- Dan Connors
The Race to the Bottom
"Do you know any kids who have been married at age 12? I do. And guess what? They're still married” Missouri State Senator Mike Moon.
I don't expect much from the Missouri state legislature anymore. Just please stay out of my life and try not to embarrass Missouri on the national stage. The recent state legislative session has failed spectacularly on both accounts. Faced with a budget surplus that could have meant meaningful improvements to Missourian's lives, most of the attention fell upon the extreme social agenda of both Senate and House legislators.
1- While purporting to care about children, the legislature toyed with relaxing child labor laws, marriage for minors, and defunding public libraries. Minors can legally carry guns on public streets while mental health programs are stuck in the 20th century. Legislators demonized the small number of transgender children while forcing pregnant teen girls to carry unwanted babies- moves that will undoubtedly raise the already disturbing teen depression and suicide rate.
2- They continually go after the city of St. Louis, a city they barely understand, and try to take away its earnings tax that funds its police and civic functions, while forbidding the city to regulate guns in any way, shape or form, even if it means ignoring federal gun laws.
3- They want to make it harder to vote in Missouri elections, most of which are uncompetitive and meaningless anyway. Given the rare success of initiative petitions that approved marijuana and Medicaid expansion, the legislators wanted to eliminate majority rule, putting up for a vote a new law that would give 43% of Missourians veto power over any new statewide petitions.
It's all very understandable. If I were a young, ambitious politician in Missouri, I would follow the same script that Missouri Republicans have used. Because of the 20-year lock that the party has had on Jefferson City, the only action in this state is in the Republican primaries. And to win a Republican primary, you have to look, sound, and act as extreme as you can to get attention, votes, and contributions. Our primaries are a race to the bottom where the only thing that matters is getting attention and following the MAGA script. And the political donors watching from the sidelines understandably go with the winners because that's where the power is. The November elections almost don't matter anymore.
Politicians don't really have to even bother campaigning after winning the only election that counts in August. In Missouri in 2022 some 57% of the 180 legislative seats up for grabs had candidates running unopposed! The incentive that normally operate in a democracy- accountability to the voters, doesn't matter in Missouri. Our legislators are guided by lobbyists and out-of-state think tanks that write their bills while they can pursue extremist viewpoints with no consequences. It's one of the easiest jobs there is in politics. Go along to get along is our new state motto, replacing the old one, "the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law".
A majority of Missourians support some abortion rights and modest gun regulations, but under the current system, neither will ever have a chance. Republicans are a minority party in the state, but they call the shots because independents and donors think they're the only game in town.
This is a structural problem and needs a structural solution. No one politician can fix it. The best option that we have right now is ranked-choice voting, which the powers-that-be are so afraid of they are introducing an amendment to ban any vote on it, in addition to the 43% veto they tried to sneak through. Ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference during both primary and general elections, has been proven to encourage moderation and discourage extremism. They turn the incentives upside down because they promote actual discussion of the issues and discourage straight party line voting. This type of system could draw out more competent candidates, who could make their case in the August primary to all the voters at once and not just a select audience of partisan extremists. It doesn't solve the serious problem of money in politics, especially dark money, but we've got to start somewhere.
There are several proposals out there that we'll be hearing more about. Ranked-choice voting is already in place in several states and we need to look at how it's performing. A group called Missouri Agrees wants to make primary elections like school board elections where you vote for as many candidates as you want and the one with the most votes wins. And still another group wants to overcome gerrymandering by electing representatives in super-districts where multiple winners are decided in proportion to the total votes cast. Any of these is preferable to the system we have today.
Bottom line- we need meaningful democracy again or the race to the bottom will continue, getting more and more extreme every year. Because in order to get attention, calm, rational and thoughtful policies don't cut it. Culture wars get attention but they don't fix the roads or educate the next generation with the tools that they'll need. Only democracy and compromise can accomplish that.