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Can we reduce polarization in nation, state?

Government shutdowns — evidence of how polarized Democrats and Republicans in office have become — are distressingly frequent news. The shutdown produced by U.S. Senate Democrats early in 2018 makes a first for them. Previously only Hill Republicans shut down government over policy disputes, but Democrats have now pursued a governmental standstill over immigration issues.

Since 1981, the federal government has shut down nine times for periods from one to 27 days as Congress and the president dueled over spending priorities. With tempestuous and unpredictable Donald Trump in the White House and a restive group of Senate Democrats, future stoppages are quite possible.

Minnesota is no stranger to extreme polarization, suffering through state government closings in 2005 and 2011 as a chief executive faced a rival party controlling the Legislature. In 2005 it was GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty against a Democratic Legislature, while in 2011 Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton faced off against a GOP Legislature.

What reforms might help us avoid shutdowns in the future? In the recent book “Solutions to Political Polarization in America,” edited by Nathaniel Persily, several scholars propose far-reaching changes that might lessen the polarization between the parties that spawns governmental stoppages.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recommends three big changes. First, she advocates reforming primary elections to increase turnout. Small turnout, she argues, empowers narrow groups of activists who tend to have relatively extreme issue convictions.

They tend to choose ideologically intense candidates who, once in office, contribute to governmental polarization and gridlock. She specifically advocates open primaries in which any voter can participate in either major party’s primary and promotes holding both parties’ primaries on the same day.

This is no panacea. Minnesota does allows any registered voter to participate in the primary of their choice and also holds party primaries on the same day. Those features have done little to lessen polarization in our state government.

Kamarck’s second proposal would make legislative redistricting nonpartisan by “taking it out of the hands of state legislatures and placing it in the hands of nonpartisan commissions.” This might be effective in many states.

In Minnesota, however, divided government has in recent decades placed redistricting in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which appointed a judicial panel with no obvious partisan bias to draw the districts. Our state, nevertheless, is increasingly polarized geographically. Greater Minnesota is becoming more uniformly GOP territory as the Twin Cities trend heavily Democratic. This geographic polarization has maintained partisan districts regardless of the court’s reapportionment method.

One Kamarck proposal most likely to curb legislative polarization is her suggestion that legislative chamber leaders be selected by supermajorities of their members. Imagine if the congressional and Minnesota chamber leaders could only win office with approval of a substantial number of members of their rival party.

A 60 percent election threshold would force election of more moderate and less polarizing legislative leaders. That would change the dynamics of chamber behavior and probably produce more cross-party cooperation.

Such a reform is very unlikely to occur, though. What majority party in these polarized times is willing to give up its partisan control over its leaders? Partisan rivalry would have to recede to dramatically lower levels before such a reform would even be considered in Congress or the Minnesota Legislature.

Media scholars Markus Prior and Natalie Jomini Stroud suggest additional reforms to limit polarization in government. If our politics needs more moderation, why not increase get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts aimed at moderates?

The scholars also advocate coupling such a GOTV effort with short, neutral descriptions of the stances of the candidates in the election. This would lower the information costs for previously nonvoting moderates.

Together, these changes might well increase moderate turnout. But who will fund such an effort? Most “political money” is employed for partisan and ideological purposes. Moderates don’t really fit those partisan and ideological agendas.

The Minnesota experience also suggests that higher turnout does not necessarily produce less polarized politics. Our state routinely leads the nation in turnout yet the result is a very polarized state Legislature and congressional delegation.

Prior and Stroud also suggest changes in media coverage that might lessen polarization. Newsrooms could learn from recent media studies revealing that “identifying slogans and phrases that help people process discrepant news more even-handedly” would lessen the polarizing effects of news coverage.

Nice idea, but many in the media are in denial about their responsibility for contributing to polarization. The expense of such an adaptation might negatively affect thin media profit margins.

A more plausible media reform suggested by Prior and Stroud involves tailoring news coverage to better gain the attention of younger citizens. Social science experiments to identify styles of coverage to engage young people and give them a more balanced view of issues can help “curb political polarization in the next generation.”

Attracting younger news consumers should appeal to many media organizations. Social scientists can aid the media in maintaining their younger audience by producing coverage for young people that makes them more reflective and less polarized about issues.

Which of these reforms might be most effective? Probably three of them.

Kamarck’s election of legislative leaders by supermajorities of members would immediately help to depolarize legislative behavior in Congress and state legislatures.

Prior and Stroud’s proposals to make media coverage more even-handed and to engage younger citizens with such coverage also could help to depolarize the public.

Alas, the three reforms aren’t likely to gain adoption soon. Legislators are likely to remain reliably partisan and polarized for the foreseeable future, nixing the supermajority election option.

The media is a far-flung set of organizations, each pursuing its own audience with its own style of coverage. A broad transformation of coverage given the vast array of media organizations also seems unlikely.

Yet it’s good that scholars are searching for solutions. National and Minnesota politics are dominated by highly polarized and at times extreme political parties whose officeholders produce an unending series of destructive spats leading to governmental shutdowns. Thinking up reforms to extinguish such counterproductive, partisan and polarized behavior is good thinking indeed.

Steven Schier is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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