Image: Joe Lieberman stumps for John McCain in Derry, New Hampshire. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee, and U.S. Senator, broke party lines in 2008 by endorsing McCain, a Republican, for the presidency.
The death of ideological diversity within our parties
During the 107th Congress (2001-2003) – senators like Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) had accumulated a more liberal voting record than Zell Miller (D-Ga.). Twenty years later, during the 117th Congress (2021-2023), there are no Republicans to the left of Democrats or vice versa. Even the two most moderate members – Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) – have quite a large gap between their voting records. There is a clear trend: ideological diversity in both parties has decreased substantially.
This decrease in ideological diversity in both parties isn’t limited only to politicians; in fact, this newfound polarization among politicians is likely driven by the same phenomenon occurring among the American public. In the last 20 years, there has been a marked increase in partisan polarization across the United States. According to Pew Research, 32% of Democrats were considered more conservative than the median Republican as recently as 2004. Ten years later, in 2014, that share had dropped to 6% – and polarization has become even more pronounced.
Why we need “big-tent” parties for a healthy democracy
In other democracies, this lack of ideological diversity is not a problem. If any party moves too far to the extreme, they suffer the inevitable electoral penalties, and party bosses will run more moderate candidates in the next election. This is not the case in the United States for one big reason – our primary system.
For generations, our primary system worked. It consistently produced candidates that could appeal to wide swaths of the population and could, most importantly, win elections. There was one thing that facilitated this: ideological diversity within parties. Not so long ago, our parties truly maintained a big tent.
Take, for example, the political landscape of the 1960s and 70s; Republicans had a conservative wing led by Sen. Barry Goldwater, a mainstream wing led by Richard Nixon, and a liberal wing led by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The same was the case for Democrats, with an anti-war liberal wing led by Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a hawkish liberal wing led by Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, and a conservative wing led by Gov. George Wallace.
This wide range of ideological diversity in both parties emphasized the need for consensus candidates that the entire party could support because if the needs of one wing of the party were ignored – they could realistically support a candidate of the opposing party.
One of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon was put on display during Senator Lowell Weicker’s 1988 re-election bid in Connecticut. Weicker, a liberal Republican, was running against Joe Lieberman, a conservative Democrat. Weicker frequently butted heads with Republican leadership and steadily moved to the left on economic and foreign policy issues, winning him the support of many traditionally-Democratic liberals. Lieberman was to the right of Weicker on many of these issues – winning him the support of many prominent conservatives – including the eminent William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review. Lieberman eventually eeked out a narrow victory against Weicker. Compared to the concurrent presidential election, Weicker outran Republican George Bush in liberal strongholds such as New Haven and Hartford. In contrast, Lieberman outran Democrat Michael Dukakis in wealthy, conservative bastions like Greenwich, Darien, and New Canaan.
Neither Weicker nor Lieberman would be able to win a primary in either of their respective parties today and have since become Independents. In fact, Lieberman was primaried in 2006 by Ned Lamont, a liberal Democrat. The significant decline of ideological diversity within our parties has made it so that a small number of activists on the ideological fringes of both parties have a much more powerful voice in selecting candidates than the overwhelming majority of voters that hold relatively mainstream views.
The power that the ideological extremes of both parties hold has grown as the parties become less ideologically diverse and has been particularly pronounced during the Trump era. Let’s look at my home state of Pennsylvania as an example.
In the Republican Primary for Governor, far-right election denier Doug Mastriano won with only 43% of the vote, thanks to an endorsement from Donald Trump and a splintering of the mainstream vote between Lou Barletta, Bill McSwain, and Dave White. In the Republican Primary for Senate, Dr. Oz prevailed over Dave McCormick – the more mainstream, electable candidate – by less than 1,000 votes, almost entirely due to an endorsement from Donald Trump. In the Democratic Primary for Senate, progressive John Fetterman defeated moderate Conor Lamb. This meant that in Pennsylvania – one of the most moderate and politically even states in the country – three out of the four nominees for statewide office in Pennsylvania were ideologically extreme. The same story played out all over the rest of the country.
How do we adapt to the current reality of politics?
It isn’t fair to voters to consistently subject them to choosing between the lesser of two evils. If we want good governance in our country, we must give voters a real choice in elections. There’s one major obstacle to doing this: the current primary system in most of the country. If we want to ensure that candidates are elected based on their ability to appeal to a broad swath of voters rather than their ability to win over the most extreme elements of their party’s base, one thing is clear: the primary system needs to be overhauled.
Traditional primaries only allow registered members to vote in their party’s primary – giving the extremes of parties that lack ideological diversity a high degree of power they would not otherwise have. Most of the country employs traditional primary systems, but one alternative has proven to be a bulwark against extremism: blanket primaries.
Blanket primaries are a type of primary election where all candidates from all political parties run on a single primary ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. This means that voters, regardless of their party affiliation or lack thereof, can vote for any candidate running in the primary.
John F. Kennedy said, “We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.” This used to be the case. Now? Not so much. A combination of lack of ideological diversity in the parties and the structure of our traditional primary system have made it so that the political extremes instead of “We, the people,” have the final say in our elections.
Blanket primaries reward acts of political courage – traditional primaries do the exact opposite. Of the eleven Republicans running for re-election in 2022 who voted for the Second Impeachment of Donald Trump – only three survived – Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak.), Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), and Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.).
What separates this trio from the rest of the Republicans who voted to convict Trump but lost? They didn’t face traditional primaries. Many other pro-impeachment Republicans would’ve almost certainly won had they faced the entire electoral in a blanket primary – like Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) – who only lost his traditional primary by 3% to Trump-endorsed extremist John Gibbs.
Right now, all but four states have a traditional primary system: Louisiana, California, Washington, and Alaska. If we want our political system so that it awards acts of political courage, we need to reform our primary system. Adopting a blanket primary system will empower the will of the people and put an end to the outsized influence that the far-left and far-right have in selecting candidates in traditional primary systems.
Our closed primaries served us well for a long time, but it’s clear that without ideological diversity in our parties, closed primaries harm our democracy. Closed primaries give a voice to the extremes and silence the middle ground. The solution? Adopt blanket primaries across the nation. If we want to keep a healthy and vibrant democracy, reform is the only answer.
Lucca Ruggieri is a student at Great Valley High School in the Philadelphia Suburbs. He is the founder of Patriot Polling, one of the first nationally-recognized polling firms to be founded by high schoolers. He is a Fellow at the Germination Project, a prestigious program for cultivating future leadership in Philadelphia. In addition, he has been published by Sabato’s Crystal Ball, is a Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute, and interned for Dave McCormick’s campaign for U.S. Senate.