The Silver Bullet for American Politics?

If you believe Americans are more complicated than the caricatures defined by their political parties - that is to say, some of them are more nuanced than how a "Republican" or "Democrat" is portrayed in the media - then you should read "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop" by Lee Drutman. This book is relevant because it helps answer why we're in this state - where, a Democrat and a Republican don't seem to be able to perceive the same reality, and castigate each other as the enemy of progress. Uniquely, it also presents a compelling way out of our gridlocked and toxic political mess.


If you want to exercise smart policy on climate change, on economic policy, on solving crime, on urban planning, or on really anything, you need the ability to compromise on conflicting identity and economic interests. You need institutions that function and are seen as legitimate by constituents - a working democracy.


All politics is about solving conflict peacefully; but toxic and polarized politics progresses to political dysfunction and illegitimacy, and perhaps even violence - something most Democrats and Republicans probably do not want. But the American political structure we have today is like a failed state - illegitimate to half its citizens and increasingly incompetent (just think of the Iowa Caucus or the bungled response to the coronavirus outbreak). Its ability to govern is hamstrung by a viciousness of identity politics that is more defined by geography than political positions. The government is shallowing out - what's continuing to drain away isn't a swamp, but bipartisanship. Because of this increasing incompetence, whatever the economic and political demands the government faces, more and more tends to be outsourced to either the executive branch (the president is increasingly empowered at the expense of congress) as well as the private sector, which is also where the best and brightest Americans go. After all, who wants to work in government today?


Undeniably, American democracy is in a perilous state - this is clear in study after study and in expert opinion, as argued by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, Bright Line Watch, and Authoritarian Warning Survey. When a president nominates someone to the Supreme Court but no hearing is given (think of Merrick Garland), it's difficult to say the government is functioning optimally.


This is tragic primarily because most of us know and want better, but have few options other than to scream, fight, and "mobilize". Not knowing how else to play the game, not having another option, we begrudgingly have to go along or remove ourselves from the process - it's no surprise voter turnout is at historical lows. The worse part is that we may hope for a strong and bipartisan leader to bring us all back together like the good 'ol days. Unfortunately, as highlighted below, this is impossible with our current structure.



The Problem


There is an origin story to all this. The easy but incomplete headline-grabbing explanation is "polarization". I have in the past dreamt of the ability to stand in front of a crowd of potential future voters - across the aisle - and reason with them to garner their trust, even if they wouldn't vote for me. This would be possible because they wouldn't question my identity as something inherently different from them, a patriotic American with the same rights. Think of how McCain defended Obama. But this scenario is impossible today. The fragmenting of political discourse into an us vs. them or zero-sum dynamic annihilates and virtuous cycles we would want to see in a productive and inviting political environment. We fundamentally find it hard to empathize with “the other” - even if they are members of our own family. Intent and reason don't matter anymore, just identity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was silver switch that can be flipped to solve this? Where a Latino in rural Alabama feels empowered to contribute to the debate on climate change because he knows his voice would matter, where the socially liberal but economic conservative Orange County republican can enjoy dinner with her Santa Monica progressive hiking group because there's enough overlap in values? Can you imagine yourself -- as a campaigner -- presenting policy ideas that engages a diverse crowd that addresses the most important problems your town, state, and country face, without the trolling, the cart-blanche dismissals, the "fake news", and the personal identity attacks? Where you don't feel captured by national politics, which distracts from local municipal political organization?


How did we get here? I used to believe that social media caused polarization. But this is wrong. Social media - and also the entire Fourth Estate - from the NYTimes to Tucker Carlson, to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter - amplify polarization, but do not cause it. (I would love to distill this further in a separate post.)


(If media were somehow the a priori cause of polarization and thus toxic politics, we would need to answer why Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, etc., don't exhibit the same level of dysfunctional politics as the U.S. They all have modern and social media, too, but they are better equipped to handle the amplified polarization among their body politic.)


Similarly, a breakdown of "civil order" due to a lack of character by our politicians - where if they only spent more time at the country club with across-the-aisle politicians - isn't the cause of polarization either. When politicians today genuinely attempt to represent all Americans (think of Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address invoking how Blue States and Red States are still both American states), it's not their fault when they fail. They could truly be well intended, but they can't do anything about it. Because what matters are the institutions; in this case, the two-party system.

On the one hand, this sounds obvious, although we may not immediately be able to explain why. But wait - this also sounds impossible, especially considering how old the two-party structure has been to American politics - a system which in name is older than many democracies today. Why is the "two-party" structure now causing toxic and polarized politics?


This is why "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop" is such a gem. You begin reading and thinking this is not very informative; it sounds a touch banal. But as you step back from inspecting brushstroke after brushstroke, the painting becomes clear at a distance. We've just forgotten how complicated "a party" actually is. We learn today's two parties are nothing like the two parties we've had in the past: they are tangibly and explicitly - structurally - different. The evolution started during the Civil Rights era and still continues to today.


The "two-party" system in the 1950s more closely resembled four shadow parties. These parties were also weakly organized without strong central leadership. The national electorate had less influence in who the parties represented and how they were organized - local political bosses had more sway. Politicians campaigned more on local issues and were not beholden to national campaign promises as a binary choice. Ultimately, the party structure was more akin to a convoluted decentralized mess that allowed for substantial policy making, because there was enough diversity of thought within the two parties thereby requiring the need to do politics: compromise and resolve conflicting demands. In particular, the four political personas inherent in many democracies were all represented, where in Drutman's words, the


... Democratic coalition contained liberal Democrats (progressives) and the conservative Democrats (populists); the Republican coalition contained conservative Republicans (conservatives) and liberal Republicans (classical liberals). When American democracy collapsed into the two-party system, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans went extinct [at least, politically]. And because group identity and morality come first in the human mind, most voters aligned with the party that shared their moral values, and they updated their other [i.e. economic] beliefs accordingly. [155]

As such, today's

era is qualitatively different: two distinct, national party coalitions organized around two distinct visions of American national identity, each claiming to represent a true majority.

The point of parties is to help resolve conflict, taking into consideration the constituents' demands within parties. This conflict usually revolves around two fundamental questions: "Who are we?" and "Who gets what?" But in today's world of two centralized parties, these two questions have devolved into one, emblematic of an us-versus-them framework: "who deserves what", something that is increasingly answered along geographical lines. Why the parties devolved into strong, centralized, yet polar factions of today has multiple causes - from neoliberal economic policy to Civil Rights positioning, but the seed for this has always been present from the original design. It just took a while to get here, probably longer than anticipated considering the Founding Fathers' original distrust of parties generally.


Needless to say, and severely exacerbated by the elections cycle, the raison d'etre of the parties now is to "win" at all costs. This is clearly embodied by Trump's campaigning rhetoric. Who cares for anything else? It's important that "we win" and become the majority. The majority's objective is to remain in the majority, while the minority's object is to become the majority.


Compromising is now an inherent political cost, because this signals support to an undeserving opponent that deserves as little political recognition as possible. The opposing party is not part of our "our" identity. The goal now is to defeat the opposing party into smithereens. For defeating the opponents will help save America.


How does this get justified in political language? Let me use names here in a hypothetical example. Suppose the Democrats are not in the White House and are a minority party in Congress. Their objectives - which help justify any and all political maneuverings -- would be to defeat the Republicans in such a manner as to "shock some sense into them", whereby afterwards they would understand "their wrong ways" and come back to being able to compromise.


This is delusional. When Obama first won the presidency, he triggered a greater existential fear among Republicans. There was no "meeting at the center". Instead, each party was now encouraged to fight with ever stronger and existential punches to defeat the other party; winning increasingly justified all means, no matter how unfair seemed. Thus, we have a doom-loop that continues to fray the political system's ability to govern. As cliche as it sounds, it's broken.


What exacerbates all this - and what begins to signal where we could go to begin fixing this dynamic - is the way Americans use direct "first past the post" voting to select their representatives in the their affiliated party. A party's central leadership cannot veto the people's choice for candidates, meaning, uncommonly for strong parties in democracies, the leaders have little ability to control who the party's candidates will be. Trump and Bernie are both examples of candidates who would unlikely have obtained support from the party from the outset. And while Bernie did not become the Democrats flag bearer (however weird that would've been), Trumped managed this with the Republicans. A minority and initially unwelcomed voice become the voice of America; Trump captured not just one party, but also the White House. It's been amazing to watch how, with a two party structure, the rest of the party had to go along. When you have first-past-the-post voting, it may initially restrict pathways for a minority voice to achieve power, but when it does, it does so absolutely.


Another example worth sharing to signal the strength of this two-party first-past-the-vote election effect:

In 2018, Republican candidate John Fitzgerald publicly said, "Everything we've been told about the Holocaust is a lie" and "My entire campaign, for the most part, is about exposing this lie." Fitzgerald won a crowded primary [sound familiar?]. He lost the November general election overwhelmingly to the solidly [Californian] Democratic district. But on the strength of being the Republican candidate, he still got 28.1 percent of the vote. [emphasis mine]

Had there been more than two parties and had there been something other than "first-past-the-post" voting, Fitzgerald would never have come to "represent" nearly a third of the electorate in this Californian district.


The political scientist Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky claim democracies die when there's a loss of "toleration" and "forbearance" among political opponents. Right now, it's hard to find examples of this (and this is probably why Authoritarian Survey Watch gives the U.S. a one in five chance of democratic breakdown in the next four years). Today's two-party institutions are generating a doom loop cycle of ... doom: If one could graph the cycle, it might look like (paraphrasing from Drutman):


  1. Stakes of politics feel higher and more emotional [which leads to]

  2. The other party is an extreme "threat" and can't be trusted!!! [which leads to]

  3. Both sides embrace their own facts and cut off contact with the other side [which leads to]

  4. Insular us-versus-them thinking vindicates more radical political action [which leads to]

  5. Parties diverge further apart [which leads back to the beginning: stakes of politics...]


Ultimately, with the "winner takes all" rhetoric, a break down of fairness, a fight over national identity in a zero-sum cost way, the institutions are not helping us solve political conflict (which is the point of healthy politics); instead, they are exacerbating it. It's possible this could fizzle, but I'd rather not take my chances that this will end on its own accord; there are also much worse possible alternatives. The downside for American politics is hard and long; there's little upside to the current state of affairs.


But there's something we can do


I don't feel like I've done the above justice in how two parties are damaging. I also haven't, for example, touched on the problem of gerrymandering, or the idea that two party structures improves political accountability in politics (which is not the case, because government is already divided into three branches). But for these problems and more, the best applicable solutions to the American political dysfunction can be found in a multi-party structure. It's surprisingly straightforward and compelling - something I'm ashamed I was a little dismissive of initially.


A multiparty system in the U.S. compels politicians to moderate themselves (as they'll need to compromise to work across the aisle and build coalitions); the system enables all voters to have their voice heard and their vote count; it ensures more nuanced discussions on economic (and other) issues beyond wanton identity politics; it increases external and internal engagement; it reduces (and solves) gerrymandering; and it ensures yet even greater accountability. Furthermore, it provides a conduit to release the steam of extremist minority views which otherwise would be bottled up and risk manifesting on the national stage given enough fermentation time. It requires federalism, and improves the odds for campaign finance and lobbying reform.


Parties are necessary - there should never be doubt about that. They are the conduit to galvanize and organize the masses in the democratic process. Two few - and you get a doom loop; too many, and you may get an accountability mess (with more room for extremists again). But get 3-5 parties, and you tend to have a great compromising balance.


But how to get there? The solution section of the book is most exciting. It explains what a hypothetical "Save American Democracy Act" would be able to achieve. Most topically and immediately, a multi-party structure emerges from how we elect our politicians. There's nothing illegal about having having more than two parties in America - there are already more - but changing how people campaign will organically push for more parties. The incentives required to generate more than two parties would come from proportional ranked-choice electioneering.


Getting to 3-5 parties in American politics can start with simply updating how we vote for our congressional representatives in the House. The ideal system would be a multi-winner (proportional) ranked-choice voting system (sometimes called STV for "single transferable vote" or STV-PR for proportional representation. The Irish just call it PR.) This would allow for voters to indicate their preferences (ranking the candidates), meaning it now also behooves politicians to also be considered as "second" and "third" most preferred (compared to simply getting the most votes against the next opponent at any cost).


But single-winner ranked choice voting can become messy with many candidates, too. And while parties have often helped their voters with guidelines on how to think about political issues, it stands to reason that we still offer this option to voters. The voter should feel free to either vote for specific candidates (regardless of party), or just for the party itself (which then does the internal ranking). Each congressional district, depending on the size, will then send three to five vote-getters (not one) to the House.


This type of voting also has history in America among various cities earlier in the 20th century; the Germans, Australians, and Irish still use it or similar versions of it too. Politicians representing distinct groups would be compelled to form their own parties in demands of the diverse set of political priorities embodied among Americans - to be heard and identified. Thus - the two-party system breaks into more parties, so more interests and issues can be heard, debated, and considered. Everyone then has greater reason to engage and participate. And with no centralized paragon party, the need to compromise and consider the other winning parties immediately kills the two-party doom loop. Now, we get back to healthy politicking.


There are additional policy changes to support a multi-winner (proportional) ranked-choice voting system in forming additional parties. Drutman coalesces his policy recommendations into the five interventions below, all in order of political difficulty:


- Single-winner ranked-choice voting for the Senate: Adopt ranked-choice voting for Senate elections

This is an "inferior" version of the multi-winner framework described above, but with the limitation of having only two senators per State, this is an improvement on the current first-past-the-post tradition.


- A bigger House: Increase the House to seven hundred members.

Historically, there were rules of thumb on how to increase the number of representatives correlated to the population. Needless to say, since the early 1900s, this has been frozen in place, and the number of constituents today per representative is woefully unwieldy. Increasing the numbers to 700 (from 435) would return the sense of representatives representing their districts more accurately (and this ties in with the next policy recommendation).


- Multi-winner (proportional) ranked-choice voting for the House: Adopt multi-winner districts of three to five members with ranked-choice voting for the US House.

I explained this topically above.


- An end to congressional primaries: Get rid of direct congressional primary elections.

Once you have more parties, there's no need to have primaries anymore - all party naysayers and dissenters will still have a voice. It would also remove the power given to the "most mobilized" voter. While in this situation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would less likely be able to win as she did, she'd have other party avenues to engage with, and the incumbents would need to be more responsive to the demands to ensure maintaining power. Democracy shouldn't be "within" parties - where they get weakened, but which direct primaries cause. Instead, democracy should be between parties.


The fifth change would be - down the road with a constitutional amendment - to have Ranked Choice Voting for President, as well.


The above changes would not only and most likely ensure a political system of 3-5 parties, but be a superior form of democracy. Proportional (instead of first-past-the-post) elections short circuits politicians from mobilizing votes with an us-versus-them rhetoric, because they now need to appeal to more constituents to also be considered as second and third-most preferred candidate. It moderates and allows for more choice on the issues. A bigger house - in line with previous growth of congressional seats in the past - would make politics more representative. I would also foresee (though unstated in the book) that removing congressional primaries would make elections cheaper. Every voice and vote would now count, regardless of where you lived.



Next steps


There's plenty of disillusionment in American politics today. What I appreciate in this book is that there's reasonable and compelling ideas on how to fix the root causes of our toxic politics, defended with international evidence and our own historical ability to implement electoral reform. A growing number of states now resort to proportional ranked-choice voting. There's practical and implementable "hope", if ever we needed some.


Which is some contrast to other books on polarization. While I have not read Ezra Klein's "Why We're Polarized", I take note of this review from the NYTimes describing the end of the book, after he finishes explaining the problem:


What to do? Here Klein has few answers. He rightly says that our problems are more cultural than structural, but our hopes rest on some structural reforms to redress some of the imbalance. He calls for eliminating the Electoral College, eliminating the Senate filibuster, allowing Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to become states and taking steps to make the House of Representatives more reflective of the country. Of course, even these measures, commendable though they may be, are a very heavy lift. In the end, he offers simply the hope that as Americans become more aware of the cancer of our current identity politics, they will make efforts to reduce their own involvement. I hope he is right. I fear that, notwithstanding his thoughtful, clear and persuasive analysis, we have a long and torturous path ahead.

Although I've not read Klein's book so any comments are likely unfair, I would say the above is both erroneous and "incomplete". This "lack of solution" perhaps also exasperates the toxicity by removing the idea that the problem cannot reasonably be solved. Which is why I recommend Drutman's "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop". It offers us a way forward. Even if Drutman’s thesis is incorrect, it at least gives us something tangibly and uncontroversial to try, with evidence it would even be helpful. Is the minute risk that it won’t work, or that it would make things even worse, big enough to do nothing and remain disillusioned? Especially when there's good reason it would help? It'll still take time and it'll be hard, but it's a way forward worth starting on now.