It is reasonable to wonder how common citizens like ourselves can join forces against the entrenched power of partisan politicians and special interests to make government more responsive to our common interest. Here are the reasons we think that THE COMMON INTEREST will work:
There Are More Moderate Pragmatists than You Think Every day, the media tells us that we are in the midst of a “culture war” in which “red states” are pitted against “blue states.” We hear this story frequently enough to begin to believe that the vast majority of voters in this country are either very conservative Republicans or very liberal Democrats.
They aren’t. While many of our politicians may be bitterly polarized, the majority of Americans are not. Less than 5 percent of voters are “extremely conservative” and less than 5 percent are “extremely liberal.” A majority of American voters are moderate or only slightly conservative or liberal. A majority of American voters feel both that the Republican Party is more conservative and that the Democratic Party is more liberal than they are themselves. One third of American voters are Independents.
Even in Idaho—one of the reddest of the red states (only Utah and Wyoming voted more heavily for Bush)—the majority of us are moderate or only slightly conservative or liberal. One third of Idahoans are Independents.
Moderate Pragmatists Want to Participate in the Political Process We know that if we join together, we can make a real difference. But we’ve heard another story—the story of the moderate voter who is uninformed and apathetic—and we wondered if enough of us would want to participate to make THE COMMON INTEREST work.
This story, too, is wrong. We sent letters to one hundred randomly selected registered voters across Idaho and followed up with phone calls. We reached sixty of you. Fifty percent of you wanted to join. Even more remarkable than that number were the conversations we had. They lasted an average of 45 minutes and you did most of the talking. As a group, we are not uninformed or apathetic. We only need a way to be heard above the din of partisan politics and special interests to become energized.
Of course, we have to wonder how a deeply partisan political process and the influence of special interests arose even though so many of us are pragmatic and moderate in our views. There are several reasons. Here are a few of the most important:
How Partisan Politics Spiral Out of Control
Political Parties and the Primary System Although the party system is not part of our Constitution, the rise of political parties was anticipated, and feared, by the Founding Fathers. George Washington warned that “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Two facts about our party system help explain why it often produces leaders that are more extreme than the public is:
- Voter turnout in primary elections tends to be very low, often less than 20 percent.
- Those who have deeply conservative or deeply liberal views turn out to vote more consistently than pragmatic moderates.
The combination of these two facts means that strongly conservative and liberal voters usually constitute a majority of voters in the Republican and Democratic primaries, respectively, with this result: When the general election comes around, the majority of us who take a less partisan approach usually have to make a frustrating choice between two unappealing partisans.
The Media Pragmatic discussions by moderates sell fewer newspapers than stories of epic battles between partisans. They probably sell even fewer ads on TV. Accordingly, the media tends to focus on battling partisans and thus gives the impression that we are more polarized than we really are.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of the Impression that There Are Few Pragmatists The impression that we are more polarized than we really are-an impression created by the primary system and the media-tends to create its own reality. Because the majority of us are pragmatic and moderate but think that we are a small minority, we often conclude that it’s pointless to vote, to run for office, or to participate in other ways. As a result, we cede the political landscape to the extremists. We help to create the very reality that frustrates us.
How We Bring Partisan Politics Back Under Control While low voter turnout in primary elections contributes to the problem of partisan politics, it also points out a simple and practical way to overcome it. If even 10 percent more of us vote in primary elections, in addition to general elections, we can dramatically change the face of politics and elect leaders who actually represent our views.
How Special Interests Wield Their Influence Even if we reduce the level of partisanship in politics, we still confront the problem of special interests. Our state legislature addresses hundreds of issues each year. Congress addresses thousands. The vast majority of these issues don’t affect us deeply enough to mobilize us politically. There are small minorities, however, who are deeply affected and dedicate their energy and resources to make sure that politicians vote in their interest.
Special interests can be an asset to all of us. Because they care deeply, special interest groups draw attention to their issues, disseminate information, and educate the general public. However, when they fail to persuade a majority of us that their views are correct, but still succeed in imposing their views on us as a result of the enormous amounts of money they spend in lobbying and campaign contributions, the common interest is thwarted.
How We Reduce the Influence of Special Interests The advantage that special interests have over the common interest exists only as long as the majority of us remain disengaged on the issues of the day. Organizing ourselves through THE COMMON INTEREST will allow our membership as a whole to become engaged with many issues while requiring each of us to study out only one issue in depth each year. As we use the legislative scorecard to measure how responsive our elected officials are to our positions and then vote accordingly, we make our political system much more accountable to the common interest.