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A Vile Business

So, I was at a political event some years ago, when a woman asked me why politics was so vile, so nasty, and so cut-throat these days.  Naturally, I replied to her, “Computers!” and moved on.

It was obvious to me, but perhaps she deserved more of an answer.

Gerrymandering – by whatever name – is as old as representative politics: the attempt to carve out political districts for political advantage.  Try to get as many safe districts for your party as possible and as few safe districts for the opposition as possible.

When this was done by party elders in the old, fabled, smoke-filled rooms, it was very hit or miss.  Mostly, they did not succeed in more than a couple of districts.  Starting around 1990 or so, however, the parties have been able to rely on computers and public-access voter registration records and what that does is what politicians have always wanted to do but could not – guarantee victory.  As a result, most districts are now “safe” districts and this has changed the whole nature of politics.

When most districts were competitive, the party elders would conspire to get moderates nominated in the primary elections.  Why?  Because only a fool would not.  If your party nominated an extreme candidate, either far left or far right, then they were guaranteeing that the other party would win in the general election.

Not clear?  Politics 101: 40% of the electorate always votes Republican, 40% always votes Democrat, so elections are won or lost based on the 20% in the middle – and they are moderates!  Moderates do not like extreme candidates, they are frightened by them.  So, as much as party elders may have liked the extreme candidates, they avoided nominating them when possible, because they wanted to win.

Now, however, most districts are safe.  The majority party in the district is going to win, so the main battle has moved from the general election to the primary.  There is no reason not to nominate an extreme candidate.

Statewide and national seats must still answer to the 40-20-40 rule, so presidents, governors, and senators have still tended towards the middle.  Even if they may not always seem that way, they still campaign that way.

But the US House and the state legislatures used to be full of moderates and now they are not.  No longer do political orators talk about their learned opponent across the aisle.  Rarely do political friendships cross the aisle.  Now politicians vent about the monsters and villains on the other side, seeing in them the root of all evil.  Most pretenses at civility are dead on arrival.  No longer are they opponents and colleagues, they are enemies.  The media, of course, eats all this up and spews it out.

I have known all this for some time.  What I have not been able to figure out is a solution, just a firm belief that we should give these people as little power over our lives as possible.


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