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What Extremism?

Norman Ornstein proposes that voting be made mandatory.  He believes that coercing people into voting booths will strengthen political centrism and thereby reduce the influence of political extremists.  His argument is here, in today’s New York Times.

Below is its crux:

With participation rates of about 10 percent or less of the eligible
electorate in many primaries to 35 percent or so in midterm general
elections to 50 percent or 60 percent in presidential contests, the
name of the game for parties is turnout — and the key to success is
turning out one’s ideological base. Whichever party does a better job
getting its base to the polls reaps the rewards of majority status.

what’s the best way to get your base to show up at the polls? Focus on
divisive issues that underscore the differences between the parties….

If there were mandatory voting in America, there’s a good chance that
the ensuing reduction in extremist discourse would lead to genuine
legislative progress. These days, valuable Congressional time is spent
on frivolous or narrow issues (flag burning, same-sex marriage) that
are intended only to spur on the party bases and ideological extremes.
Consequently, important, complicated issues (pension and health-care
reform) get short shrift.

I have lots of problems with forcing people to vote.  (Corporations couldn’t get away behaving so coercively.  Why does Ornstein believe that government should not be held to the same standard of civil, peaceful behavior?)  But my self-appointed task here isn’t to make a case against mandatory voting.  Instead, it is to question Ornstein’s assumption that politicians typically play to the extremes.

That politicians grandstand, pontificate, and latch on to symbolism like lice on a bloodhound is beyond question.  But one of the overwhelmingly obvious facts about national politicians today in the United States is how utterly addicted they are to platitudes and to the need to please as many different constiuencies as possible.

Remember John Kerry’s equivocations?  Bill Clinton’s very essence?  Hillary Clinton herself is now notoriously avoiding being pegged as an unreconstructed left-liberal.  George Bush I was decidedly no ideologue.  And even Ronald Reagan and George Bush II, though despised as beasts by left-liberals, were (are) quite middle-of-the-road politically.  (The war in Iraq divides us all, often dramatically, but that’s what war does.  I can’t fathom how mandatory voting will unite Americans on that front.)

In short, the idea that Congress is manned by ideologically devoted extremists is absurdly off-base — as is the idea that any recent residents of the White House are principled extremists.