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A Silenced Majority

Opinion | October 19, 2010

Americans may not agree on much, but they appear to agree on two important points. First, that the United States is facing serious challenges. Second, that our legislators are simply not up to the task in dealing with them. While the media spends a great deal of time examining the former, America cannot and will not solve any of these problems until it confronts the latter. Rarely in our country’s history has there been such a disparity between the greatness of our problems and the weakness of our legislators. A country that prides itself on the innovation and entrepreneurship of its people seems so far removed from the ineffectiveness and impassiveness of its government.

As economists warn against the danger of a monopoly of industry in distorting and destroying an economy, our two party monopoly on government is causing similar effects on our political system. The problem is not so much in having a two party system, but rather in allowing the extremes of these parties to determine our candidates on the ballot. A small minority on both sides of the political spectrum is forcing an independent and moderate majority to select candidates significantly distanced from their preferences.  The problem begins with a system in which ideological bases on the left and right are the most active participants in primary elections, even as these bases are far more radical than the electorate as a whole.  Quite often the candidates who win primary elections are far more radical than general election voters want.  Although this phenomenon is by no means new, this election cycle has seen an exponential growth in the politics of extremes.

While this year’s focus on an ideological insurgency in our nations primaries has been with the Republican Party, the Democratic Party witnessed a similar situation in 2006 and 2008 with such nominees as Ned Lamont and Al Franken. Last May, Pennsylvania Democrats handed moderate and experienced Senator Arlen Specter a resounding defeat in favor of a stronger liberal. However, the GOP in 2010 is proving to be a perfect case study in how our country is being denied able leaders by the two largest special interest groups in Washington: the Democratic and Republican Parties. As independent voters voice their frustration over the failures of the current administration and its party, they are forced to choose an alternative that seem to many to be an extreme.

With a meager presidential approval rating of 47% and a congressional approval rating of just 21%, Americans are clearly disappointed with the Democratic Party and are seeking a change. However, many of the Republican candidates that are being selected are offering a radical transformation instead. One has to only study a handful of states and their partisan primaries, to watch the victory of ideology over moderation. In Alaska, Tea Party favorite Joe Miller defeated incumbent Senator and member of “the Republican establishment” Lisa Murkowski. Mr. Miller’s platform includes that of eliminating the federal minimum wage, the Department of Education, and any United Nations funding. Despite a respectable conservative record in the Senate, Ms. Murkowski failed the true conservative litmus test with her support for abortion.

In Kentucky, Rand Paul  “carried a message from the Tea Party” with his resounding defeat of Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the Republican Senate primary. Despite support from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Grayson failed to live up to the conservative litmus test with his support for climate change legislation. Meanwhile, GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul has advocated a platform of eliminating the Federal Reserve and calling into question the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In Utah, where Republican incumbent Senator Bob Bennett was defeated (by two candidates) on the far right, to Congressman Mike Castle’s loss to the Tea Party in Delaware, the ideologues of the Republican Party are making their voices heard.  This is, in essence, the failure of our election system. The “Silent Majority” of moderate Americans has no voice in their choice of candidates. While campaign finance legislation in the past has been designed to create a political system more connected with voters, it does not delve into the root of our predicament. The problem is not so much the influence of money on candidates, but rather the candidates themselves. A new system has to be set into motion that allows those who lay in the middle of the political spectrum to choose their options, as opposed to candidate selection by the extreme ends of the right and the left.

Much conversation and debate has emerged concerning California’s recently passed Proposition 14 or the “Top Two” Primary Law. One can only ask how a state so far in debt that the Feds have contemplated bailing it out can possibly offer any good advice to the nation. However, the old weightlifter and movie star governor is on the right track. Under this new law, California will dispose of the old primary system in favor a “state primary.” All candidates, regardless of party association, will be placed on a single, consolidated ballot. The two candidates that receive the most votes will be placed on the final ballot. Thus in Democratic or Republican leaning districts, the election day ballot will consist of two members of the same party. This will allow the electorate as a whole, rather than the constituency of a single party, to determine the outcome.

Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have proven to be outspoken critics of this law.  However, even Speaker Nancy Pelosi could not convince her fellow Californians to reject the measure as it passed with 54% of the vote. Ironically, both parties voiced concern over the negative implications for third party candidates under this law. Yet, one has not seen any of this empathy over the course of the past several decades, where both the Republicans and Democrats squeezed out third party candidates during debates in congressional, senatorial, and presidential campaigns.

While California has garnered much attention with this law, they are actually the third state to enact a “Top Two” primary system. Although the 2010 election cycle has proven that our current political system is broken, it has also demonstrated that a “Top Two” primary system is a viable alternative. In Washington (a “Top Two” state), we are witnessing a heated November election not between two extremes, but rather a battle in moderation. The incumbent Democrat Patty Murray is facing a difficult challenge from Republican candidate Dino Rossi. Mr. Rossi represents a seemingly endangered species, a moderate Republican nominee for Senate. On the first ballot, he faced an ideological Republican opponent in Tea Party candidate, Clint Diddier. However, instead of being forced to defend his record to the far right and potentially lose his nomination, Mr. Rossi was allowed to let a moderate majority in Washington evaluate his positions. The result is an election between two candidates who better reflect the ideological leanings of the state.

As Albert Einstein noted, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We continue to use a broken election system, and with each cycle, we still hope for a better outcome. This country is being confronted with unprecedented problems, and we need the right men and women to address them. Americans possess the capacity to distinguish and select the best candidates to serve, but the electoral system is not offering them legislators eager to achieve consensus for the sake of progress. Candidate selection is hardly a glamorous issue, but if politicians prove themselves willing and able to confront a flawed electoral system, we would be better poised to tackle the pressing issues of our times.