It's enough to make me nostalgic for Jackass, the MTV show of a decade ago. At least the yokels performing those stupid stunts were trying to hurt themselves, not act like jerks toward someone else. Instead we're getting "Vote for Joe Wilson! He heckled the president!" The money is pouring in to the South Carolina congressman's campaign. Collegiate right-wing jackasses are being inspired to follow the path John Belushi's Bluto trod from Animal House to the Senate. Can the republic be saved from boorish fools? The good news is I've got a jackass-reduction plan ready for review. And it could really work.
Credit President Obama with reviving the concept. When he thought he was speaking off the record, he called Kanye West a "jackass" for interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards. The president could just as easily have used the same word to describe Serena Williams, who reamed out a tennis line judge for calling a foot fault. Decorum—yes, it still exists—required that Obama reply more mildly to Wilson and accept the apology he tendered through Rahm Emanuel.
Except that it wasn't a sincere apology. Kanye and Serena, after first seeming cavalier about what they had done, felt the need to show genuine contrition. Their industries demanded it as a price to continue performing. But politics apparently has lower standards than hip-hop, not to mention tennis. Wilson's case played out in reverse. First the -Confederate-flag-waver seemed on the verge of tears; his own wife asked him who the "nut" was yelling at the president. Then Rush and the cable clowns who run the Republican Party said he did nothing wrong. (Where do they draw the line? Rotten tomatoes? Flinging a shoe?) Overnight, YOU LIE! bumper stickers sprouted across Fox Nation. Wilson began autographing the photo of him heckling. He refused to apologize on the House floor, as Democrats had done in the past when acting like their party's mascot. It was only then, after trash-talking the president in the U.S. Capitol for the first time in American history became a career move, that a formal reprimand became necessary.
"Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself," Mark Twain said more than a century ago. The difference now is that while today's Congress contains a smaller proportion of idiots (and a surprisingly large complement of decent public servants), the idiots almost all come from the extremes of their parties. They often don't represent their districts; they represent the will of the ideologically driven (and generally older) voters who take part in party primaries—some right on the issues, some wrong—but whose numbers rarely exceed 20 percent of any district's total eligible voters. We live in a centrist country with a polarized Congress. Bipartisanship will always be a mirage as long as politicians' biggest fear is a primary challenge.
Who are these jackasses representing? Let me give you some recent poll results from my state, New Jersey—a place, mind you, more known for the open palm than the spittled lip. According to Public Policy Polling, 33 percent of New Jersey Republicans think Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S., and 18 percent of self-described conservatives believe he is the Antichrist. (You read that right.) Meanwhile, 32 percent of New Jersey Democrats say President Bush had advance knowledge of 9/11, another completely nutty position. But let's look on the bright side. That means two thirds of my Republican neighbors aren't "birthers" and two thirds of my Democratic neighbors aren't "truthers." Of course, the millions of independents would make the results even saner: in a national Bloomberg News poll that included independents, 63 percent of Americans say that referring to "death panels" in the health-care debate is a "scare tactic." Only 30 percent say it's legitimate.
The question, then, is how do we empower the sane non-jackasses? The answer is by replacing our system of party primaries with nonpartisan primaries for state and local elections. Under this "open primary" system, which exists in Washington state and will likely be on the ballot in California next year, the top two winners in the primary face off in the general election regardless of party affiliation. Both parties are opposed. But if the concept spreads, the jackass quotient in state legislatures and Congress will decrease. Moderates have better manners.
Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and Between the Lines.