How to Expand the Center? Look Down Under

The deterioration of the center in American politics is one of the most distressing signs of dysfunction in our political system. It has been obvious inside Congress, where lawmakers (especially those in the middle) who deign to work toward the middle and across party barriers are often ostracized or punished. But it is even more apparent outside Washington, especially in the electoral process.

We had Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) switch from Democrat to Independent after losing a primary challenge from the left for deviating too much from his party's orthodoxy--followed by Arlen Specter (Pa.) switching from Republican to Democrat to avoid the certainty of defeat in a party primary because of a well-financed challenge from the right.

Now we have pretty conservative Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) facing the possible humiliation of not even making it onto the primary ballot because he is insufficiently conservative; conservative Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) being challenged from the right in a tough primary battle, pulling him even further to the right; and centrist conservative Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on the verge of leaving the GOP over his collapse in a Republican Senate primary from a challenge from his right. Meantime, centrist Democrats in North Carolina face the prospect of a leftward insurgency from a new party formed by Service Employees International Union leaders.

The two parties are too tied to their activist wings to do anything to reduce the power of the electromagnets pulling candidates and elected officials to the edges and away from the middle, or to change the issue focus away from the things that excite or frighten their party base voters.

The primary challenges--and the mere threat of a primary challenge--are joined by other tactics, such as the independent expenditure campaign the Club for Growth ran against the health care reform bill that intimidated conservative Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) away from cooperation with the majority, and the frequent censure petitions brought up against conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham in various South Carolina county Republican enclaves. All are designed to purge the parties of non-purists or to bludgeon the potential apostates to toe the party line and not to sleep with the enemy.

The two parties are too tied to their activist wings to do anything to reduce the power of the electromagnets pulling candidates and elected officials to the edges and away from the middle, or to change the issue focus away from the things that excite or frighten their party base voters, or to change the extreme rhetoric and scare tactics used to frame the issues.

These dynamics are deeply rooted in our culture right now, reinforced by talk radio, the blogosphere and cable news, by the permanent campaign, party nominating processes and campaign turnout strategies. When something has cultural roots, the limits of structural reform are apparent. But this is one area where one simple, powerful reform could transform our politics, our dialogue and even our policy outcomes.

That reform would be mandatory attendance at the polls. Australia, where I have spent some time and know many top leaders from both major parties, provides the best example. Down Under, voters who do not show up at the polls are subject to a modest fine, the equivalent of about $15, or less than a parking ticket. That modest nudge has over time boosted Aussie turnout to more than 95 percent. The fine matters; it has also led to an ethos that it is an obligation for citizens to vote.

Australians do not have to vote; they can opt for "None of the Above." Two or 3 percent do just that. But the other citizens do vote. And with near-universal voting, the whole political dynamic changes. Australian politicians and political consultants know that their base voters will all be at the polls--and so will the other side's fiery partisans and ideologues. So the name of the game changes from trying to get your base into a frenzy to encourage their turnout into trying to appeal to the persuadable voters in the middle.

In Australia, politicians spend less time and energy on the kinds of issues that excite single-issue voters, such as guns, same-sex marriage or abortion, and more time on issues that appeal to the broad middle, such as budget deficits, energy and education. Just as important, the rhetoric used on these issues moves away from exaggeration and appeals to the extremes and more to moderation and reason. I don't want to paint a wholly Pollyannaish picture here--Aussie politics have plenty of rough-and-tumble--but politicians of all stripes tell me that the dialogue is better, richer and more reasonable because there is a price to be paid for appealing to base instincts.

I am under no illusions about adopting this approach in the United States. Americans don't like mandatory anything, and given the ramped-up challenges to the health insurance mandate, I can only imagine the reaction of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck to a voting reform of this sort. But it is well worth putting the idea out there.

If we had a system like the Australian one in place in our primaries, where turnout often hits 10 percent, as well as our general elections, we would have fewer extreme candidates nominated, fewer divisive issues exploited, and more honesty in our debates and deliberation. At some point, we may find enough voters disgusted with the impact of ideological and partisan division to entertain a reform as "extreme"--and simple and powerful--as this one.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Larry Cole

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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