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Send in the clowns; they’re already here

“I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership in either the Legislative Branch or the Executive Branch of our Government… I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American…

“Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and suspicions that …spread like cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calamity – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear…Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory…While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people… I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.”

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How did Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) know, when she made her Declaration of Conscience speech before the U.S. Senate in 1950, that far-right legislators would hijack the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives in 2015?

Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House from 2015 to 2019, did not name names when he recently spoke about members of Congress he considers “entertainers” rather than policymakers interested in governing. Ryan said that “in the old days, like ten years ago,” legislators who wanted to succeed spent 10 to 20 years building a reputation as good policymakers, and the measure of success was policy and persuasion. That is not what motivates people anymore. “You can now “just leap-frog that whole process, be a really good entertainer, have an incredible presence, digitally, and forget about policymaking and curate a brand for yourself.” That, Ryan believes, is preventing bipartisanship. As an entertainer, “if you are going to try to show that you’re better than everyone else,” it is more difficult to compromise and develop policy. Case in point: Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida led a movement to unseat Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy because McCarthy approved a bipartisan short-term spending deal with support by Democrats.

Ryan also said in an interview last year that it was clear Trump lost the 2020 election. He also believes the Republicans will lose the 2024 presidential election if Trump is their nominee. “I think leaders should endeavor to be honest, ethical, moral people who try to set standards for themselves and lead by example across the country. Donald Trump doesn’t try to do any of that. He does the opposite, frankly. So I just don’t think he’s fit for the job here.”

Why are so many entertainers being elected to Congress? A recent editorial by Karen Tumulty in The Washington Post blamed the very small number of voters in primary elections. As a result of aggressive gerrymandering, races in only 82 of the 435 House districts are competitive enough to offer both parties a reasonable chance of winning. That is half the number of swing districts there were in 1999. It essentially eliminates much of the incentive the two parties once had to find middle ground on contentious issues; members of Congress know that “playing to instincts and impulses of their populist bases are their surest tickets to reelection, and that they will have little protection if they don’t,” wrote Tumulty.

That puts excessive power in the hands of a tiny minority of highly-engaged, intense partisans who vote in often-overlooked primaries. In midterm elections, fewer than 1 in 5 eligible voters cast their ballots in party primaries, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The rest of the voters stay home and must live with the consequences. That means a tiny, unrepresentative number of Americans is deciding who gets a seat in the House of Representatives.

The dysfunction this creates is documented in a new study by Unite America, a nonpartisan election reform advocacy organization. It looked at eight Republican House members who have been among the most determined obstructionists: Matt Gaetz; Andy Biggs and Elijah Crane (Arizona); Lauren Boebert (Colorado.); Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia); Matthew Rosendale (Montana); Dan Bishop (North Carolina) and Bob Good (Virginia.). Their primary victories were decided by an average of just 12 percent of the eligible voters in their districts, which account for less than 2 percent of the entire voting population of the United States. But these members have extraordinary leverage in the Republican conference, since Republicans can only afford to lose four votes and still have a majority of 217 votes in the House: Republicans currently have 221 seats, and 2 seats are vacant.

Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Washington have eliminated partisan primaries or replaced them with nonpartisan primaries for federal elections, requiring candidates to represent all their constituents, not just the base of their parties. Pennsylvania should join them.

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Mark Berg is a community activist in Adams County and a proud Liberal. His email address is MABerg175@Comcast.net.

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P J
P J
5 months ago

The gist can be concisely summed up with this part. It’s both sad and scary: “As a result of aggressive gerrymandering, races in only 82 of the 435 House districts are competitive enough to offer both parties a reasonable chance of winning. That is half the number of swing districts there were in 1999. It essentially eliminates much of the incentive the two parties once had to find middle ground on contentious issues; members of Congress know that “playing to instincts and impulses of their populist bases are their surest tickets to reelection, and that they will have little protection if… Read more »

Marietta Witt
Marietta Witt
5 months ago

Excellent piece. I continue to be very grateful for Mark Berg’s voice in Adams County. Today’s offering has inspired me to change my mind about non-partisan primaries. If we could help select the Republican candidate, it might level the field a bit.

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