With ideological extremism on the rise in Congress, President Barack Obama argued during his State of the Union that America must reform its elections.
"If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president," Obama said. "We have to change the system to reflect our better selves."
Obama was less clear on how, exactly, America might pull this off. The president criticized gerrymandering — the process by which parties draw oddly shaped, highly partisan congressional districts — and called for campaign finance reform and repealing restrictions to voter access.
These reforms, however, have gone nowhere. In the meantime, the incentives have only increased for politicians to stake out maximalist positions, with little structural reward for moderates who anger their bases.
It raises the question: Does anybody out there have a better idea?
The plan: bring back at-large representatives for the House of Representatives
Anne Kim, a policy editor at Washington Monthly and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, has proposed a new way to help fight polarization of Congress.
In an essay published in the winter 2016 issue of Democracy, Kim calls for the creation of one "at-large" congressional seat in every state, chosen by voters statewide.
We currently determine our House seats by slicing up a state's map into a bunch of different smaller segments, except for states with very small populations that only get one at-large representative. Under Kim's plan, every state with more than two representatives would get an "at-large" House member — someone who would be accountable to the whole state, rather than a narrow sliver of it.
Vox's Matthew Yglesias has already advanced the idea of using at-large districts to reduce polarization. These plans envision treating the representatives as one at-large group, to be doled out proportionately after a statewide vote.
Kim's proposal is more modest and perhaps more practical. By only asking for states to add one at-large seat, the plan preserves the benefits of the basic idea without requiring a wholesale transformation of how we conduct congressional elections.
Federal and state law would have to be changed to make it possible. But doing so, Kim says, would likely create several dozen House seats that are by definition not gerrymandered — and, as a result, are more responsive to the actual demands of their constituents.
"This seems like a simple and easy-to-understand mechanism to get moderate Americans a little more excited about a way for their voices to actually be heard," Kim says.
Why statewide House races might lead to more moderates in Congress
Voters across a state are significantly more moderate than those in a gerrymandered district. Having a bloc of House members picked through statewide elections, Kim says, would make it at least more likely that there's an institutional incentive for politicians to move to the center.
"The creation of new 'plurality-moderate' at-large seats in many states would increase the number of competitive seats while bolstering the odds for moderate candidates," Kim writes in her Democracy essay. "Challenging the status quo might be an excellent and concrete opportunity to test moderate muscle."
There's also precedent for these kinds of seats. Before 1967, at-large districts existed in southern states as a way to prevent African Americans from getting elected to Congress. But that doesn't mean they couldn't be brought back now to serve a new purpose, Kim says.
(It's worth noting that African-American candidates are, even today, rarely elected to statewide office, suggesting there may be trade-offs to the plan.)
It would take an act of Congress — and thus a rare moment of bipartisan consensus — for the plan to be enacted.
But in our interview, Kim argued that her plan could help an embattled Republican leadership that wants to regain control of a nomination process increasingly ceded to hardcore conservatives.
"It's a way to defang the Tea Party. ... I'm not sure the GOP has gotten any favors by allowing that wing of the party to get as powerful as it has been," Kim says.
She added: "If the GOP has learned anything about reasserting the power of the establishment, this is certainly the way to do it. Because it would give GOP moderates a voice."
Other experts wonder if this would actually help with polarization
The idea sounds interesting, but it's unclear if at-large House members would reduce political polarization even if it were somehow implemented, according to experts interviewed for this story.
"I think most political scientists would tell you that this is a nonstarter. For one thing, we already have 50 at-large districts — states — and the Senate is just as polarized as the House," said Morris Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University who has done extensive research on polarization.
American politics is moving inexorably to the margins, and even in a statewide vote the candidate will have to win a primary, Fiorina noted. In other words, there's just not much reason to believe gerrymandering is the main culprit here.
"Single-member or at-large, safe district or competitive, the candidate has to win a primary dominated by the wingnuts," Fiorina said.
Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, had a more measured response to the idea. He, too, noted that the Senate is highly polarized, and questioned the premise that gerrymandering was the key contributing factor to the rise of extremism in Congress.
"It's an interesting proposition," Dickinson said of Kim's proposal, "but I suspect it will have less of an impact in reducing polarization than the author thinks."
This isn't a silver bullet. But it might help
But Dickinson raised a possible counterargument to the counterargument. Yes, the Senate is very polarized. But is the Senate polarized at least in part because the House is?
Dickinson pointed to an academic paper from 2011 that argued this point, noting that many of the highly partisan senators of today began as highly partisan members of the House.
"The polarization in the House has directly contributed to polarization in the Senate," write Sean M. Theriault, of the University of Texas Austin, and David Rohde, of Duke University.
In addition, Kim, the author of the Democracy piece, also pushed back on the idea that the Senate and the House were equally driven by party factionalism.
"The Senate is polarized, but it's not nearly as polarized as the House," she said. "The most extreme member of the Senate is not as extreme as the most extreme member of the House."
Kim also acknowledged that the plan would not represent a "silver bullet" for the problem. But with Democrats and Republicans in Congress moving further apart than ever before, she said, it seems worth trying.