I am very grateful for paradoxes. They are a protection against the occupational hazard of column writers: predictability.

I am aware that if my topic sentence is about military involvement in Iraq, excessive economic inequality or the appropriate role for government, most readers will have a pretty good idea of the message that is to follow, which puts great pressure on me to think of new ways in which to frame it.

Not so with those subjects which have a now-you-think-it-now-you-don’t quality, of which the proper role for partisanship in a democracy is an excellent example, not only of a paradox, but of a paradox squared.

First, there is the fact that we suffer from too much partisanship in how those in office conduct the affairs of government, but too little in how the voters conduct themselves in electing them. And that latter point contains its own sub-paradox: insufficient attention to partisan reality in final elections, precisely because there is an unhealthily fierce partisanship in primaries.

The explanation of this dichotomy – the undervaluing of party membership in November versus far too much insistence on strict party loyalty in the nomination process – is straightforward: the difference in the composition of those citizens who choose to exercise their right to vote in each case.

Primary voters are disproportionately ideological. Among those who generally support Republicans, people who regularly vote in primaries are to the right of those who wait until November to participate, while the left is similarly – but not equally – overrepresented on the Democratic side.

The result of this phenomenon in the current context is that those who voluntarily dilute their influence over the government by waiting until the candidates are selected to exercise their franchise almost always have to choose between a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican, each of whom is under great pressure to stick with his or her side in making policy.

In the face of this reality, citizens who proudly announce that they vote for the person and not the party are usually kidding themselves. This is especially true when the election is for a legislator and is unvaryingly the case when membership in the U.S. House or Senate is at issue. Governors are somewhat less circumscribed by the demands of party loyalty, although even they are constrained by the fact that they were selected by one ideologically influenced primary and may face another.

But in Washington today, not only are the pressures to vote with your side very strong, the process also has become so dominated by party that occasional dissents by representatives or senators from their team’s position is highly unlikely to alter the outcome. The choices they make for speaker or majority leader will far outweigh all of the other votes they cast in determining public policy.

Thus, the paradoxes. Many people who wish to affect major decisions – on climate change or abortion or the relative claims of public services versus taxation – underrate the importance of partisanship in deciding which candidate to support, largely because their abstention from primaries gives those who are party regulars too much influence.

Combined, these factors have a negative impact on governance, again in a paradoxical way. The excessive partisanship of primary voters is dysfunctional because it sends people to Congress averse to compromise – more on the Republican side, but among Democrats to a degree as well.

The failure of voters in final elections to understand how tightly party control shapes policy contributes to dysfunction in another way, by dividing the power to govern between these mutually antagonistic parties, making deadlock far more likely.

People may not agree with the significant public policies enacted when the Republicans controlled the presidency and Congress from 2001 to 2006, or when the Democrats did in 2009-2010, but there was no complaint that the government was unable to function.

In the final paradox, the problem of too little partisanship in final elections from the standpoint of rational public policy determination can only by solved by diminishing the excessive partisanship in primaries.

I used to vote Republican from time to time – for example, for former U.S. Sen. Ed Brooke of Massachusetts. But as much as I admired him and welcomed the presence of the first African-American senator ever to be directly elected, if he were running today as a Republican committed to keeping Sen. Mitch McConnell in power, my support for many of the issues Brooke fought for would compel me to vote for the party, not the man.

Where are the moderate and mainstream conservative Republican primary voters when I need them?

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank