It is possible to prevent future gridlock in Washington, and local gridlock, too, if we take a single simple step and do so right now. There is a window of opportunity wide open at the moment, but soon it will slam shut and we'll be immobilized again. It's like "Brigadoon"-- but in our case, we can act for a moment every 10 years, instead of every 100.
That brief moment of action is called redistricting. It is up to the states, it is mandated once a decade by the Constitution, and it has been shamelessly corrupted by those in charge of carrying it out.
The candidates' districts, both state and federal, have in most cases been made absolutely safe for the incumbents of both parties. The typical district has been deliberately packed with so many voters of the incumbent's party that virtually no incumbent can lose.
And that is the principal cause of the recent and disgusting deadlock. It is the simple but largely overlooked reason our government is so hopelessly polarized. It explains the extremism, the hostility, the inflexibility that have transformed our politics.
Single-party districts have ruined our political process. Because if a political party cannot lose an election then it does lose its volunteers. The rank-and-file voters stay home and lose interest because in each district their party is safely in office forever.
But not quite everyone stays home. The fanatics come out of the woodwork. The most extreme members of the unbeatable party rush in to speak for all the others in that party, though most of the electorate is far more moderate. The moderates vote for the party of their choice, but the candidate of that party is now picked or controlled by the handful of rigid extremists in charge. The most extreme factions will always win.
So almost no one in Congress, or in a state legislature, really cares about the general public. They care about the handful who control their party's endorsement. The incumbents know that their party cannot lose, but that THEY can — and that decision is up to a handful of zealots who never ran for anything.
Don't just blame Grover Norquist or his counterparts on the left. They only have power by default. And de fault, if you'll excuse the pun, belongs to those who drew those lines the last time we redistricted.
But now it's the next time — for a few precious moments before we sleep another decade. As you read these words, new lines are being drawn in every state, sometimes by legislators and very often by judges. They could end the nightmare of intransigence that's crippling our country, just by adopting one new guideline: that every new district be made as politically competitive as possible. Iowa has done it. California is trying. Minnesota should do it too.
David Lebedoff is an author, a former University of Minnesota regent and an attorney practicing in Minneapolis. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.