How Safe Seats Fuel Political Extremism

As part of my identification of four political reforms that might help mitigate the most extreme forces in our current politics, I have argued that redistricters (whether independent commissions or legislatures) should strive to create competitive districts, rather than safe seats. In safe seats, members’ only electoral concern is to avoid being primaried from the wings of their parties. That dynamic furthers the polarization and extremism in our politics. In competitive districts, members have to worry about winning over enough voters in the center to hold (or gain) their seats. To be sure, there are legal and geographical constraints on how many districts can be made competitive — but fostering competition should be one value, along with others, that redistricters should take into account (but often do not).

I will be writing more about this issue soon. The journalists who most closely cover politics, and legislators themselves, strongly believe in this dynamic. But there is a great disjuncture between them and empirical political scientists, who do not believe members from competitive districts hold different policy views than those from safe seats. As I write more on this issues, I’ll explain why this surprising anomaly exists, and why I side with the journalists and legislators who are closest to the legislative process.

In the meantime, I will flag stories covering the political process that recognize the difference in policy and tactics between legislators from safe seats and those from competitive districts. These stories appear routinely, so it’s not hard to find them. Here is one from today’s New York Times, in a Michael Wines story about the Arizona Senate’s current “audit” of the November election:

The Senate’s rightward drift is simply explained, political analysts say. Most of the 30 Senate districts are so uncompetitive that the Democratic and Republican primaries effectively choose who will serve as senators. Because most voters sit out primary elections, the ones who do show up — for Republicans, that often means far-right Trump supporters — are the key to getting elected.

Responding to stolen-election claims, through tougher voting laws or inquiries, is by far those voters’ top issue, said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican campaign strategist in Phoenix.

“They’re representing their constituency,” he said. “The whole process was built to produce this.”

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