In “the good old days” we had “blue dog” Democrats who had some fiscally conservative views, and we had some socially liberal Republicans who were willing to accept abortion. Many Democrats supported gun owner rights. Some Republicans didn’t. Growing up, I remember wishing that parties were more ideologically pure so I could know which candidates to vote for, based on their party affiliation.
Be careful what you wish for. We have moved closer to what I wished for, and I now believe it’s not good. How did it happen? I believe it is primarily a result of gerrymandering and districts shaped by courts to protect minority populations. The politicians drawing new voting maps seem to have just two things in mind – how to protect incumbents and how to help their party win more seats. The result is fewer competitive general election races. Districts are drawn so that the party who holds a seat is likely to continue to do so for the next 10 years (when maps are redrawn) unless there is a very wide voter swing. Illinois is prime example number one!
The unfortunate result is that primaries become the main battlegrounds instead of general elections. Whoever wins the primary for the seated party is very likely to win the general election. Under this scenario, the Democrat candidates take more extremely liberal positions to win the vote of their base in the primary while the Republican candidates take more extremely conservative positions to win their party’s base. We end up with more extreme candidates on both sides and fewer in the middle to help negotiate reasonable compromises. How many pro-life Democrats are there in Congress? There is one pro-life Democrat in the Illinois Senate, but he is retiring. How many Republican pro-choice Congressmen are there? How many pro-choice Republicans are there in the Illinois Senate? Very few, if any. (Though, apparently, we do have a pro-choice Republican Governor). It is hard for me to find common ground with my Democrat friends in the Illinois Senate when they have to be careful to protect their liberal reputations to ward off any prospective challengers in the next primary. Just look at what happened in the New York Democrat primary where long-time Congressman Joseph Crowley lost to an unknown avowed socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Bernie Sanders drove Hillary Clinton further and further to the left. Even Diane Feinstein had to fend off a primary challenge because she is not liberal enough. She actually tried to find common ground on a few issues with Republicans. In the 1980s, Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan could argue during the day and have a drink together in the evening, often finding some common ground to work together. Can you imagine Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi having a drink together or a friendly issue-oriented conversation?
What’s the answer? Redistricting reform! Districts must be drawn to keep as much community integrity as possible. The home of incumbents must not be considered. An Illinois State Senate district represents about 250,000 people. There should be a little room for variability. Those districts should be drawn so that they are within 100 or 200 votes of each other instead of within a single vote of each other as we try to do today. They should be drawn by a computer program, or by a bipartisan commission, so that as many districts as possible are competitive districts rather than safe districts. This would force parties to seek candidates who can appeal to more voters than just their party’s base. The likely result would be elected officials who feel much freer to look at both sides of issues and to vote in ways they believe are good for the future of our country and our state, rather than voting the way they believe their party’s base expects.
But redistricting reform requires the General Assembly to submit an amendment to the Illinois Constitution, and the Democrat majority has not allowed a vote in either the House or the Senate to let voters decide the issue.
A similar problem we are now facing is the future of our U.S. Supreme Court. In the past, nominees had to receive 60 votes in the U.S. Senate instead of just a majority. That meant that the President had to nominate candidates who could get some votes from the opposition party unless one party held 60 seats, which is quite rare. While I’m happy that Republicans can now approve conservative Supreme Court nominees with a simple majority for a more conservative court, at some point in the future Democrats will control the process and name some very liberal nominees. Wouldn’t it be better to require 60 votes, and thus, likely, some less extreme nominees?