A few weeks ago I wrote a column about extremists in public office and their affinity for ethical lapses. It drew the ire of readers from both sides, which seemed to prove my underlying point.
But one critique in particular jumped out at me. A member of the Bernie-Sanders-Left berated me as a moderate out to target far left progressives. Besides ignoring my equal contempt for far-right demagogues, including in that very column, it struck me how closely this line of attack mirrored what I have become so accustomed to from conservative firebrands.
In Republican circles, I have been called everything from RINO (Republican In Name Only) to “squish” and “traitor.” I lost an entire primary campaign in 2014 based on those slurs.
Consequently, I have developed a thick skin when it comes to defending my centrist positions.
But it is the structural problems engendered by these comments that really dismay me. And that seemed confirmed by two columns I read by two different friends within a few days.
First, I read former state senator and Colorado Treasurer Mark Hillman, who penned a grudging ode to the role of centrists in the legislature. Owning an evolution on his perspective of centrists — something that tends to happen when the other party controls all levers of government — Hillman now views centrists as the key to protecting minority rights.
Hillman has always been one of the most cerebral Republicans in Colorado. So when he writes that it is “extreme partisanship that prevents government from giving most voters what they want,” I just smile and nod.
Only a few days later, Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano penned an op-ed calling for party primaries to be abolished. Troiano noted that only 10% of voters participate in primaries. But those same primary elections effectively decide 80% of all U.S. House races.
While gerrymandering plays a role, it is not the primary driver for such outcomes. To the contrary, it has a relatively minor part. Self-selection among the populace is the most important factor. People tend to live in places with other like-minded people.
For example, Republicans are often found in disproportionate numbers in rural communities. Democrats tend to congregate in urban centers. Neither statement is universally true, but both are disproportionately accurate.
The disparity only grows as the officials elected from those geographic areas enact policies that please their right- or left-leaning, primary-voting constituents. The policies in turn attract more like-minded individuals choosing to relocate.
The process builds on itself.
Of course, that leaves little room for moderates and centrists. Most like me chose a party at one time or another. Many, also like me, have abandoned them. That is particularly true as laws have changed to allow unaffiliated voters greater access to primaries.
Yet, we are still stuck with a system that does not work for the plurality of Coloradans. Granted, not every unaffiliated voter is a centrist. But the majority find themselves somewhere between the ever-polarizing major parties.
That is why Troiano pointed to Alaska’s new unified, nonpartisan primary coupled with a four-person general election based on ranked-choice voting. The system is intended to reduce the impact of primary elections while ensuring that no individual can win by simply appealing to one, vocal segment of the population.
Instead it requires coalition building. And moderation. And public servants willing to bring people together rather than pitting them against one another.
Absent such fundamental and radical change, there is very little hope for centrists and moderates to truly enjoy representation any time soon. Most elected officials will remain beholden to small subsets of the population that can deliver a primary victory.
And, as Hillman noted, in the long run that helps nobody.
In the interim, I will keep writing my columns and taking the incoming flack from both the right and the left. And standing in the No Man’s Land firmly in the middle.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq