If you accept the premise that partisanship, political polarization, and gridlock are all bad things —and count me among those who, like Jeffrey Bell, don't accept that particular premise—what solutions might you propose to curb political extremism?
In an op-ed in the Washington Post today adapted from their recent book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein list a few ideas that they argue won't do a thing to remedy the political dysfunction in Washington (which, by the way, they blame entirely on Republicans). And then they enumerate a few solutions that they think will, in fact, work. Among these proposed solutions:
Expand the electorate
Consider the Australian system of mandatory attendance at the polls, where not showing up results in a fine of $15 or so. This modest penalty has spurred participation of more than 90 percent since the 1925 reform. Australian politicians can count on their bases turning out, so they focus on persuadable voters in the middle. Instead of campaigning on marginal wedge issues, they talk about the economy, jobs, education — and they seek to attract a majority from the entire citizenry.
In the United States, such near-universal voting could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes. Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle of the playing field.
Other promising avenues to expand the electorate include automating the registration process (so voters can register online and carry their documentation with them when they move from one state to another) and to open up the primaries, as California has done, to all voters. Over time, open primaries could produce more moderate elected officials.
Finally, if we can’t persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches? Millions lined up — sometimes wasting all night — for a shot at the Mega Millions lottery in March. How about another lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected from the fines of those who didn’t vote? The odds of the mega-jackpot were about 1 in 176 million — we’d like to believe that the chances of fixing American politics are a bit better than that.
A mandate to vote in political elections is to me an idea so viscerally distasteful that it's hard to know where to begin except to reaffirm that basic American precept that holds that ordinary individuals have the capacity and responsibility to make their own decisions. This may include a decision not to vote, for any number of reasons —whether due to the self-awareness that the individual is not well enough informed, or because the individual does not approve of any of his options on the ballot, or something else.
The right not to vote aside, it seems as though far too many people vote without taking the time to inform themselves about the issues at hand. You can expand the electorate with carrots and sticks, but you cannot so easily expand the informed electorate.