Competitive elections that avoid the downward spiral of radicalism have to be a decision of the voters.

A commentary piece by Richard Pildes, a Constitutional law professor at New York University, should resonate with Rhode Islanders:

The dynamics and incentives for candidates running in competitive districts are dramatically different than those candidates face in safe districts. For competitive seats, candidates know they must win over enough voters in the center, who might swing to either party, while also holding on to their base. If they move too far toward the wings of their party, they risk losing the centrist voters needed to win. These dynamics not only weaken the power of the wings of each party but also create incentives for more centrist candidates to run in the first place. Competitive districts also make legislators more responsive to changes in voter preferences; if public opinion on important policies shifts by five points, legislators who want to keep or gain office will need to respond to that change.

In safe seats, by contrast, incumbents’ main threat comes from being “primaried.” Given the make-up of primary voters, that threat mostly comes from the ideological poles of their party. As the authors of a recent book titled “Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters” find: “Legislators believe that primary voters are much more likely to punish them for compromising than general election voters or donors.” This point was made in characteristically bald form in Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 speech on the Ellipse when he mainly attacked Republicans who would not vote to object to the counting of electoral votes: “[I]f they don’t fight, we have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight. We primary them.”

From a practical standpoint, many of us on the political right see Trump’s statement as an example of the right learning to be bad from the left, but put that aside.  The general proposition that when seats are competitive, politics is more centrist seems obvious on its face.

Simple political logic shows this to be true, even in primaries.  If Democrat voters, for example, know that it may be a close race, they’ll pick the “electable” candidate; if they know Republicans offer no viable competition, the extremists among Democrat primary voters will face less intraparty opposition.  Election after election, as the extreme gains leverage, manipulating the game along the way through legislation and increasingly perverse incentives for the news media not to truly challenge the powerful or promote the opposition for the sake of “access,” things get worse, until it’s like a boat that has taken on water and capsizes when it all flows to one side.

However, I’d suggest that there’s a prior shift that has to occur.  The electorate has to stop valuing moderating political principles.  For some, centrism for the sake of centrism is a value, but even better is due process and limited government.  If the electorate upholds the boundaries of government and respects every sides right to assert its interests, elections will have less consequence.

Of course, the question that really matters is how one stops the boat from tilting once it’s started, and that’s the puzzle of our era.

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