When you go to the polls, you choose among candidates who have excited the activists, but who may not excite you (unless you're an activist). Here's how that might be changed.
Are you excited by your party's candidates? No?
Americans cherish the right to vote. But most of us play little role in selecting the candidates from whom we ultimately choose an officeholder.
A tiny number of political activists do the choosing for us. They attend their local party caucuses in February. (It's cold in February, and most of us stay home.) An even smaller handful use that stepping stone to advance to the party conventions. There, they select and endorse candidates, who then have an advantage in a primary. Most of the activists' choices win -- and now they're on the ballot.
This time-consuming and unfamiliar process tends to discourage moderates -- both the moderately interested and the moderately leaning. It rewards the relatively small number of activists who are ready to walk on red-hot coals for their issues -- whether it is abortion and same-sex marriage or single-payer health care.
For most Minnesotans, the candidate-selection process is too hard to understand, or too onerous, to make participation worthwhile. So we don't participate. And, then, we have to choose among the candidates the handful of activists select and who don't reflect many of our views.
In 2012, the GOP presidential nomination battle devolved into a competition that marched steadily rightward to please the party activists.
In Arkansas, in 2010, liberal activists targeted incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a moderate. She was politically damaged but hung on to her party's nomination. But the activists lost when Arkansas elected a conservative Republican to replace her. That made the entire liberal agenda more difficult to advance. One wonders if any of these folks thought of that.
Tea Partiers "won" multiple nomination contests in 2010. But their favorite candidates were often too conservative to win even in a year when Democrats in general got crushed. Republicans lost winnable seats in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado and, perhaps, Connecticut, costing them the opportunity to secure the majority in the U.S. Senate.
Activists love playing kingmaker. And they have every right to the role -- they show up. Political parties are supposed to be places for debate. It's a process that has toppled "insiders" to produce one-time fringe leaders like Ronald Reagan and Paul Wellstone, who later earned wide admiration.
But let's be clear. We are ceding to a very small number of people control over an awesome power -- the power to dictate our choices on the ballot.
This year, in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, only about 5 percent of age-eligible voters in about half the states cast ballots -- and that tiny sliver of the country determined our choice in November.
Surveys of this year's national party conventions will likely show, as they have in the past, that the Democratic delegates are more liberal than rank-and-file Democrats and far more liberal than America as a whole. Surveys will show the same on the conservative side at the GOP convention.
Among activists on the fringe, the priority is their beliefs and principles. Winning elections and building majorities to solve our nation's problems would be all fine and good -- but not if it requires thoughtful, bipartisan solutions to today's complex challenges. The party and its platform is merely a vehicle for the most extreme conservative or liberal agenda, coupled with a winner-take-all mentality.
Parties have always been instruments of ideology. But in the past there were few, if any, absolutes. Elected officials used judgment and exercised leadership to move policy in directions consistent with their party platforms -- and with the good of the state or nation. Leaders led.
Today's parties have become crippling cartels of ideological purity. Republicans who veer from the new orthodoxy of never amending the tax code can expect to see their nomination challenged and quite possibly blocked. Democrats who dare to challenge the dictates of public employees or the teachers' union know they could be signing a career-ending death warrant.
Does any of this matter? It does. Because it shapes the choices for the rest of us -- and it shapes how politicians govern.
Ask Republicans if they've learned the lessons of U.S. Sens. Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett, who both were ousted in primaries. Ask Democrats if they've learned the lesson of Blanche Lincoln. In each case, the lesson is: Defy the activist few, and you risk your career.
Understand that, and you understand why Minnesota Republicans opposed reforms to extend sales taxes from brick-and-mortar Minnesota businesses like Target and Best Buy to online sales by Amazon -- or why they opposed sensible health reform the business community supported to expand access to private health insurance. You'll also understand why Democrats opposed reform of teacher staffing or improving the state's cumbersome permitting process.
But let's be fair. The problem is not the activists -- they bring passion and vigor to our campaigns. The problem is the nomination rules and the parties themselves, which allow a small number to control the choice of all others.
It is time to change. We need a system that rewards practical problem solving. We need a system that allows compromise. And we need a system that brings the rest of us back to the table. Quality candidates have made it through the current system. Hats off to them. But we need more.
Reforming Minnesota's nomination process is an urgent matter worthy of broad civic debate. Here are some desirable reforms here in Minnesota to start that discussion:
1. CANDIDATE RECRUITMENT
We need to work harder to encourage and enable people to run for office. Wouldn't it be great if the choice on the ballot in November were between a Democrat and a Republican who each had practical, private-sector experience of how our economy works? When was the last time you saw a candidate who swung a hammer run for office?
2. STRONGER CITIZEN ENGAGEMENT
When did you last attend a caucus? Candidates in both parties are determined by those who show up. Average Minnesotans need to re-engage. But to encourage that, we probably need to change the process and make it more welcoming and understandable.
3. ELIMINATE THE CAUCUSES
Great idea, great history, but today the system is polarizing our democracy and crippling our ability to govern. It has to go.
4. MOVE THE PRIMARY
Moving Minnesota's primary to June is no guarantee that folks will plug in, but the odds would be better than they are today. An earlier primary in Minnesota would also create a fairer playing field for challenger candidates against entrenched incumbents.
Currently, a candidate new to the game needs to navigate the treacherous waters of the party endorsement and primary process over a seven-month period -- only to have 83 short days to build a viable campaign for the November general election. That's an incumbent protection system if there ever were one.
There are other reforms to consider. The ambitious may want to consider the nonpartisan primary, which allows all candidates to compete to be one of the top two vote-getters proceeding to the general election. It might be especially useful in uncompetitive districts.
There's ranked-choice voting -- a process that allocates the votes of the least popular candidate until someone wins more than 50 percent. We're not fans of RCV, but it's an experiment we can learn from that's already underway in the Twin Cities.
As we pry open the doors to who runs, we should also take a hard look at reforming how the boundaries for legislative districts are drawn. Democracy depends on voters choosing their representatives. Today it's the reverse, with lawyers and judges riding shotgun over the redistricting process.
Football coach Woody Hayes used to say that 90 percent of life is showing up. Nowhere is that more true than in politics. The problem is not the activists who show up early and leave late in service of their passions and principles. The problem is the rest of us -- the silent majority on the sidelines.
We may need to change the rules just a bit. Then we need to show up and participate -- or quit complaining.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. David C. Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.