By Mike Koetting May 23, 2022
The problem with linked essays when you post the first before you have written the second is that you may find you have jumped—with no place to land.
That seems to have happened to me.
In my last post, I argued that the compromise-required architecture of our governing system when combined with the two-party, winner-take-all nature of our political structure has led to hyper-partisanship and a subsequent democratic gridlock.
At the end of that post, I suggested today’s post would address what to do about it. Unfortunately, on reflection, the things I had in mind seem completely out of reach.
Two Party System Entrenched
It’s not that I had illusions that a frontal assault on this system was possible.
Not because the system is widely-loved. More than 60% of voters tell pollsters they think the current parties are so broken there should be a third party. But, like many things people tell pollsters, the road from here to somewhere else is not at all clear.
Pew Trust has further analyzed the make-up of the political spectrum, identifying nine separate typologies. They recognize the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the current two parties, but debunk the idea there is a large group of independent voters looking for a home. They say more than 90% of people who describe themselves as “Independent” vote consistently for one party or the other. Moreover, those who describe themselves as “independent” have significant differences among themselves and are the least connected to the political process. In short, they are unlikely to be leading any charge to create a third party. Much more likely new parties would develop from splits within the existing parties.
Unfortunately, the run amok behavior of the current two party system has become its own poison pill. By creating a situation where supporters of each party believe that they are defending the “true” core values of America and the other party is a mortal threat to those values, differences become very stark. Every election becomes “existential.” Nuance in choice becomes irrelevant. You are either for what the majority of your party wants or you are for “the values of the other party.” And any deviation might well cost the party closer to you the election, as did the Ralph Nader voters in the 2000 election, virtually none of whom actually preferred George Bush over Al Gore.
Could We Inch from this Toxicity?
Earlier, when trying to think through how to get fair minority representation, I suggested multi-member districts and proportional representation. It seems highly likely these would have beneficial effects. Systems like these are used in most of the rest of the world and, while they pose their own problems, there is evidence that they will moderate the kind of stark political divide that we now face.
These would not require a Constitutional amendment. They could be adopted by a majority of Congress. Although that’s a lower bar, it is still a formidable challenge. After all, for most of the Representatives that would require a major leap into uncertainty. As it now stands, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other, typically as based on urban/rural status. This is not a free pass for any member of Congress, but it largely limits the direction of attacks. Moreover, it means there is only one relevant election, the primary. The change to ranked-voting would throw out a whole lot of accumulated political wisdom—and alliances, favors and coalitions as well. So one can expect a lack of enthusiasm from established leaders on either side of the aisle.
In each of the last two terms of Congress, Representative Don Beyer, a centrist Democrat from Virginia, and seven of his colleagues, all Democrats, introduced the Fair Vote Act. This bill would establish multi-member districts drawn by independent redistricting commissions, with Representatives elected through ranked choice voting. Such an approach would significantly change the nature of American elections. Probably not a lot at first, but over time strategies would adapt and evolve. These changes can be abundantly defended on theoretical grounds and would, if properly explained, be welcomed by a substantial portion of the population.
Of course, it has absolutely no chance in the real world. Which reflects how strong, and how toxic, the hold of the “two-party” system is on our imagination.
I expect Republicans would be more likely to oppose this than Democrats because they believe that the more they set the ground rules for voting, the better their chance of maintaining power. Ranked choice voting would pose a particular threat to the extremists of the party, who currently have control of the party apparatus. To the extent possible, they try to control orthodoxy. For instance, Republicans in Colorado have sued, so far unsuccessfully, to end the state’s practice of allowing voters who are registered as an independent, to be able to choose to vote in either party’s primary. Keeping primaries as “closed” as possible makes it easier to maintain party boundaries.
Is There Anything to Be Done?
It would seem that we are doomed to persist in this hyper-partisan hell, something that only a small slice of the country wants.
The only solution I can imagine is for Democrats to control all three branches of government, including a supermajority in the Senate—and possibly having replaced several Supreme Court justices–and then decide to change the system. At best, this would not be soon. And I won’t speculate on the degree to which having control over everything would alter Democrats’ willingness to change the ground rules. I can imagine a certain skepticism on that topic. I can also imagine the backlash that would come from trying to accomplish this.
As a theoretical matter, one could argue for pursuing these reforms on a state by state basis. But the poison of the current system makes that a bad idea. States that make attempts in that direction, will find themselves trying to make fairer maps, while states that don’t care about such things will be able to strengthen their hand.
The current situation in New York illustrates the problem. In 2014, New York voters approved an amendment to the state constitution laying down guidelines for redistricting and establishing an independent commission to oversee redistricting–exactly what theory would prescribe. But when the Legislature looked at the overall national balance of gerrymandering, it concluded that nationwide Democrats would be unfairly disadvantaged by Red state gerrymanders and adopted a boldly Blue-slanted map. The court, following the law, threw out that map. But a fairer New York map resulted in a more unfair national map. Unless all states agree to give up gerrymandering, why would Democratic states to do so on the hope that Red states would follow suit? Some Democrats have gone so far as to argue that Blue states should adopt rules that specifically use national balance as a redistricting criterion. This, they suggest, would cause Red states to see the futility of such gerrymandering and go along with electoral reform. I don’t plan on holding my breath.
We Are in a Doom Loop
Lee Drutman’s book, Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop, makes a great and compelling argument for why America would be better served to loosen the political party constraints we have put on our national political discussion. Polling data shows great uncomfortableness in the citizenry about the hyper-partisan stalemate into which we have backed ourselves and there are significant differences within both parties. There are plenty of reasons to believe a majority would support the Fair Voting Act identified above—if it were not seen as a “Democratic” proposal.
And therein lies the problem.
We are in the doom loop Drutman warned about. Each party has retreated to its own bunker, picked a world view, and seems willing to defend it to the bitter end. I think the argument is very strong that the Republicans are more at fault on this score in their reactionary posture to the changes of the late Twentieth Century. But, even if some higher authority were to decide that the blame is evenly shared, it wouldn’t get us out of this mess. What we need is a road to disarmament. It could run through structural changes such as proposed above. But those aren’t happening anytime soon.
I would be extremely interested in any thoughts from readers about how to break out of this cycle. I simply can’t come up with anything beyond hoping people come to their senses before it’s too late. And, of course, continuing to support Democratic candidates since the retrograde, authoritarian values of the Trumplicans are anathema to everything I believe in.