American Reason: Fringe groups hold inequitable sway over politicians, but you can help

Voting in Iowa City
By voting in local elections, can we avert the “crisis cycle?” — photo by Rachel Jessen

We are currently in an interim period between crises. Between the federal government shutdown in October and endless fights over the debt ceiling and the budget due to repeat themselves in January, we seem to have become stuck in a crisis cycle. How did we get here?

Vik Patel: This cycle was not directly caused by inflamed rhetoric or inept leadership. The driving force has been primary elections, or rather the lack of quality primaries. During each crisis we inevitably hear politicians sing the refrain, “I know this is crazy, but if I don’t do it, I’ll face a primary challenger.” If the representatives know that continuing to take part in the crisis cycle is crazy and the average voter knows that its crazy, what exactly do candidates have to fear?

According to a study published in the New York Times via American University, over the past several elections voter turnout in primary elections for each party has been down in the teens or single digits. Because so few people vote in these elections, organized fringe groups can easily affect the outcome and thereby the actions of the candidates. Candidates don’t care about public opinion, they care about the opinions of the people who show up at voting booths. If we want to break free from this cycle, the average voter needs to start voting in primaries.

Matt Sowada: I agree with you. The government shutdown was idiotic, hurtful and totally unnecessary but in the end it was not a huge threat to the country: The debt limit threats are a different matter. I cannot believe how close the government came to default. I don’t think they would have done it, but even flirting with the notion of not honoring our debts is playing with loaded weapons in a way that government shutdowns are not. Something must be done. I want to live in a society where no one has to care about Ted Cruz’s opinion.

Increasing turnout for primaries could definitely be part of an effective solution. Gallup polling indicates that the majority of Americans (regardless of whether they are Democrats, Republicans or Independents) agree on two points: that default is not an option and that compromise is an acceptable part of the political process. If the populace shows up, they’ll probably pick candidates who are the right people for the job. The problem is that early primary voting is usually very boring. Barring an extremely colorful (often fringe) candidate, there’s usually no media circus, so no segments on The Daily Show for a house primary race. Simply announcing that people ought to participate is not enough if we want to take this issue seriously. How do you propose we get the public to participate? There are two general strategies we could pursue that are likely to yield results: incentives or penalizations. You can reward people for primary voting or punish them for abstaining. Given that American political parties are private organizations, how do you propose society goes about encouraging people to vote in primaries?

Vik: I don’t think this is a situation necessitating incentivization, but rather education and awareness. The vast majority of people who aren’t heavily involved in party politics don’t understand the importance of primaries and caucuses. If the average person can be made to understand the power of voting in a primary, then they will go and do it. I know you’re skeptical, so lets look at a bit of a case study. Prior to the ‘70s, church involvement in elections was rare, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s conservative Christian churches started to advise their members to go and vote in Republican primary elections. This was done in an effort to make conservative Christian issues important to politicians. Now the voting patterns of the conservative Christian block are a major driving force behind Republican policymaking.

When it comes to your average person, we don’t have an organized forum like a church to discuss the importance of primary voting, so this is what I propose: If you’re a person who votes in primaries and caucuses, then bring along some of your friends and neighbors next time. And if you’re a person who has thought about voting in a primary but hesitates because you’re fed up with the two parties (which is a discussion that will likely fill another column), just go and vote anyway! Your reasonable voice will carry more weight in a primary than it would in any other venue. Your community needs you.

Matt: Well, in bringing up churches you do remind me of one kind of penalty that we could try to utilize: social pressure. Writing this column has made me realize that I am part of the problem here. My participation in the early stages of the political process has been spotty, at best. My interest in the subject has basically been triggered by the threat of fiscal calamity. Vik, you have always been interested in this stuff. You should have been actively judging me! Those who have taken the time to educate themselves should make it known that in a democratic society, total political ignorance is not an option: A virtuous citizen is obliged to provide their reasoned input to the political process.

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