In which I express my slight irritation, once again, at the “both sides are extreme” talking point and discuss Open Primaries
There was a great letter in the Republic Sunday:
The premise of an open primary is that it will draw moderates into the selection of general election candidates.
But will moderates and independents in fact vote in a primary? Are they informed or interested enough to sift through candidates to choose the moderate? What evidence is there for that expectation? In Louisiana, the first open primary produced David Duke as one of the top two. He was the KKK kleagle.
What do moderates want? What policies do they support?
I would love to see a public forum of moderates only, who will delineate their policy preferences, not just express their disdain for “partisan” politics. Let them write a list of preferences and let us see what they’d vote for.
Then let the candidates trample each other to win those votes. That’s what politics is about … finding the policy which most people want.
Remaining silent does not inform the public debate. We need to hear what moderates want, not just keep guessing. Then we might assess the value of an open primary.
The writer, Harriet Young, echoes what I and other Open Primaries skeptics have pointed out about it (little to no positive evidence that it works, mainly) but she also asks the most pertinent question about this supposedly undifferentiated mass of disaffected moderates and independents in Arizona who eschew primaries: what do they stand for besides “partisanship is yucky”?
I don’t care that moderate/independent/centrist/swing voters don’t want to pick a team. But I’m really tired of smiling politely when I’m out among non-political junkies and someone inevitably says something like, “Why can’t the parties work together? Why are both sides so extreme?” You see, one party in Arizona has actually tried really hard to appeal to moderates and independents. They would be the Democrats. The former chair of the AZ Democratic Party, Andrei Cherny, proudly announced that he was moving the party to the right shortly after his election to that position in 2011. The current Arizona Democratic Senate candidate, Richard Carmona, recently switched his registration and was President G.W. Bush’s Surgeon General. Carmona has gone out of his way to let everyone know centrist and post-partisan he is, as has Ron Barber in CD8. Barber will probably eke out a win next week in the special election for Giffords’ seat and Dr. Carmona is probably in the best position to pull off a miraculous upset against Jeff Flake in November. But why aren’t they both at least 10 points ahead if so many moderates and independents in Arizona hunger for even-keeled pragmatic leadership? If they’re put off by the “D” by the candidates’ names, then isn’t that a form of the kneejerk partisanship they claim to despise?
Maybe it’s what my friend Diane calls “internalized liberal-phobia” – the belief that every Democrat is tainted with the dreaded liberalism, even though most Dems who run for statewide office and competitive legislative districts here are hardly what you’d call liberal. (Democratic legislators in safe districts are arguably more left-leaning but if there were a true equivalence with their John Birch Birther GOP counterparts we would have actual Marxists and socialists in the AZ Democratic caucus right now.)
Liberal-phobia definitely infects the business class here, which is why there is so much support among them for Open Primaries – in which candidates with the most money will tend to have the advantage. They figure the system will produce more Republicans like Bill Konopnicki (moderate on some social issues but always pro-business) or amiable wingnuts like Jeff Flake (who is every bit the lunatic Trent Franks is but not so embarrassing and always pro-business). They’ll still have to tolerate the overtly nutty Republicans like Sylvia Allen from time to time (but thank God she’s reliably pro-business!) and the occasional (horrors) centrist Democrat. But they will succeed in their real goal, which is as always with these things, to quash or at least sideline the progressive and populist Democrats who represent the only thing in politics resembling a threat to them. The latter part has the most likelihood of actually happening since the Arizona Democratic party will respond to Open Primaries by doubling down on the commitment to recruit the most centrist and business-friendliest candidates possible. Republicans won’t moderate any of their stances. They don’t have to. All they have to do with Open Primaries is pretty much the same thing they do now: Make sure the wingnuts who get though statewide and competitive legislative primaries are bland and affable-seeming ones who don’t screech about abortion too much. You know, like Jeff Flake.
The partisan reaction to the Open Primaries initiative itself should be instructive to anyone who buys into the “both sides are extreme” myth. The most negative attitude you’ll see from a Democratic partisan lefty is, basically, mine: I’m deeply skeptical and think it’s a highly overrated idea that, if it succeeds at all, does so by concentrating more power into the hands of establishment elites. I’m also resigned to it passing, given how it’s being sold to voters with vague promises of choice and independence and puppies and rainbows. But I know a lot of Dem activists who do think Open Primaries is a good idea or are at least willing to wait and see about it. Democratic party officials have put up lukewarm resistance or taken neutral stances. Conservatives, on the other hand, are having a meltdown over Open Primaries. Right wing bloggers and Tea Party activists consider Open Primaries to be a fiendish leftist plot to oust conservatives. As we speak, Arizona Republican legislators are plotting to refer a countermeasure to the ballot via a special election. You can’t get a better demonstration of how “both sides” are not, in fact, “equally extreme” than this.
My prediction is that we’ll see a small difference in the first cycle or two Open Primaries is in effect. It may be a boon to consultants as campaigns try some different things to reach out to a broader swath of the electorate, which may produce a slight increase in primary turnout. We may even see some interesting independent candidates emerge and then fizzle out. But fairly soon things will settle back into the old pattern. Right wingers will figure out how to game the system and continue to to push the Republican party further to the right. Candidates of both parties will resume the usual strategy of campaigning among interested partisans because, hello, that’s where the money and volunteers are. Five years from now I’ll honestly be surprised if 20% of the electorate even knows Arizona has open primaries.
And media pundits will continue to peddle the received conventional wisdom of “extremism on both sides” to inattentive and credulous voters, who will repeat it to me at barbeques and cocktail parties as I smile politely and nod. ‘Tis the Circle of Life.