March 10, 2014

FORKEN | Primaries and the Decline of Bipartisanship

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As partisanship becomes an increasingly prevalent concern on Capitol Hill, the 113th Congress is poised to be the least productive legislative effort in United States history. Over the course of Congress’ first yearlong session, only 58 bills were passed into law, 30 of which dealt with simply naming post offices. As documented by the Pew Research Center, the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans remained constant at around 10 percentage points for a number of years beginning in 1997. In 2012, that number swelled to 18 percentage points. The increased polarization in Washington stems from the amplification of ideological extremists who incentivize candidates to move to either end of the political spectrum in order to emerge successful in the primaries of gerrymandered districts.

It is no secret that voter turnout in America is low in comparison to other industrialized nations. Participation in primaries, or elections that serve to select a candidate to campaign for a given party, is even lower than in general elections. Due to this lack of citizen involvement, the individuals who are on the extreme ends of certain issues are more likely to affect the political rhetoric of elections, as those who care more vote at higher rates.

Primaries effectively encourage partisanship. Candidates are forced to appeal to the extremists of their constituency in order to advance to the general election (see Mitt Romney “47 percent” and “self-deportation”). Consequently, voters in a general election see some candidates as too far towards either end of the political spectrum. One might ask, “Well, if voters perceive candidates as too partisan, wouldn’t this decrease polarization?” The answer very well may be yes if it weren’t for one thing: Gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing district lines in order to create a political advantage for a given party by encompassing the like-minded within a single district. Essentially, candidates can win general elections by merely appealing to one end of the political spectrum. As politicians then wade into actual policy discourse, they realize their political fate is controlled by a one-sided group of immoderate voters, creating an uncompromising atmosphere on Capitol Hill.

Primaries have been around for quite some time, so why are they just becoming an issue now? For starters, the aforementioned statistic from the Pew Research Center displays that voters are becoming more partisan and, subsequently, supporting candidates closer to the end of the political spectrum on either side.

Secondly, the formation of grassroots movements, such as the Tea Party, force incumbent candidates even further towards partisanship as they fear their constituency may begin to support a more extreme, well-funded challenger. This same fear leads to further inaction in Washington, as politicians dread being seen as negotiating with the opposite party. Gerrymandering and primaries create a cyclical all-or-nothing outlook, where compromises are seen as weak, and concessions of any kind are a forfeiture of your values.

Despite the partisanship spurred by primaries and gerrymandering, there is a simple solution: Vote. Politicians are responsive to the voters who can put them in office and maintain their seats. Right now, those voters are the ideological citizens who participate in the primaries. By increasing voter turnout, politicians are exposed to a more normally distributed constituency and must legislate in a responsible manner to ensure appealing to either side of the aisle. Voters must cease rewarding hard-liners, and instead reward those who do what they were elected to do: Govern. A platform based on denying the agenda of a differing party is not a legitimate platform.

In the end, voters must face a harsh reality in that politicians are more Frank Underwood and less Josiah Bartlet; most will say and do whatever is necessary to win. Fortunately, the general public has the ability to shape the narrative by demanding politicians who protect the values of the constituency, yet are able to compromise for the greater good. Primary season is right around the corner — get out and vote.