The Costs of Polarization and How to Reduce Them

The leading Democratic candidate for governor in my state, one of the worst governed in the union, is running continuous advertisements on the music service to which I listen. The message is unvarying: he will be a leader of the Trump resistance, creating a firewall against his agenda.  While members of Congress have substantial power to resist the President’s agenda, a governor’s powers are very limited in this regard.  Unlike the Attorney General of Illinois, the Governor even lacks the power to sue Trump over his policies.

No doubt his campaign advisers have recommended this course to take advantage of radical polarization of our time and position himself for election in very blue Illinois.  But such cynical ploys have costs to political governance. Any reasonable observer would stay that Illinois faces huge challenges, including its structural defecit, its mounting debt, its near junk bond rating, and its unaffordable state pensions. But this candidate may well be able to get elected by ignoring them even on his website and  instead protesting Trump. As a result the serious issues over which the governor actually has substantial influence will get much less vetting, making it harder to prepare the state for painful choices that any governor will face. My point is emphatically not itself a partisan one. I am sure candidates for governor in very red states ran similarly cynical advertisements when Obama was President.

Our era of radical polarization makes it more important than ever to create two kinds of reforms—electoral reforms that give more power to those who are not swept up in polarization and government reforms that reduce the political causes of polarization.

1. Require all candidates to run in a common primary where the top two advance to the general election. Top two primaries give more leverage to voters in the middle.  Primary candidates would then have to appeal to independents and even moderates in the other party, forcing them to talk about salient issues rather those that rouse the partisan passions of those who dominate partisan primaries.

2. Second, get more good policy predictions into political discourse. Arguing about which governor will create more economic growth for the state beats beating partisan dead horses. For a long time, I have argued that the United States and states themselves should remove the roadblocks to these markets.

3. Reduce the amount of policy set by the federal government compared to the states. Much polarization comes from national policies that majorities in some parts of the country cannot abide.

4. Even within policies that should be national, reduce how much of that policy is determined by administrative fiat rather than legislation. Legislation requires more compromise. Administrative fiat allows partisans of both sides to achieve their maximalist position when their President is in power. Witness the moves back and forth on net neutrality and more generally on labor policy as set by the NLRB. Reducing the gains from winning the Presidency lowers the national political temperature, allowing more informed and deliberative discussion.