Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Main Source: Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop by Lee Drutman
If Americans hate Republicans and Democrats so much, then why do they win every election? The answer is in how we hold elections and it’s something we can fix. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation.
Americans have an almost abusive relationship with our two political parties. No matter how betrayed we feel, we still elect them every time. When our preferred party is in the minority, we rail and curse against the abuses of power and corporate coziness of the majority, but when our side holds a majority, it perpetuates much of the same corporate agenda.
The most recent example of this was Trump, who ran a campaign that won enormous support in the rust belt promising populist economic relief. But, given the chance, Trump’s Republicans passed tax legislation that overwhelmingly benefited corporations and the rich. The richest 1 percent of Americans are expected to receive 27 percent of the benefits of the tax cuts in 2020. This kind of shell game is not the exception, it’s the norm.
Time and again, voters express their frustration with politics by using our peculiar primary system to install an outsider as party leader who is at odds with the mainstream of the party (Carter, Obama, Paul Ryan, Trump) who fails to deliver on their populist promises. The minority party grows in support and approval until it becomes the majority party, at which point it withers under the scrutiny. We deliver the presidency and both houses of congress to one party and the other, neither of which can create long-lasting policy change, all the while deregistering from both. Gallup shows 40% of Americans consider themselves independent, more than the 30% who identify as Democrat or Republican. And yet, of the 538 seats in congress, just three are held by independents.
All the while, inequity grows. The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016. The after-tax income of the top 1% pulls ahead of the rest of us while the income of the top .1% pulls away from them. 84% of all Americans want to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans (Democrats more than Republicans but more than half of Republicans), but their effective tax rate continues to fall. As of 2018, the richest 400 families in America pay a lower effective tax rate than the median American. It seems like taxing the rich would be an enormously popular position for either party to take and yet neither party has adopted a platform of raising the taxes of the wealthiest families. Clearly, our policy is not being driven by the voters.
Americans do not trust the government. Americans who trust the government in Washington to do what is right has declined since the Nixon administration—with the exception of the late ‘90 and early 2000s—and has hit a historic low at 17%. The approval rating of Congress has hovered around 20% for the last decade, hitting its low at 9% in 2013. As we discussed in the conspiracy episode of this podcast, the loss of trust is weakening our ability to tell fact from fiction. More and more Americans believe in fringe theories and pseudoscience. Trump’s inclusion of conspiracy theories into mainstream Republican rhetoric mounts a direct threat to the few remaining sources of truth we had left, most recently the CDC and the WHO. Furthermore, Americans are losing trust in each other. We believe less and less in each other's ability to participate in democracy or even to do the right thing.
I believe that these problems are caused by or at least exacerbated by the dysfunctional two-party system in America. In a functioning democracy, broadly popular issues like reining in inequality, improving health care, providing education, and protecting the environment are not paralyzing partisan issues that go unaddressed.
I am not going to argue that the two parties are equally bad, in fact, Republicans have repeatedly taken the lead on stonewalling all legislation and eroding trust in government. Mitch McConnell, as the Republican leader in the Senate, has been explicit about his policy of obstruction and partisanship in judicial appointments. I am also not arguing in favor of the pervasive American myth that partisan fighting is the problem. Crafting mutually beneficial policy is the business of democracy. Healthy democracies are improved, not paralyzed, by debate.
I will argue that the tit-for-tat fighting of a two-sided political system and the sorting of all American identities into two opposing camps locks us into a war that neither side can win. The much-discussed culture war between the right and the left can not end in total victory or defeat. It’s impossible. If partisan conflict escalates into further violence, it will be violence of the terroristic, random, chaotic kind. There is no victory in that kind of violence, only further violence.
When the faultlines of our identities fall along the faultlines of our political structure, it becomes impossible to reach agreement. Elections become a zero-sum game where the stakes are survival itself. The only way out of this toxic relationship is to untangle the rhetoric that makes us see American politics as an endless tug-of-war. The solution is to introduce more options into voting and to make the difference between those options more meaningful. It starts with weaning ourselves off the fever-pitch, all-or-nothing stakes of single-winner plurality elections.
Only once in our nearly 250-year run as a country has partisan fighting overcome our ability to govern ourselves. Now, as then, our faith in the legitimacy of our government is waning. We now face a highly contentious supreme court battle, presidential election, and census redistricting at the same moment, any of which could be the final blow to that legitimacy of the American government. This is a precarious moment in our history.
However, precarious moments present unique opportunities. Maybe this is our chance to correct some of the structural flaws that have dogged American democracy from the start.
From Republic to Democracy and Back
The United States of America was conceived of as a republic of the upper and middle class and has gotten progressively more democratic, with the exception of the last twenty years or so. The Constitution of the United States lays out in detail how several of the instruments of government are meant to work but remains silent on the crucial issues of who gets to vote and how elections are to be carried out.
Voting rules were left up to the states. Initially, all states limited voting to white men who owned land or property and several states had religious requirements. As a result, no more than 5% of the country voted in presidential elections before 1820. Let me repeat that, less than 5% of the country voted for or against Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Women, notably, could vote in New Jersey until 1807 and certain local elections allowed non-white male voting.
More voters became qualified in the 1820s with the rise of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic party. Martin Van Buren engineered a coalition of low-income rural and urban voters behind the war hero Jackson and their electoral success was propelled by measures increasing the influence of the “common man” in elections. By 1856, property requirements had been abolished in all states. This brought the popular vote up to a whopping 15% of the population.
In 1870, on the eve of the return of southern states to the House of Representatives, the Constitution got its first explicit voter regulation in the form of the 15th amendment. Northern Republicans were set to lose significant power in the House because former slaves would now be counted as entire people instead of three-fifths of people. Republicans wanted to ensure that former slaves could vote and would vote Republican. The 15th amendment states that the right to vote cannot be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Unfortunately, this did little to expand the franchise because southern states found other ways to deny African-Americans voting rights.
The largest surge in voter eligibility came in 1920 when the 19th amendment secured the right to vote for women. This doubled voter turnout because, despite making up only 24% of congress today and having never held the presidency, over half of all Americans are women.
The franchise has continued to expand, notably with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and lowering the voting age to 18 with the passage of the 26th amendment in 1971, but voter turnout has continued to hover between 50 and 60% since the 1940s. Voting has become objectively easier over that course of time, particularly with the adoption of voting by mail (a change largely embraced by western states but which has recently become a national partisan issue), but voter turnout has not substantially increased. Voter turnout in the U.S. consistently ranks among the lowest of industrialized countries.
There are practical barriers to voting in American elections that don’t exist elsewhere like registration requirements, I.D. laws, and a lack of polling places. Some voter protections have been eroded. The 2016 presidential election was not compliant with the Voter Rights Act of 1965. But a driving problem is that Americans don’t feel like their vote matters. When they do go through the trouble of voting, they don’t like either option and don’t feel their choice makes a meaningful difference.
The Problem with Plurality
The upside of the lack of voting rules in the constitution is that a surprising amount of reform can take place at the state level.
Currently, virtually all American elections copy an inherent flaw of the British parliamentary elections they are modeled on: the assumption that local plurality elections will create a national assembly that accurately represents the country as a whole.
When I say “plurality election”, I mean an election in which the seat goes to whichever candidate gets the most votes. The flaw with these first-past-the-post elections is easy to see. If 20% of the state or the country supports a third party, that party will get 0% of the seats instead of 20%. We see this acutely with respect to race. In the redistricting after the 1990 census, in compliance with recent federal laws and court decisions, districts were redrawn to try to keep racial communities together. The net result was that more representatives of color made it into the legislature but, because other districts had become more white, there were fewer representatives that supported the political goals of these communities in general.
With single-member districts, minority voters compete for the attention of candidates who are likely to win a plurality. This is the American version of the coalition-building that happens in other democracies after the election. In systems where multiple parties have clearly-stated goals, an election can be used as a referendum on what policy voters support and which issues are the most important. In a plurality election, coalition-building must happen before the election as candidates try to determine what platform will garner the most votes.
This system worked fairly well before parties began demanding strict discipline. Starting in the ’90s, first the Republicans and then the Democrats required party members to vote the same way, regardless of the local views of their constituency. This had the reciprocal effect of ejecting conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans from their respective parties and the platforms of the two parties becoming mutually exclusive. Based on my earlier statement that the choices in an election should be clear, this would seem to make elections more meaningful. Unfortunately, when there are only two options, it also means that possibilities for mutually-beneficial coalitions are strictly limited. The dichotomy makes it impossible for voters to influence their preferred party’s platform. The platforms are dictated to the voters by the parties instead of the other way around.
A simple change can solve this problem. If districts elected multiple members to the legislature, those seats could be determined proportionally. This would require merging multiple districts into larger districts or expanding the number of representatives in the lower house, both of which would help legislatures better reflect the priorities of voters.
So, in our earlier example, if 20% of voters in a five-member district support a third party, that party would get one seat of the five instead of zero seats out of one. This diffuses some of the randomness and high stakes of single-member elections. It makes them more representative and less like gambling. Plus, the voters in the minority have some form of local representative. They aren’t saddled with a single representative at odds with them until the next election. Because seats are decided by a larger district, people with similar political goals don’t need to live in the same neighborhood if they want to be represented. It also sidesteps the need to district along racial lines, which exacerbates racial tension.
This proposal would be compliant with the legal principle that districts in a state contain roughly equal population and diffuses some of the high stakes of redistricting decisions, which is always a contentious process.
The main legal obstacle is the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967, which was passed to prevent states from giving all of their representatives to the majority party (an old trick for preventing minority representation from before the civil war). Changing this law would require a majority vote in Congress rather than the supermajority of Congress and the states that amendments require. Creating proportional multi-member districts is a good target for voting reform.
Persistent Fault Lines
A common solution brought up for breaking the current political impasse is to recapture the bipartisanship of the past. People say we just need to look past our differences and see how much we all have in common.
Most Americans are aware that the framers of the constitution and our early presidents warned against political parties—most famously George Washington in his farewell address. In specific, our founders feared the tyranny of the majority: the idea that short-sighted, popular demagogues would destabilize society, leading to civil discord and dictatorship. This was informed by the historiography of the time. The late 18th century narrative of the fall of the Roman republic saw the growing power of the rabble and their popularly elected Consuls as a destabilizing force that eroded the traditions of the republic and led to tyranny. The narrative was apparently confirmed at the end of the century with the collapse of the French Republic and the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte (who consciously styled himself as a Julius Caesar). Perhaps it was also with the English Civil War in mind—when parliament executed the king only to give total power to the puritan Oliver Cromwell—that Madison and the other power brokers created separate executive and legislative branches that could check each other's power.
The intended solution to the problem of majority rule was to allow the diversity of the large nation to naturally disrupt a majority from forming. Madison wrote in Federalist Paper no. 10, “Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” He saw the diversity of local interests as the counterbalance to majoritarian rule.
Madison lays out in a letter to Robert Walsh his logic regarding political parties. “When the individuals belonging to them are intermingled in every part of the whole Country, they strengthen the Union of the Whole, while they divide every part. Should a State of parties arise, founded on geographical boundaries and other Physical & permanent distinctions which happen to coincide with them, what is to controul those great repulsive Masses from awful shocks agst. each other?” Washington’s concern with parties was specifically the “alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge” and warned against “the founding of [parties] on geographical discriminations.”
Madison discusses the great lengths that the constitution goes to avoid acknowledging slavery directly. But context makes it clear, the great geographical disagreement that the founding fathers feared would divide the country was the disagreement over slavery. For a time, parties avoided an explicit northern/southern divide. Jackson’s Democrats had a coalition of rural and urban poor against the liberal coalition of middle-class Whigs but both parties contained slavers and abolitionists. Desperate compromise after desperate compromise failed to resolve the issue of abolishing slavery and disagreement grew. Congress attempted several gag rules banning discussion of slavery but disagreement boiled over time and again. One notable incident had Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina nearly beating Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican, to death on the Senate floor with his cane. In the end, the Whig coalition gave way to the new, explicitly abolitionist Republican party and the southern states seceded.
Compromises over slavery are written into our founding document and still affect our politics today. The three-fifths compromise allowing southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation in the House and Electoral College (despite slaves not having any say in how those seats were used) was the most glaring example. George McLellan, the main organizer and first general of the Army of the Union in the civil war later argued in his presidential campaign against Lincoln that the country should be united but that slavery could not be abolished due to its obvious constitutionality.
Compromises over slavery were necessary because the new constitution needed to be approved by every single state legislature. States bargained as separate countries because they saw themselves as separate countries entering into a confederation much as the tribes of the Great Lakes had done. Hence the original constitution being the Articles of Confederation and why we call states “states”. With states as the bargaining entity, we see why our upper house gives equal representation to the states. It seemed like the logical replacement for the House of Lords in a new nation opposed to hereditary titles.
An upper house that gives equal representation to states is inherently undemocratic in that it doesn’t care about votes being equal. This is why the Republican party can hold its current majority in the senate despite representing a minority of voters.
Until 1913, the Senate had even less to do with democracy. Senators were chosen by state legislatures. Starting around the turn of the century, populists and progressives railed against the corruption of party bosses and sought ways to turn power over more directly to voters. The proposal for direct election of senators was popular in the House but (not surprisingly) not in the Senate. Progressive populists like William Jennings Bryan gained power in the Democratic party, so the cause became a cause of the Democrats. By 1910, the proposal had won grassroots support. The Senate eventually confirmed the amendment when state legislatures replaced ten Republican senators with Democrats that election. Suddenly senators of both parties decided it would be in their best interest to adapt.
This is the key to voter reform. Creating conditions where it is advantageous for both parties to change the structure.
Even the electoral college was necessitated by slavery. Madison initially proposed a system whereby congress would elect the president. He later argued that a general election would be preferable but eventually agreed to a system of state-chosen electors. He wrote, “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” He means that southern states would have very little influence on presidential elections because so much of the population were slaves who couldn’t vote. “The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”
The compromise that created congress made a lower house based on population and an upper house that represented states equally. The compromise that created the electoral college simply averages these forces by adding these two systems. The number of electors each state is granted is their number of House representatives plus two.
The net effect is that the relative power of states is averaged slightly. Voters in less populous states get a greater say and voters in more populous states get less of a say. Today the effect is less extreme because there are more House representatives and more states so the effect of those extra two votes is smaller. However, the effect is still pronounced enough to prevent the winner of the popular vote plurality from winning the presidency on four occasions, two in the last twenty years, both of which went to Republicans.
Both the Senate and Electoral College have a clear Republican bias that arises from these compromises around slavery. Remember, the kind of party division that Washington and Madison warned against was geographic. The geography they had in mind was slave vs. free states but the effect on the political structure is that voters in less populous states get a greater say in federal government than those in more populous states.
The Republican Advantage
Starting in the 1980’s, party support can be well predicted by geography. Republicans and Democrats have increasingly defined mutually exclusive social and economic policies with Democrats appealing far more to urban voters and Republicans to rural voters. Rural states tend to be less populous states and that gives Republicans an advantage in senate, presidential, and house elections in descending order.
The compromises around slavery were intended to yoke the free and slave states together such that neither side could dominate the other. The system of checks and balances was created to enforce it. Parties that represent mutually exclusive geographic interests cannot prosper in this system because it is specifically designed to prevent either from making unilateral decisions.
I include the House of Representatives in the list of biased institutions because Republicans even have an advantage there. Today, a member of the House represents an average of 750,000 constituents. That is six or seven times the number of constituents per representative of democracies like the U.K. and Germany. The nearest comparison to us is Japan where districts are still about a third the size of the U.S.. If the House is meant to be our most democratic instrument of government, it’s not very democratic.
The lack of constitutional rules around the size of the house is a bit of a political oversight. One of the compromises made to get state legislatures to ratify the constitution with its stronger federal government was that specific rights would be added in the form of amendments immediately following its passage. Articles three through twelve were adopted in 1791 and are called the Bill of Rights. Article two, which stipulated that Congress could not give itself a pay raise until the following session, was eventually ratified in 1992. Article the first came one state short of the two-thirds required to become an amendment and remains unratified.
Article the first stipulated a formula for adding seats to the House of Representatives that reached a maximum ratio of 1 representative for every 50,000 constituents. According to the last census in 2010, that would yield 6,563 representatives. That number sounds too large to be workable but keep in mind, this is the kind of representation that Madison had in mind when he wrote that local interests would prevent large, national voting blocks from forming. Instead, congress has not added new seats to the House since 1911, when there were about a third as many Americans. Increasing congressional representation, which can be done with a majority vote, would help make Congress and the Electoral College more democratic.
Unfortunately, proposals to add even a handful more seats have routinely died in both the House and the Senate. If Democrats gain control of Congress this election, expanding the House should be a top priority.
Inventing Opposing Americas
The American republic is designed to produce split governments and it frequently does. Over the last 50 years, we’ve spent 36 of them (72%) with a divided government, as in, the presidency or one of the houses of congress is held by the opposition party. This doesn’t happen in parliamentary democracies. The prime minister is the leader of the party that forms the new government. Our system with its three different electoral systems encourages split governments in a two-party system.
The intention was to force compromise to undermine the tyranny of the majority. And, for a time, it worked. This was possible because national parties had room for diverse platforms at a local level and because there was broad agreement on certain issues. Civil rights legislation in the 60s passed with broad support in both parties. Nixon created the EPA by executive order, uniting the efforts of the different federal environmental programs. Even the Reagan administration, with Republicans sitting at a 103 seat deficit in the House, worked with Democrat Speaker Tip O’Neill to pass sweeping legislation including the first major revision to the U.S. Criminal code of the 20th century. Yes, the one with all the racist sentencing guidelines.
Simply put, bipartisanship has a dark side. In a two-party system, when the parties agree, dissenters have no avenue for political expression. Perhaps the height of bipartisanship was the 1952 election when both parties actively courted General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mainstream Republicans supported New Deal legislation and mainstream Democrats supported interventionist foreign policy. Neither party wanted to deal with issues of racism and ultimately the judiciary took the first step towards securing civil rights for black Americans.
I’ve seen the failure of bipartisan agreement in my lifetime. Since the Reagan or first Bush administrations, both parties have broadly agreed on neoliberal, globalist economic policy. When both parties agree, dissenters can’t register their opinions by voting. Ross Perot found some support criticizing neoliberalism in 1992, as did Ralph Nader in 2000, and in both cases, they may have changed the result of the election. But the slight spoiler effect wasn’t enough to sway either party. Calls for populist economic policy were driven outside of the two-party system. Bernie Sanders is the current prominent voice on the left and has been a major contender for the Democratic presidential nominee twice but stands for election in the Senate as an independent. Perhaps the most surprising recent shift was Trump’s ability to tap into populist economic frustration amongst lower-income white voters, particularly in the northern midwest. Trump was able to win the Republican nomination and presidency but did little to deliver on his populist promises. In capturing the votes of this marginalized position, Trump also brought a slew of fringe alt-right theories to the forefront of Republican rhetoric.
The kind of bipartisanship that characterized the 50s to the 80s is a thing of the past. Parties have become far more disciplined, different, and branded.
Identity politics is nothing new. Americans have always voted based on their identities, whether they be ethnic, religious, racial, or class identities. But starting in the ‘80s, parties became much more clear about defining their brands. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans retired or lost primaries. For example, the senate seat that Bernie Sanders won in 2006 had been held by the Republican party for 144 years and had been the longest-held Republican senate seat. Vermont’s political beliefs had shifted somewhat but the two parties shifted more. A candidate running as a Republican could no longer meaningfully represent Vermont in the Senate.
Parties came to embrace branding, a concept that revolutionized advertising in the mid 20th century. To stand out in a crowded field, it’s less important to sell the product on its merits than on the brand. It’s the difference between buying Marlboro cigarettes and being a “Marlboro Man.” Voting for a party is not just a matter of which policy you support, it’s a referendum on what kind of person you are and what kind of country you want to live in. In a system where it’s more important to achieve high turnout from your base than to win undecided voters, like ours, framing voting as an existential choice helps parties win elections. The side effect is that it encourages us to dehumanize each other and frame opposing positions in terms of moral failure. This ratchets up the stakes and makes voters feel like every election could be the end of the world, which in turn ratchets up animosity.
This is the greatest danger of the two-party system: it makes us see ourselves as inherently divided.
This doesn’t have to be the case. For example, for most of the 20th century, if you were a white evangelical laborer both Democrats and Republicans would have a realistic chance of winning your vote. The shift goes beyond the realignment of the parties on issues of race in the 60s, this is how the parties sorted all American identities into two categories. In the later 20th century the voting power of labor declined and in the 80s, evangelicals became a major part of the Republican coalition (thanks to that new televangelism money). As our evangelical laborer drifted more into the sphere of the Republican party, Democrats had less incentive to appeal to him. The identities of evangelism and labor were no longer in competition. The question of what type of person he identifies as became more important to voting than what policies he supports.
This is how we arrive at the death of political discourse. The issue isn’t just one of information loops (i.e. limiting news and social media feeds to sources that confirm your bias). It’s also an issue of stacking identities. If everything you believe is on one side of the fence and everything you abhor is on the other, how can the two sides ever have a meaningful discussion? The sorting of identities in this way benefits the two-party system but destroys political discourse.
The solution, and the truth, is that there are more than two sides to most political issues. Unfortunately, the ironclad stability of our current political coalitions eliminates political possibilities. For example, there is broad support amongst Christians for more action against poverty. In the United States, Christians in general and even the historically Democrat-supporting Catholics have become aligned with Republican economic policy. However, the Christian-Socialist coalitions predominate in Latin America.
In a multi-party democracy, coalitions can form based on common interests even if the motivations differ. Socialists and Christians don’t need to agree on abortion to be able to work together on economic justice. In a multi-party democracy, parties can work together to pass legislation where they can find agreement. If a popular position isn’t adequately represented by a major party, a smaller party can rise to prominence by championing it.
In fact, polling shows that there is a large portion of American voters who hold conservative social views and support leftist economic policy. You could call this a “gap in the market” that a new party could capture. Suddenly both Democrats and Republicans would have possibilities for passing legislation while in the minority. This in turn empowers minority parties to participate in government instead of flatly obstructing, as has become the norm.
In the current first-past-the-post system, if neither candidate seems like a good option to you, it’s safer to vote for the less repugnant candidate instead of changing a third party. Independent voters inevitably pick the side that they most identify with. The reciprocal effect is that parties are incentivized to focus more on identity than policy. Parties have a greater incentive to listen to their donors than their voters when it comes to making policy. Voters see both parties working against their interests and become less engaged with the political process. Cynicism mounts, participation drops, and the parties become ever more beholden to their financial backers.
Hopefully, by this point, you are with me that more parties means more functional and reasonable politics and that the root of the problem lies in the structure. So, what do we do about it?
A good start would be to create multi-member districts at both the state and congressional level. The obstacle to this is the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967. We would need a federal law passed that allows multiple-member districts as long as the seats are awarded proportionally. This would fulfill the original objective of the law while giving third parties a chance at representation.
According to Lee Drutman in Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, districts that elect an average of five members would encourage an environment with four to six parties competing for votes. I’ll admit that this is where we get more into political science and outside of my expertise in history. Political science has come a long way since 1787 and we have much more real-world data about how democracy works than the founding fathers did. There is math behind how many options work best for voters and it indicates that a handful of well-defined parties yields the clearest elections.
This would mean consolidating districts to avoid inflating the size of state legislatures too much. However, as discussed earlier, adding a few hundred seats to the House of Representatives would bring it more in line with its intended constitutional purpose. New congressional seats could make it easier to district for multi-member districts.
The other major improvement to our democracy would be the introduction of preferential voting. This system is called different things in different countries but the concept is that you would rank candidates on your ballot in order of your preference. This gives smaller parties an advantage because it removes the spoiler effect. If you wanted to vote for Nader but would settle for Gore, you could put Nader first and Gore second. If Nader doesn’t have enough votes to become president, your votes would go to Gore instead.
This system is compatible with proportional representation. A threshold is set for how large a share is required to win a seat based on the number of seats available. If a party doesn’t meet the required percentage, their votes are redistributed to other parties based on each voter’s preference. This system allows voters to support a candidate they truly want and only compromise if it becomes necessary.
This system essentially flips our primary system on its head in a way that encourages bipartisanship better than our system of checks and balances can. Instead of choosing party leadership based on a popular voting schedule that trickles in slowly over the course of the year (with all the randomness that that incorporates), voters choose the coalition that they want to see with their ballot. With preferential voting, it’s important for each party to win not just the #1 spot on your ballot, they’re also competing for spots #2 or #3. That means there is less incentive for similar candidates to undercut each other.
Consider the Democratic primary this year. Rather than a battle between moderates and progressives over which branch could best lead the party or beat Trump, voters could create the coalition they want to see. Perhaps that could be Romney Republicans and Biden Democrats, or maybe Bernie Dems and Biden Dems, or maybe even a Socialist-Christian coalition. The results of the election would determine the political possibilities.
Instead, we have a system where small, committed support can hijack a party. My parents are lifelong Republicans who found their political positions suddenly at odds with the Republican party as Trump rose to prominence. Their position of limited economic intervention and liberal social policy no longer existed as a Republican position. Trump easily distinguished himself amongst a milquetoast lineup with powerful rhetoric about how Republicans had been losing but now could win again. Voter turnout is even lower in primaries than general elections, so even a very small group of committed supporters can take the party leadership.
The days when the congressional party leadership could oppose a president from their party, as was the case with Carter, are over. Republican politicians were faced with the choice of either supporting Trump or risking expulsion from the party. Of Republicans, only Mitt Romney has significantly opposed Trump, probably made possible by strong support in his constituency and its relatively low approval of Trump. Most party leaders, like longtime Trump critic Lindsey Graham, got in line. This isn’t so much a matter of integrity as it is political calculus. We will see next month if the decision to toe the party line pays off for Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and Maine Senator Susan Collins.
Proportional and preferential voting can be achieved in the House of Representatives without a constitutional amendment. However, Senate appointments are directly described as single-winner, general elections in the 17th amendment. To get around it without an amendment—which seems highly unlikely in this climate—states could modify their elections to be preferential as a replacement for the primary system.
Maine passed just such a measure in 2018 over the strong objections of the incumbent Republican party. Paul LePage won the governorship in 2010 with 37.6% of the vote and in 2014 with 48.2%, both times benefitting from the spoiler effect of a progressive independent candidate. Frustrated with these results, Maine voters passed a referendum mandating ranked voting in state and federal elections. Republicans, unhappy with this result, passed laws delaying and potentially canceling the implementation of ranked voting but a peculiarity of the Maine constitution allowed voters to veto these laws. The voters of Maine were able to reform voting democratically, bypassing the parties and the legislature completely.
This is one way in which the separation of state and federal power can help. We have seen an interesting resurgence in state’s rights—a phrase long used as a euphemism for slavery or restriction of civil rights. Recently, most states have passed laws or referendums or even constitutional amendments that override the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 which prohibits any legal use of cannabis including medical. Even though marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance, only two states—Idaho and South Dakota—still treat all marijuana possession as a criminal offense.
States can drive reform because they already control most of the rules around voting and, as in the case of the 17th amendment, can exert influence on national politics if they tip national elections in favor of reform.
Of course, this doesn’t solve the deeper issue with the senate, which is that it represents states and not voters. Perhaps the best course of action would be to reform our upper house in the same way that many parliamentary systems have. As elective power has gained legitimacy against hereditary power, lower houses have taken over the powers of upper houses. Our upper house isn’t hereditary but it also isn’t democratic, so perhaps the same approach would work for us. Currently, the Senate holds total control over several important functions of government. If the Senate continues to exercise total control based on simple majorities, it will become more obvious to Americans that it baffles the will of the more democratic House and we can weaken some of its powers.
And finally, we get to the stickiest wicket of all: the presidency. The system for electing the president is spelled out in detail in the constitution and so far very little will has materialized for a constitutional amendment to change it. In this case, we need to rely on the state solution. Ranked voting would be great, as in the case of the Senate, but it would need to be adopted by all states to work properly. In the meantime, I support current initiatives to grant all of a state’s electors to the winner of the national plurality vote. So far 17 states have passed such measures and 10 more have been passed by one house of the state legislature. It’s possible that Madison’s suggestion of a generally elected president may soon prevail without a constitutional amendment.
Getting the two parties to allow others into the club will be an uphill battle. Maine may be the best example of how to proceed. Most states have some way for citizens to pass referendums or amendments around the legislature. However, certain changes need to happen at the federal level. As our norms about fair, objective democracy continue to break down under the high intensity of partisan conflict, new opportunities are appearing.
I’ve laid out in great detail how the current system advantages the party of rural and small-state interests. It has a Republican bias. Thus far, Republicans have also taken the lead in rigging the electoral system, including an extremely partisan redistricting after the 2010 census and lame-duck restrictions of power to incoming Democrats.
We now face a situation where Republicans have committed to a supreme court confirmation that would represent an extreme and unprecedented shift in the court’s composition. Virtually all polls are showing Democrats winning the presidency next month as well as a good shot at the Senate majority. I can imagine a situation where Democrats strike back at Republicans more boldly by gerrymandering districts in the upcoming redistricting, adding D.C. and Puerto Rico as states to add seats in the Senate and potentially adding more judges to the supreme court. None of these measures would overcome the structural disadvantage that Democrats face and could certainly shake Republican faith in the fairness of the Senate and the Electoral College. Maybe this could be a breach in tradition big enough to invite significant reform but not so egregious as to break the system entirely.
Most Americans recognize that the current stalemate can’t go on forever and dream of an electoral victory so great that their policy can be enacted unilaterally and not undermined by the following administration. However, even unified U.S. governments find it difficult to pass legislation and the pendulum continues to swing between Democrat to Republican unabated. We keep bemoaning the bitter and low quality of our national political discourse. We can continue to frame that frustration in terms of the other party’s moral failings, or we can look for bigger solutions.
I hope that we can step back from the fever-pitch intensity of our current elections and the dream that demographics or righteousness or time will cause one vision of American identity to triumph over the other. There are not two Americas. There are many Americas. Diversity of opinion is what makes democracy work. Let’s try to focus a little less on defeating the other side and a little more on taking ownership of the whole process. It may sound insane from where we stand but we don’t need to hate our political system. The phrase “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” doesn’t need to fill us with dread. We can live in a world where we actually like the candidates and parties we vote for. And in doing so, maybe we can have political disagreements again without ruining our friendships. I’m Peter McGuire and this has been my Unlikely Explanation.