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The Politics of Division and Subtraction

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Much has been written over the past few years about the partisan polarization of our two major political parties. It is unquestionable that both parties have become more partisan -- one much more so than the other.

We think, however, that an equally appropriate description for what is going on is "the politics of division and subtraction." That's because as the parties have polarized they have grown the divide between them and subtracted a large number of registered voters from their rolls. This polarization has increased the ranks of reported independents substantially.

A recent Pew Research Center study reports that 38 percent of voters indicate that they are independents as opposed to 32 percent who say they are Democrats and 24 percent who declare as Republicans. Pew observes that "independents are more numerous than at any point in the last 70 years." Many of the independents lean toward one party or the other. Pew reports that, for the upcoming national election, 23 percent of the independents were swing voters based upon those who were "undecided or not certain" who they would support at the time of the survey.

Some might view the increase in independents and swing voters as a good thing. We do not. That's because, given the way that our political system works, these voters have little input and influence in selecting candidates for office and even less in the policy making process. They are basically disenfranchised.

It has frequently been said that the citizens of the United States tend to be either center- right or center-left depending on the issue. Historically, our parties have reflected that centrism in their membership. Today, however, in both parties there is virtually no center left.

The centrists have been forced into the independent ranks. The politics of division and subtraction has altered the fundamental balance that has made our democracy work for almost the past century. It has eliminated the middle. When there is no middle there can be no middle ground. There can be no basis for compromise and closure. There can only be conflict and chasms.

Pew highlights the nature of this tortured terrain in its study when it writes, "As Americans head to the poll this November, their values and beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years." The Pew Survey revealed that, on 48 "political values measures" in 15 attitudinal areas, the average partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans has nearly doubled from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent in 2012 with nearly all of the increases having occurred during the Bush and Obama presidencies. This gap which has become a gulf highlights the enormity of the current problem.

While many of our politicians, have been criticized because of their confrontational and contentious nature, they are not independent agents. To a greater or lesser extent, they are mirrors reflecting the highly partisan values and perspectives of the voters who select and then elect them. As the voting base of each major party has shrunk and become more "extreme" (i.e., much, much more conservative in the Republican Party, and slightly more liberal in the Democratic Party), the impetus to work cooperatively across the aisle and to do meaningful problem-solving has practically disappeared.

The independents and swing voters can have some modest impact on this gridlock. As Linda Killian points out in her new book, The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents, the independent/swing voters have played a role in who has won national elections in the past and will do so again in 2012 -- especially in the swing states. In addition, recently formed groups such as Americans Elect and No Labels have been working on governance system reform.

Those organizations and individuals who are getting involved in trying to change the current toxic political climate are to be commended. There is one overriding limitation with these "outsider" approaches, however, and that is they are playing at the margins rather than affecting the political mainstream.

For better or worse, America is, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a two party system. Therefore, to make America work for all Americans, we need to make the two party system work -- for the better and not for the worse. The only way that can be done is to restore the middle and to give the center more of a voice in the political process. There are a number of steps that can be taken to accomplish this including fair districting and campaign finance reform.

The starting point, however, must be primary reform. Today across the United States there are a variety of primary systems ranging from the closed primary in which only the registered voters of a given party can vote in the party's primary to the top two primary which puts all of the candidates on the same ballot and has the top two vote getters face off in the general election.

We need to eliminate the closed primary from this range of options. The completely closed primary violates the basic tenants of representative democracy and one person, one vote because it excludes a broad swath of voters from participation. It also marginalizes those who stand outside the party power structure and maximizes the potential for the "fringes" to dictate and dominate the national dialogue and agenda.

We are not advocating any specific replacement to the closed primary. What we do recommend, however, are the design and implementation of primary processes and systems that are fully inclusive of the registered voter population rather than those that are restrictive and exclusive.

This will begin to reverse the politics of division and subtraction and move us toward the politics of addition and multiplication. Movement in that direction will shrink the gaps that divide us and provide the basis for melting those polarization ice caps that could sink our ship of state and democracy if they are not addressed.