John Avlon: Our Partisan-Controlled Election System Has Turned Congress into a Body of 'Spineless Cowards'

John Avlon
Photo by Collision Conf on Flickr
Created: 25 March, 2024
Updated: 31 March, 2024
4 min read

Photo Credit: Collision Conf / Flickr


Former CNN commentator John Avlon is running for Congress in New York's 1st Congressional District. Avlon is running in the Democratic primary, but he is no stranger to independent politics or the movements for independent reform.

He recently sat down with Andrew Yang on the Forward Party co-founder's podcast to discuss his candidacy, transcending partisan politics to speak to independents, and the need for better elections.

"This is one of those times where it's like, 'Are you doing the most you can?'" Avlon said. "As much as I love being a journalist and my colleagues at CNN, I felt like this is an opportunity to do more good than just offer opinions on TV."

Avlon, author of Independent Nation: How Centrism Can Change American Politics, does not shy away from his views on Trump and the MAGA crowd, but he says his campaign is not just about appealing to one party's base.

His message is also focused on independents and anti-Trump Republicans.

"There is a need for politics that not only fires up the base but reaches out to the center and wins over a majority of independents," he said."

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Avlon needs to be mindful of this approach when talking to independents. One, candidates generally do not excite independents with strictly an anti-Trump message, and two, many voters don't like the term "centrist."

Centrist implies that if a voter isn't a Republican or Democrat then their views must fall somewhere in between two parties that have failed to address important issues facing them and the nation.

It essentially treats the parties as if they exist on two polar extremes of a linear political spectrum and the only room for people outside the parties is in the middle.

YouGov surveyed Americans on how they describe their political views. Only 6% said "Centrist" describes them well.

The important thing to understand about independent voters is they exist all over the political spectrum. An independent-minded voter can be conservative, liberal, progressive, socialist, etc. It is a mindset, not an ideology.

And when a candidate speaks to independent voters, they are speaking to voters who feel disenfranchised and disenchanted with a political system that continues to fail them.

Especially in a state like New York where they are denied access to taxpayer-funded primary elections. 

Avlon is running in New York's 1st Congressional District located in the eastern section of Long Island. It is considered one of New York's more competitive districts. It went for Obama twice and Trump twice.

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And in those 4 presidential elections, the candidate who got the most votes did so with less than 55% of the vote. -- often coming down to a 51-49 split.

Avlon says the country needs more districts like NY-1, because he recognizes that hyper-polarization, congressional gridlock, and the lack of competition exist because of incentives created by the current electoral system.

"If you change the rules, you change the game," he said. "The reason so many people are spineless cowards in Congress is because of all of the incentive structures that" punish "courage and problem solving."

The very thing voters want. Voters want Congress to put problem solving first. Voters want members of both political parties to work together. Voters want members of Congress to act courageously in the face of partisan pressure.

But it's all but impossible to get this outcome under the current electoral structure because elections in much of the country are designed to divide voters and reward partisanship.

It is an election system that ensures most elections are safe for one party or the other, so the elections are decided in taxpayer-funded partisan primaries in which only a marginal percentage of voters participate.

And in many of these races, independent voters are shut out or have to jump through additional hurdles just to have the right to vote. So, the incentive is to pander to a small partisan minority. 

"Here is what should infuriate voters: [members of Congress] are often afraid to do what they know is the right thing," Avlon said. "And they'll say, 'I got to vote this way, but I hope someone else votes in the national interest.'"

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"Why are you here?"

This is what voters need to understand. Regardless of how one feels about "Trumpism," the electoral system designed and controlled by the parties eroded competition, accountability, trust, and integrity way before Trump ran for office.

This does not excuse Trump's rhetoric on elections that has been antithetical to a democratic process. It does not take away from the argument that Trump has contributed to the divide and the further diminishment of trust in elections.

But the nation would be where it is today with or without Trump. The divide between the parties was already growing. Policymakers already dragged their feet or refused to act on issues just so they could keep campaigning on them.

And this is why approaching independent voters has to go beyond an anti-Trump message because their frustrations pre-date 2016 and are not directed at one man or one party.

LEARN MORE: 10 Ways Both Parties Are Destroying Democracy

Congressional primary elections will be held in New York on June 25. Avlon is a formidable candidate in the Democratic primary because of his name ID and fundraising prospects. Readers can hear more about his views on the election and the need for systemic election reform in the video above. 

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