polarized). Voters who tend toward the center see no good choices and shrug their shoulders. The rabid partisans comprise most of the vote, and therefore drive the political debate as a result.

Presidential primaries sit at the top of this political food chain and amplify the hatred just as surely as mercury does in the sea's food chain. Not only have we abandoned the majority of the political process to the rabid poles, we now stage primaries in a marathon fashion, inexplicably starting in states with the lowest population. By the time 25% of the electorate has a chance at voting, the nominee is almost assured of victory from attrition. The primaries in New York, California, Texas, and Florida rarely feature more than one active presidential candidate on each party's ballot. This is a massive disenfranchisement of the electorate, and one that creates more hopelessness about the political process than any other. I would have loved to vote for John McCain in the 2000 primary, but he had dropped out of the race by the time Minnesota held its primary. I like George Bush, but I also was stuck with George Bush.

The only way to combat the incivility and the lunacy presently dominating the political landscape is to rebuild our political structures in a way that allows people to have a real and effective voice in government. Force redistricting to respect community boundaries, open up primaries to all voters, schedule the presidential primaries on a single day across the nation, and reduce federal involvement in local matters. When that happens, the sanity will return, and the constructive passion will increase.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 12, 2003 12:55 PM

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