Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans

An insider’s six-step plan to fix Congress

More and more, voters are opting out of that system. In some national surveys, nearly 40 percent of voters describe themselves as “independent.” In Massachusetts, where the Republican senator Scott Brown won the seat previously held by the Democrat Edward Kennedy, the largest numbers of voters are not Democrats or Republicans but “unenrolled.” In 2010, Californians voted to create an “open primary” system in which every candidate for a particular office, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot, and every voter who wishes to participate, also regardless of party, will be able to choose among them. The top two will advance to the general election, even if they belong to the same party. Louisiana has long had a top-two, everybody-runs primary system, and Washington State adopted a similar one in 2004. Their voters have a much wider range of options—Republicans, Democrats, independents, third- or fourth-party candidates. If all candidates could get their messages out through free mailings or free television time, minor-party candidates would have a better chance of finishing in the top two in an open primary than on a general-election ballot that pits two major-party giants against each other and discourages supporters of other parties from voting for long-shot candidates.

Just the act of establishing an open primary would break the partisan and ideological chokehold on the general-election ballot and create a much truer system of democratic self-government. As a result, members of Congress would have greater freedom to base their legislative decisions on their constituents’ concerns and on their own independent evaluations of a proposal’s merits. They would be our representatives, not representatives of their political clubs.

Turn over the process of redrawing congressional districts to independent, nonpartisan commissions.

In 1976, I became the first Republican elected to Congress in my Oklahoma district in 48 years. Nearly three-quarters of the voters were Democrats. Because I easily won my next two races, Democrats were pessimistic about their ability to recapture the seat, and they used their majorities in the state legislature to redraw the district’s borders. Instead of encompassing a single urban county (Oklahoma City, in the center of the state), my new district stretched north to Kansas and east nearly to Arkansas, in a huge upside-down L. The goal was to put as many Republicans as possible in my district in order to make neighboring districts, from which those Republicans had been removed, safer for Democrats. My new district was much more rural, embracing five new counties filled with wheat farms and cattle ranches. Rather than being represented by a member of their own community, familiar with their concerns (which is why the Constitution requires that senators and representatives be inhabitants of the states that elect them), these voters were “represented” by a congressman unfamiliar with the agricultural issues on which their livelihoods depended. And the urban and diverse communities I had represented in Oklahoma City were now served by a congressman who simultaneously had to represent a very different constituency.

In the end, the strategy failed; the state became more conservative, and in addition to my own district remaining Republican, adjoining districts also began electing Republicans. And the attempt to lock in party advantage had sacrificed the important constitutional guarantee that a legislator serve as the voice of a community; community interests had been subordinated to the interests of a political party.

Things don’t have to be this way. Although legislative majorities continue to draw district lines in most states, 13 states (most recently, California) have established nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions, and two additional states have created merely “advisory” commissions. The systems vary—some use commissions to propose plans that legislatures must approve; others strip the legislature of all redistricting authority—but each of the 13 recognizes that the partisan drawing of congressional-district boundaries has hurt the democratic process, leaving elected officials dependent on, and beholden to, the party bosses who draw their districts.

Allow members of any party to offer amendments to any House bill and—with rare exceptions—put those amendments to a vote.

On the day I was sworn in as a member of Congress, all of us “newbies”—including Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Dan Quayle, David Stockman, and Jim Leach—were a single band. But moments after taking the oath of office, we were divided into rival teams: first came the vote to elect a new speaker, then to adopt House rules written by the majority, then to consider the membership of committees, with party ratios decided by the majority. From that moment on, during the 16 years I served in Congress, and every day since my last term ended, I have seen the United States Congress as it actually functions, not as a gathering of America’s chosen leaders to confront, together, the problems we face, but as competing armies—on the floor, in committees, in subcommittees—determined to dominate or destroy.

Presented by

Mickey Edwards is a vice president of the Aspen Institute and the author of Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In