If we need any more evidence about the dysfunction of the American political system, the current partisan debacle in Senate District 34 provides another reminder that the process by which we elect our representatives isn’t serving the interests of the electorate.
Thus far, the race has seen allegations that one candidate, Kirk Bushnell, is really a Democrat running as a Republican, an anti-government Republican running despite an embarrassing family embezzlement scandal, and a New World Order conspiracy theorist who is to the right of Ann Coulter running as a Democrat. The latter, former Republican legislative candidate Comstock, offered the following unusual Democratic bona fides to the press when talking about his new party:
“It’s been taken over by socialists and would-be communists. They need to get their own party,” he said, going on to refer to his new party by a favorite GOP colloquialism. “So I decided that I can make a difference by trying to work within the Democrat party rather than hoping to pull it back to the center as a Republican.”
Senate District 34 is a mess—and it’s only February.
As I have written before, the primary process in Montana and many other states is broken. It encourages the nomination of candidates radically out of step with their districts, partisan games to manipulate the outcomes of primaries, and hyper-negative campaigning –all while discouraging voters from participating.
The answer is to move to primary elections in which the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation move to the general election. Some districts might see two Democrats facing off, some might see two Republicans, and some might even elect candidates without party affiliation.
And we’d have people who represent the common interest, not the narrowly defined agenda of the most extreme members of each party. Candidates would have to reach out to and listen to their whole districts, not simply win a primary with a D or and R after their names.
I don’t imagine that my proposal would be terribly popular with either political party, but elections aren’t supposed to be about serving their interests. They’re supposed to be about serving our interests and electing citizens capable of working together to provide sensible policy for the people they represent.
If, after the 2011 Legislative session, anyone believes we are getting anything close to rational actors working for the common interest, I have a Confederate gold piece to sell you.
My system would restore political parties to a more natural role: articulating competing visions for the future. We’d still need the Democratic Party and the Republican Party (and maybe a few more), but not to narrow down the choice of the candidates we can vote for in our elections.
I am as partisan as anyone, but I am less interested in the idea of electing Democrats than I am in the idea of electing the best legislators and state officials we can. If Montana is really going to move forward, we must move past the partisan gridlock that turns every issue into an opportunity to score political points and every crisis an excuse to point fingers.
We can do better.