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Charles Schumer's flawed diagnosis of polarization

- July 23, 2014

Polarization is a serious issue in American politics, and Charles Schumer is one of our leading senators. Yet Schumer’s recent op-ed advocating the replacement of partisan primaries nationwide by the “Top-Two” nonpartisan runoff system is full of errors and claims that have little basis. Even the op-ed’s subtitle, “adopt the open primary,” probably written by the paper and not the senator, is misleading, since Schumer is seeking to replace the open primary that exists in many states. (The open primary allows all voters to participate in any party’s primary; the Top Two system Schumer advocates is a nonpartisan runoff system in which the general election might well be between two Democrats or two Republicans.)
Schumer’s concerns are well-taken. He has observed polarization over the course of his long and consequential Congressional career. As a senator he has seen that chamber virtually paralyzed by partisan strife. He makes a good point when he cites changes in party coalitions, i.e. ” the shift of Southern states toward Republican control, the mobilization of evangelical voters around social issues, anti-tax movements in California and elsewhere, and the rise of conservative talk radio and other news media,” as well. Yet those developments, while very important and a major factor in the many changes in parties’ policies, are not easily addressed by electoral reforms. Meanwhile, Schumer’s prescription is faulty because his analysis of key dynamics in our political system is flawed.
One of Schumer’s key claims is that primaries are a relatively recent development in American politics: “Before the McGovern-Fraser Commission — formed after the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, which was marred by conflict over the Vietnam War — primaries were not even a major component of electoral politics in most states.”
In fact, primaries have been in place in most states for congressional and state offices since the early 20th century. This process had nothing to do with the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which focused on presidential nominations. Primaries had already long been the dominant system used to nominate congressional candidates in the middle of the last century when various measures show polarization was at its nadir. This alone ought to call into question claims that the existence of primaries is the source of polarization.
In fairness, Schumer sees the primary as problematic because it interacts with two allegedly new developments, a rise in special-interest campaign spending and gerrymandering. Yet even if a growth in special-interest money is fueling polarization, Schumer gives us no reason to think that the Top Two system will diminish its impact. Independent expenditures by special interests along with traditional campaign contributions are quite common in California, where the Top Two system is in place.
As for gerrymandering, while mapping technology has improved, there is nothing new about drawing lines to achieve partisan advantage. The famous gerrymander cartoon is from 1816.
More important, scholars largely agree that gerrymandering, while problematic for various reasons, is not a major contributor to polarization. This should come as no surprise. Creating districts overwhelmingly dominated by one party so that incumbents only have to worry about primaries does not serve party interests. It “wastes” votes. Winning many districts by relatively small margins is better for a party than concentrating its votes in a handful of districts.
Schumer asserts that the primary electorate is dominated by unrepresentative extremists: “it is the ‘third of the third’ most to the right or most to the left who come out to vote — the 10 percent at each of the two extremes of the political spectrum.” Yet scholars have repeatedly shown that primary voters are not very different from the parties’ voters in the general election. The Democratic and Republican primary electorates have different preferences, and those differences have grown,but this is also true of Democratic and Republican voters in general elections. Primaries are not polarizing because they are unrepresentative. They are polarizing because they are representative.
Schumer asserts, “in most states, laws prohibit independents — who are not registered with either party and who make up a growing proportion of the electorate — from voting in primaries at all.” This is an exaggerated claim. Closed primaries are common, but in a majority of states independents can vote for candidates of either major party in the primaries, yet polarization has occurred in them anyway.
Finally, as bloggers quicker on the draw than me have already noted , scholars find little evidence supporting the claim that the Top-Two system reduces partisan polarization among state legislators.
Sadly, this op-ed shows that despite tireless efforts by the founders of this blog (of whom I am not one) and other public-spirited scholars, gross misconceptions about our political system are still widespread, even among politicians of undoubted ability, and can appear in the leading newspaper. Polarization really does have troubling effects on our politics, yet without a widespread understanding of its roots we cannot hope to deal more effectively with it, whether by promoting reforms to reduce it or modifying other practices and institutions to cope with what may be an inevitable development.