Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What it will take to elect moderates

Here's the guest post I wrote for Unity08 yesterday.

A lot of other bloggers here have expounded on what it means to be a moderate, and on the evils of partisanship, and what's wrong with the current way of doing things.

Me, I want to talk about the practicalities.

I strongly believe in the ideal behind Unity08. If we can make moderates a force of their own -- just as conservatives and liberals have become forces within, but separate from, the two major parties -- we can achieve several interrelated objectives. Among them:

1. Forcing elected officials to pay attention to moderates, rather than their partisan bases.

2. Giving moderate Republicans and Democrats a base of support independent of their party. That will make them less beholden to their party, which should lead to fewer party-line votes and more thoughtful and independent political debate.

3. Offering a lever for those moderates to recapture their parties and reestablish the long tradition of "meet in the middle" that the last 15 years of partisanship have all but erased.

4. Reasserting pragmatism over ideology, leading to legislation that thoughtfully addresses complex problems, instead of pursuing oversimplified or actively harmful agendas in order to conform to some predetermined principle.

The question, though, is how to achieve this in a winner-take-all electoral system dominated by two major parties, who have gerrymandered most districts to make them "safe" for one party or the other. Where is our leverage?

First we need to demonstrate the political clout of moderates. Sites such as this are a start, providing much-needed organization. But what will really force the parties to pay attention is fundraising. If supporting moderate viewpoints generates huge sums of cash, the parties will become more moderate. Rhetoric and ideology have power, but money is king.

So contribute to moderate candidates, wherever they may be. Support (or create) moderate PACs. Volunteer for campaigns. When party fundraisers call, tell them that you have already contributed to the moderates in the party and if they want a party-level donation they need to start addressing your concerns on a party level as well.

Even more importantly, convince others to do the same. If moderates indeed represent a large and decisive slice of the electorate, the parties will get the message loud and clear. Even if it doesn't lead directly to election victories, it will strengthen the hand of moderates in both parties.

All the money in the world, though, will still have trouble overcoming gerrymandering. In the last midterm election in 2002, 96 percent of incumbents won re-election -- down from 98 percent in 1998. How will moderates make inroads when the whole system is designed to insulate incumbents from the electorate?

This one requires a multipronged approach, with both short- and long-term strategies.

In the short term, the key is to note that seats are gerrymandered to make them safe for parties, not particular ideologies. If you don't care about the party label, then the answer is simple: work to help moderates win their party's nomination in a particular district. The more we can make a race be a choice between two moderates, the more we can make the gerrymandered system work for us by electing -- and protecting -- moderates.

At a minimum that means voting in primaries, and doing your homework on the candidates. But that's not really enough, since at that point you're just picking from a pre-selected group of candidates. What it really takes is getting involved in the party of your choice, so that moderate candidates stand a better chance of surviving the internal party debates that precede the public primaries. Anything that weakens the strangehold that partisans have on party organizations will help move the parties toward the center.

In the long term, moderates should actively support two initiatives intended to weaken the two-party duopoly: some form of instant-runoff voting, and some sort of district-drawing method that would force districts to be constructed according to objective criteria, with as little political involvement as possible.

That's the strategy in a nutshell: reward parties and candidates for moderate stances, work to build moderate influence within parties, all while establishing electoral conditions that will enable moderates to get elected without being unduly beholden to their party bosses. It won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. But that's what politics is: hard work. Let's get to it.

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