We’ve all heard plenty of complaints in recent years that national and state legislatures have simply grown too polarized to govern effectively. Democrats and Republicans not only can’t work together, they see each other as enemies and threats to the country. Thanks to this polarization, the country can’t solve the problems it faces. The Bipartisan Policy Center has produced a comprehensive document aimed at addressing this issue. (Disclosure: I served as a consultant on this project during an event last year.) To its credit, the Center isn’t pushing any magic bullets. There is no one simple reform that will substantially reduce polarization while allowing the United States to remain a democracy. It is, however, pushing a series of reforms that, enacted together, could potentially have some kind of impact. Given how many of us decline to even join parties in the first place, should we be encouraging, no less mandating, that such people vote in party nomination contests?
One issue area that particularly drew my attention was that of primary election reform. As I’ve written previously, many reformers look to open primaries as a tool for reducing the partisanship of elected officials, but such reforms have proven pretty ineffective. Changing who may participate in a state’s primary elections seems unrelated to the partisanship of the elected officials it produces.
Why is this? In part, it’s because the activists, major donors, officeholders, and other party elites who tend to influence the outcomes of primary elections don’t just disappear when those elections are opened up to moderate voters. They remain influential, and they know how to allocate the endorsements, funding, expertise, and other resources important to winning elections to make sure that the candidates they like—pretty loyal partisans, usually—prevail in the primaries. But another reason is that people with weak party attachments (self described moderates, independents, and so forth) who do not follow politics closely tend not to participate in primaries even if they’re allowed to. Opening up a primary does little to change what the electorate actually looks like.