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Overcoming political extremism: Attracting qualified candidates

Steve Mandell

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.

Polarization hurts moderates. As polarization increased, more straight party-line voting occurred, boosting extremists over moderates in state races. In 1990, 25% of voters split tickets. In 2018, it was 10% and in the 2022 midterms, it declined to 7.4%.

Success of inexperienced candidates. Because of widespread distrust of politicians and political parties, political experience now seems 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 skyrocketed, as they aim to exert control over how these neophytes vote once they’re elected.

Extremists have developed their own template 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 backstory that suggests competency without having to actually demonstrate it. These experiences are important, but in and of themselves, do not establish qualifications for office.

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 materials 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 that inspire them. 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 longtime 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. 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: Unless qualified citizens 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. And the time for concerned citizens to step up is now.

Steve Mandell is a politically independent researcher and writer in Montrose. This column is Part 2 in a two-part series. SteveM81401@outlook.com.