Going to extremes

How wacky grandstanders hijack Western politics ... and what some reformers plan to do about it.

 

Updated June 4, 2010

On May 8, about 3,500 activists selected in Utah neighborhood Republican meetings gathered in Salt Lake City. They were, on average, "more male, more Mormon" and had "different concerns ... than the typical Republican or Utah voter," according to a Salt Lake Tribune poll, with two-thirds supporting the rebellious Tea Party. Yet they were in charge of evaluating Republican Party nominees fighting for a chance at a U.S. Senate seat.

The delegation demonstrated a major problem in Western politics: The staunchest activists tend to dominate political party conventions and primaries, particularly on the right.

Utah's Republican incumbent, three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, has been popular. He helped bring light rail to Utah, got funding for universities and Utah's 2002 Olympics, and oversaw "the first major compromise between rural Utah leaders and environmentalists in a generation," the Tribune reported. That 2009 deal -- designating 256,000 wilderness acres while selling off several thousand acres of federal land -- was praised by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Bennett, whose father served four Senate terms, is "a good conservative," says Utah's other Republican senator, Orrin Hatch.

But Bennett has also cut a few bipartisan deals on health-care reform, bank bailouts and other issues. He faced seven Republican challengers, all running to his right. Ultimately, delegates selected Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee to advance to the June 22 Republican primary election. Bridgewater and Lee, political novices, vowed to battle more fiercely against enemies such as the federal government and the United Nations. "When it was announced that Bennett had been eliminated ... a huge ovation swept through the (crowd) and there were hoots and shouts of ‘He's gone! He's gone!'," the Tribune reported. A shaken Bennett said, "The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic."

The system that generates such toxicity in each party — the various traditional primary elections, caucuses and conventions that are increasingly run by wacky grandstanders — is ubiquitous. It was evident in Arizona in April, when that Republican Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer passed a super-tough immigration law that many people believe essentially authorizes racial profiling, calling for police to confront anyone they suspect to be illegal, based on appearance alone. Critics on both right and left say that the law violates civil rights and federal authority over immigration; a few groups immediately challenged it with lawsuits.

Arizona has a "semi-closed" system, in which only a political party's members (and independents) can vote in primaries. That submits candidates to typical ideological screening and removes obstacles to Arizona's libertarian impulses. Thus candidates elected to the Legislature have created many unreasonable laws, including denials of climate change and a short-lived resistance to the worldwide ban on the air-conditioning chemical Freon, which destroys the atmosphere's ozone layer.

But Washington state has attempted something different. In 2004, its voters passed a ballot measure that blew primaries wide open: All candidates for an office compete, all voters can participate, and the top two advance to the general election. The "Top Two" reform came into effect in the 2008 elections, and many say it's an improvement. "Top two primaries reduce partisan extremism by forcing candidates to appeal to all voters, especially independents, instead of courting the fringe wing-nuts, as we see in party primaries," says John Laird, editorial writer for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash.

Reformers have put a similar Top Two measure -- Proposition 14 -- on the ballot in California's June 8 primary. Polls show most voters favor it as a follow-up to a successful 2008 measure that reduces political-party bias in drawing up legislative districts. Proposition 14 "would be a "win for democracy," says the Sacramento Bee. "This is a state with a growing swath of moderates. The problem is they lack representation."

Political parties, aware that Top Two weakens their grip, have challenged Washington's system with a lawsuit and defeated similar previous measures in California and Oregon. Some reformers also oppose it, saying it reduces minor-party candidates' already-small chances to zero. They prefer a "Ranked Choice-Instant Run-off" primary, in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference. That system, used in local races in San Francisco, Aspen and a few other communities, helps minor-party candidates, whose supporters no longer have to worry about wasting votes.

Top Two has broad support in California, including from the AARP and the state's Chamber of Commerce. It might be defeated again, once the parties' TV ads kick in, but many people seem ready for such change.

Update: California voters OK'd Top Two -- but lawsuits will likely stall its implementation.

 

Top Two is a terrible idea
John Gear
John Gear
May 25, 2010 12:15 PM
It's not just "party people" who see the false promise of "top two" -- it's a death sentence for progressive parties the promote the ideas that the dominant parties steal as soon as able. With top two, the "centrism" bias will ensure that small parties will no longer be able to get candidates on the ballot, meaning that they will have no avenue to reach citizens with new ideas.

Instant runoff voting does away with the needless two-round idea - parties can nominate in conventions or by an internal, party run primary, and then all candidates (not just the top two) will have an opportunity to reach voters with ideas and their messages.

A bias "against extremes" is a good slogan but a bias is a bias is a bias, no matter what it's aimed at producing -- a compass needle that only points to the "center" can get us totally lost when the times require going in a new direction. Kill small parties with top two and you kill the primary source of innovation in American democracy; without the pressure provided by distinct alternatives, the two major parties become carbon copies of each other to an alarming degree.

With the fate of a habitable world being decided in the next few decades, it's frightening to see a journal of well-informed people like HCN promote this superficial, anti-democratic reform that will only exacerbate the tendency of our politics to fail us.
Fair Reporting??
Laurie Herring
Laurie Herring
Jun 04, 2010 01:06 PM
I'm very disappointed in the May 24 article "Going To Extreems".
In it HCN stated "The system that generates such toxicity in each party — the various traditional primary elections, caucuses and conventions that are increasingly run by wacky grandstanders — is ubiquitous. It was evident in Arizona in April, when that Republican Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer passed a super-tough immigration law that many people believe essentially authorizes racial profiling, calling for police to confront anyone they suspect to be illegal, based on appearance alone."
How do you reconcile this statement with the FACT that in recent polls 70% of Arizona residents supported the bill? How can 70% of the population be extreemists?
Last month in a correspondence regarding yellow journalism, I asked you to read the bill, but clearly the author of this article didn't or he would have clarified that many people erroneously believe the bill calls for police to confront anyone they suspect to be illegal, based on appearance alone. For your edification here are the FACTS. From SB1070 Lines 30-34:
A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIAL OR AGENCY OF THIS STATE OR A COUNTY, CITY, TOWN OR OTHER POLITICAL SUBDIVISION OF THIS STATE MAY NOT SOLELY CONSIDER RACE, COLOR OR NATIONAL ORIGIN IN IMPLEMENTING THE REQUIREMENTS OF THIS SUBSECTION EXCEPT TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY THE UNITED STATES OR ARIZONA CONSTITUTION.

As FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps remarked at a conference in April:

“What we have in this country right now with too much of our media is a bad case of substance abuse. Facts go undug. Investigative journalism is an endangered species. Far fewer reporters walk the beat. So we turn to opinion. Now I love opinion. I have many of my own. Each of us is entitled to our own set of opinions. Each of us is not entitled to our own set of facts” http://reboot.fcc.gov/c/doc[…]f47a73d2&groupId=101236

HCN doesn’t have a free pass on journalistic integrity, and if you as editor don’t understand that liberal reporters can fail just as much as Glenn Beck this you are no different than Fox Noise. I started my HCN subscription about a year ago, expecting to find in depth coverage I could rely on to be honest. Instead, on the only issue of which I have direct knowledge I find HCN fudging reality for a good spin… drawing into question the integrity of your journalism on all the other stories where I don’t have detailed knowledge.

Consider me a reader you lost… I won’t be renewing my subscription.

Let's be honest about this.
Doc
Doc
Jun 05, 2010 11:11 AM
Despite the section of the law quoted by Ms. Herring, this law is indeed targeted towards a specific racial/ethnic group and will result, in all practicable terms, racial profiling. It's not like Arizona has a plethora of Swedes or Finns sneaking in illegally. The outrage Ms. Herring displays is simple self-righteousness that isn't dissimilar to that engendering the Jim Crow laws of the last century.

That isn't to say the immigration, illegal or otherwise, isn't an issue with high emotional context, it's just that we need to be rational, philosophical and equitable in trying to come to grips with it. After all, everyone here is either an immigrant or a descendent of an immigrant -- some of us just got here sooner than others. Why should complete and utter chance of birth grant some of us unique rights not granted to others? (That's just a philosophical question, not a practical one I realize.)