Mandell: Overcoming extremism by attracting qualified candidates
To defeat extremism, nothing is more important than finding talented, ethical and qualified candidates to run for public office.
But often, qualified citizens are reluctant to run. They expect that intimate details of their past will be analyzed by the media and distorted by opponents. Their families will be subjected to threats of violence from extremist lunatics. And then there’s the money needed. They will be up against a tidal wave of money from lobbyists and political-action committees that thrive on disagreements and gridlock.
To encourage good candidates now, we need to understand the headwinds against them.
Polarization hurts moderates
Research by Danielle Thompsen, a political scientist at Duke University, says that fewer moderates are running for Congressional seats because “Their ability to influence policy outcomes has diminished.” She adds, “Obtaining a leadership position or even a desirable committee assignment (has become) increasingly difficult,” as party power has shifted to extremists.
State legislatures are similarly affected. As polarization increased, more straight party-line voting occurred, boosting extremists over moderates in state races. In 1990, 25 percent of voters split tickets. In 2018, it was 10 percent and in the 2022 midterms, it declined to 7.4 percent.
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The success of inexperienced candidates
Because of the widespread distrust of politicians and political parties, political experience now seems to be a disadvantage. “Outsider” status is all the rage. Primary voters prefer more extreme candidates compared with general election voters.
Much of the success of inexperienced candidates is due to the influence of the ideological, single-issue, PACs handing out campaign money. Their contributions to inexperienced candidates have grown. By 2018, 80 percent of all PAC funding for primary elections came from ideological, single-issue PACs, compared to only 10 percent in general elections. These PACs hope to exert control over the future votes of these neophyte candidates.
Extremists have developed their own templates for recruiting candidates. It centers on promoting outsider status and lack of political experience. Those with military backgrounds, minorities, or being a dedicated mother or father provide a favorable back story that suggests competency without having to actually demonstrate it. These experiences are important, but in and of themselves, do not establish qualifications for office. Extremists also value and promote physical attractiveness. How a candidate looks on a TV screen has proven to be a significant advantage at election time.
What attracts people to run?
Jennifer Lawless, at the University of Virginia, is an expert on political ambition and elections. Her book, “Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office,” examines the causes that drive citizens to become candidates.
Family background. Being part of a family where politics is important leaves a mark. Conversations over dinner, kids listening to a parent’s passion for a candidate, or the experience of accompanying a parent delivering campaign material are embedded in memories as we grow up and can later develop into political ambition.
Minority status: Prejudice based on gender and race has historically been a barrier to political office. But more and more often, women and other under-represented citizens seek change through their own candidacies. And when they break through and win, it motivates others to run.
Role models. Those who make the decision to run for office often have role models who inspire them. While this is especially true for women and minorities, it also applies more broadly. Role models not only prompt people to get involved, but also sustain candidates through the rough patches that inevitably take place during a campaign.
Career matters. The attractiveness of “outsider status” has diminished the importance of lawyers and long-time party professionals. But the skills acquired, and the contacts made by businesspeople, lawyers and political activists give potential candidates the knowledge that they can successfully compete.
Encouragement from others. Ongoing encouragement from family, friends, or coworkers is invaluable in the decision to run for office. Personal encouragement increases interest in running for office. Even more important may be recruitment efforts from a party or political leaders. Party recruitment is the leading factor in determining nomination choices.
The bottom line: Yes, it is easy to understand why talented, ethical, and qualified citizens avoid running for office. But unless they step up, we will be governed by the power-hungry, the corrupt, and the incompetent. How long can democracy last with these types in power? The threat to democracy is real and imminent. The best time to save democracy is before it is lost.
The time for concerned citizens to step up is now.