The new extreme? Two moderate former lawmakers hope to turn the tide on political extremism

David Jolly and Patrick Murphy are touring the state to offer insights on how we got here — and a few fixes.

click to enlarge Jolly (center) and Murphy (right) talk to WUSF's Steve Newborn about why they want to bring centrism back to politics. - Preston Rudie
Preston Rudie
Jolly (center) and Murphy (right) talk to WUSF's Steve Newborn about why they want to bring centrism back to politics.

Somewhere between universal basic income and a Mad Maxian hellscape lies something called centrism.

Next month, two former congressmen from Florida are visiting the state’s college campuses to talk about the virtues of moderation in politics.

Their forum at USF’s Marshall Center is scheduled for October 12.

The two will talk about the dire state of affairs in U.S. politics: the polarization that has Americans turning against one another and policymaking at the federal level totally stalled.

In a recent conversation with CL, Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican, and Murphy, a Palm Beach County Democrat, talked about how we got here — and how we can reverse course.

In bringing the discussion to universities, the two former Congressmen are bringing their message to an audience that largely eschewed centrism in 2016 — largely via “Feel the Bern” t-shirts. Jolly and Murphy are both keenly aware of how disillusioned many Americans are, and of how the outcome of the 2016 election was due at least slightly to distrust of politicians who compromise.

“I think it’s because a lot of people are struggling right now, and are suffering, and at the the core people feel like the American dream is disappearing; that you’re supposed to be able to work hard, pay your mortgage, put your kids in school and have a better life and your kids are going to have a better life,” Murphy said. “That’s sort of the basic bargain, right?”

And then, when people see the American dream fading away, a Trump or a Sanders comes along with promises that would seem to solve everything — whether it’s a vision of free college for all or a giant wall.

While the economic and cultural climate are a factor in how we got here, Jolly and Murphy want to tackle structural factors — factors they’ve experienced firsthand.

“We both agree on quite a few of the same reasons why there is so much gridlock in Washington, DC,” Murphy said. “We both went to Washington hoping, perhaps naively so, that it was going to be about the issues and being impactful on so many of the important things that are out there.”

Once in Washington, reality hit.

As a moderate Democrat, Murphy said it was nearly impossible to get Republicans to vote on even the most “commonsense, vanilla bill” that would have had no problem getting bipartisan support 20 years ago. Colleagues across the aisle would pledge support only to kowtow to party pressure.

It’s easy to ascribe the problem to gerrymandering, given that parties in control of a given state legislature draw congressional districts in ways that benefit themselves, a practice they have down to a science thanks to voter data. The makeup of most districts is so safely Republican or Democrat, Murphy said, that elections are typically won in the primary. And since the small percentage of voters who turn out in primaries tend to reside near the extreme edge of their party, voters are sending the most divisive voices to Washington. And if they try to build consensus rather than take an extreme, all-or-nothing tack, they get penalized.

“Right now the incentive is to be in the extreme of your party, not to be in the middle,” Murphy said. “So a lot of our friends in Congress on both sides of the aisle are not as extreme as you think, and they care about getting things done, and a lot would be more willing to compromise if they knew it wouldn’t hurt their own reelection.”

Jolly said there are ways to fundamentally change this.

Namely, by changing the way lawmakers draw districts to make them competitive. Florida now draws its congressional districts by geography, which Jolly said doesn’t necessarily increase competitiveness (he says he lost his own Pinellas County seat at least in part due to his own district being redrawn, after a lawsuit against the state over unconstitutional gerrymandering led to the district’s inclusion of a Democrat-rich area in 2015).

Another fix, Jolly said? Open primaries. That way, Rs, Ds, Independents, whoever, could vote for whomever they like. That would in theory make it easier for, say, a more nuanced gubernatorial candidate like Jack Latvala to best a more extreme (possible) contender like Ron DeSantis or Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran. More middle-of-the-road candidates would make government run more smoothly.

“If we had electorally competitive districts, open primaries and campaign finance reform, now you’re rewarding candidates for doing better at bipartisanship,” he said. 

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