The full contours of the dispute between Ed Kilgore and Scott Winship that provide the context for this Kilgore post are too complicated to summarize, but I wanted to highlight his point that “open primaries” don’t seem to be much of a cure-all for political polarization:
But if you are looking in this direction for a cure-all, consider that the two most ideological senators, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are both from open primary states. (Meanwhile, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and Olympia Snowe are products of closed primary states.) And remember, too, that registered “independents” are not always “centrists.”
I think the point about Nelson, Lieberman, and Snowe is probably more important than the point about DeMint and Sanders.
I would also add that it’s not really clear to me what the problem with polarization is supposed to be. Indeed, the concept seems to embed two somewhat different ideas—one of party cohesion and one of ideological distance between the parties. But if you imagine a situation in which highly disciplined parties face off in elections for a highly majoritarian system—as you see in the United Kingdom or Canada—I think you find that convergence toward the center à la the median voter theorem tends to occur. It’s possible for party activists to force a party in such a system far off-center, as we saw with Labour’s infamous “no compromise with the electorate” manifesto in the 1980s, the pre-Cameron Tories, but parties like that just lose elections. And party activists eventually get tired of losing, as you see in the rise of Tony Blair, Stephen Harper repositioning himself toward the center, etc.
The American system, by promoting an overwhelming bias toward the status quo, encourages politicians to engage in “cheap talk” promises. There’s a very robust debate happening on the Internet right now as to whether or not Barack Obama really supported a public option. That’s an absurd kind of debate to be having. In a normal country, a government that wants to move to the center has to move to the center, and a government that wants to do what its activist base wants has to actually do what its activist base wants. US administrations get to exist in a kind of indeterminant state that confuses the public. And not because the public is dumb—even people who follow these issues professionally have difficulty figuring out what’s what.