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TUPPER: Moving beyond polarization

I've been wading through a flood of George McGovern content since the former senator, presidential candidate and Mitchell resident died Oct. 21 at the age of 90.

Much of it has been predictably positive. After all, nothing burnishes a person's image like death. Some of it has been critical, and overly so. And some of it has been both positive and negative -- in other words, honest. That's the stuff I've enjoyed and learned from.

One such piece was by Phil Power for Bridge Magazine in Michigan. Power, like many writers of recent McGovern pieces, took note of the McGovern-Fraser Commission that rewrote the Democratic Party's rules for nominating presidential candidates in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Some observers consider the reforms implemented by the commission to be among McGovern's most positive and lasting legacies. Before the reforms, the party's nominating process was dominated largely by old white men and large special-interest groups who rigged conventions and handpicked the party's nominee. The commission broke up that old-boy network and replaced it with a system in which regular people, including women and minorities, were given a voice and influence.

Because the new rules required transparency and diversity, many state parties found the best way to comply was to let voters pick nominees in a primary election.

Over the ensuing decades, a marathon system of primaries all over the nation has come to be the accepted way to nominate a presidential candidate, both for Democrats and Republicans.

It sounds like a good thing, right? Push those old, stuffy, cigar-smoking power brokers aside and let the people rule. What could be bad about that?

Phil Power, in his recent analysis, nailed it.

"At the time, these changes were hailed by most (including me) as valuable ways to open up the party and make it more democratic. But as time has passed, I've come to feel that primary elections are lousy ways to pick candidates," he wrote.

"The old bulls who used to inhabit the smoke-filled rooms knew very well the candidates, their weaknesses and strengths. Their power depended on making informed choices between the candidates. It's been usurped by clever marketing, sound bites and TV ads of the sort we're experiencing in this year's election ..."

In other words, Power thinks the old system might have been better for political parties and the country, because the old bosses were thinking only about winning the general election. They therefore chose candidates who would appeal to a majority of the country by being at least somewhat moderate in their political philosophy.

Under the new system, the power has been transferred to people who vote in primaries. These people are usually the most partisan inhabitants of either party, because moderates, by their very nature, are not as interested in inner-party machinations. Primaries bring out the die-hards, and that's who the candidates have to impress to get the nomination. Thus, the candidates veer toward extreme positions, and we end up with nominees who appeal to the extreme wings of their parties but not to the broader, more moderate mass of Americans who vote in general elections.

As candidates have increasingly pandered to extremists, new media outlets have arisen to take advantage of it. Political blogs, Fox News and MSNBC are among the new media who rile up voters at the extreme ends of the political spectrum but don't speak to the vast center. Political advertisements have gotten more ubiquitous, biting and divisive, because the extreme voices that support such messages have more power.

What we end up with is a divided country. Candidates try so hard to win over the extremists in their own camp that they're incapable of grabbing anything more than a thin slice of the middle. Presidential election margins shrink and Congress remains nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Without a strong voter mandate for either side and with power equally split, the inevitable result is gridlock.

The question is what to do about it. Fittingly, this year's McGovern Conference on Monday at McGovern's alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, where I'll be a panelist, will explore the theme "Moving Beyond Political Polarization: How Can Congress Best Serve the Nation in the Coming Decade?"

As we seek to break up the partisan stalemate across our country and in Washington, we'd be wise to seek an understanding of its origins.

George McGovern once told me in an interview, "some people learn from history, and some people are indifferent to it."

That's good advice, even when McGovern's own actions provide the lesson.