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“Wishcasting” the future of American politics | No. 174 — December 12, 2021
Why should other western democracies get to have all the fun?
This week, I am following the lead of Lee Drutman, a political scientist and friend of the blog, and Jamelle Bouie, columnist for the New York Times, in dreaming up improbable scenarios for what a better US political system looks like.
Last week, Drutman challenged his followers on Twitter to write “more scenarios about how American democracy improves, and really specific scenarios, not the hand-wavey stuff about how Americans put aside their differences.” And yesterday, Bouie wrote in his own newsletter for the Times that he can think of many solutions for the problems of our current moment but few ways to get from A to B, though the uncertainties of the future could provide paths to reform.
I tend to agree with Bouie that the path forward is hard to see. I am what Drutman may call a doomsayer, a pessimist, a party-pooper, or simply a grouch. I believe that the three major problems with American democracy today are (a) that the two-party system incentivizes division and extremism, causes unnecessary mass dissatisfaction with the political system, and prevents progress on key issues; (b) that the design of the Senate and the mere existence of the filibuster gives political minorities too much power over the direction of policy, depriving majorities of a reasonable shot at passing their agenda and generally depriving the country of fair representation, per the principle of one person = one vote; and finally (c) that leaders of the Republican Party have used the negative partisanship that stems from the two-party system, and the extra edge they get from the Senate’s system of geographic membership and pro-rural bias, to successfully create a movement that is fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy and rule by the Democrats. And, to the pessimistic part, I think most of these problems will continue in perpetuity.
I am pessimistic because these are all very hard problems to solve! But in the spirit of accepting Drutman’s invitation to “wishcast” (NB: as opposed to “forecast”) our future, I think it is worth putting down on paper what I think solutions would look like.
I. A new electoral system for the US House
On the issue of two-party politics and polarization of political identities, we may look overseas for answers. The political science on this subject says the United States has uniquely high levels of “affective polarization” between Democrats and Republicans when compared to opposition voters in, say, Britain, France, Canada, or Germany, or New Zealand. And what makes the US unique among those countries is that it uses plurality elections with single-member districts to elect members of its Congress and that it takes the power over deciding the presidency from the voters and hands it over to an antiquated body of state-assigned electors, which has a bias towards the pro- rural party and degrades voters’ sense of agency in the process. So too does the Senate filibuster increase the national stakes of every single state, giving people a sense of cosmic us-versus-them every election season. Our three major national electoral institutions incentives zero-sum thinking and polarization, in other words.
Of course, polarization did not come about completely organically. We have had roughly the same electoral institutions as well as geographically-polarized elections for nearly a century, whereas the level of polarization we see today stretches back only two-to-three decades. Political science here stipulates that Republican leaders from the late 1980s to early-mid 1990s led the way on polarization, taking extremist positions to the masses and incentivizing their voters to move to the right. Democrats followed suit only more recently. Party leaders, mostly Republicans, thus created the conditions for the polarization and ideological radicalization that we see today.
Now, in a turn of fates, it’s the voters that are demanding conformity from their leaders — furthering a self-perpetuating cycle of extremism and feelings of us-versus-them. And cable news, the internet, and social media all gave leaders the power to begin this cycle.
That means the fix here is not purely institutional, but also political. But institutions are an easy target — and US House elections are the easiest to change. Thus, I’d wish-cast two major reforms.
First, I’d change US House elections so that voters in each state elect their members in at-large districts. The winners would be decided using either the single-transferable vote, which uses ranked-choice voting to elect multiple members in the constituency, or open-list proportional representation (OLPR). OLPR is a system of proportional allocation that is principally advantageous in allowing voters to use familiar ballots to the ones they do today, voting for their favorite candidate over all the other candidates listed in the entire multi-seat (statewide) “district.” Those votes then also get counted in the statewide tally for the party. The proportion of total votes a party wins decides how many seats it gets in the state “district,” and the top n vote-getters from their list of candidates become the representatives. (There is a lot of other good stuff on OLPR in the link above, and I suggest you check it out.)
Whether it be STV or OLPR (or MMP or closed-list, etc…), the idea is that switching from plurality elections would allow for smaller, more ideologically extreme parties to compete alongside the bigger group of moderate partisans. This would give mainstream, moderate Republicans and Democrats the incentive to moderate, not polarize, as they would be competing for the relatively more centrist voters in the electorate.
That in turn creates the conditions in Congress for coalitions of parties to cooperate on the issues on which they are most closely aligned. The center-right Republicans would feel less incentive to vote against everything the center-left Democrats proposed just to avoid being primaries by the far-right Trumpists (or whatever they’d be called) — and vice-versa. In turn, voters also come to see politics as a series of compromises that produce optimal solutions in aggregate, instead of a cosmic contest against livelihood-threatening opponents that must be fought off.
(NB: As a bonus, switching to state-level districts also gets rid of partisan gerrymandering, which has its own benefits.)
Now, I acknowledge this is not particularly likely. But the good news is that Congress has the power to change the way their members are elected — via at-large districts with ranked-choice voting or what-have-you — literally tomorrow. That means it is substantially easier than my next proposal….
II. Nuke the filibuster and add many new states, or amend the Senate’s role in the Constitution
If we acknowledge that the problems in the Senate are two-fold — that the filibuster violates majoritarian legislative criteria and that state-level membership produces partisan malapportionment that violates majoritarian democratic principles — then the solutions are relatively straightforward. Note that I will be setting aside the argument that we should just get rid of the Senate entirely because that level of unrealistic wishcasting is not very constructive.
I see two paths to reforming the Senate. First, the filibuster ought to go. It is not in the original design of the Senate and imposes an unreasonable anti-democratic (and anti-republican!) burden on the majority. The word “unreasonable” is key to some scholars’ interpretations that the filibuster itself is unconstitutional, as it deprives the majority of voters of representation in their republic. In sum, there is a strong theoretical basis for getting rid of it.
Nuking the filibuster is relatively easy — it would take just a majority of Senators to vote on the rules change to scrap it — and has several advantages beyond restoring the constitutionality of the body. Above all, it allows the policies Americans voted for in the last election to actually happen, which means voters get to observe the impacts of their votes and assess whether they have gone too far. The idea here is that when nothing happens in the Senate, it is hard to hold leaders accountable for actions.
Nuking the filibuster would also pave the way for various pro-democracy bills to pass Congress, such as the Freedom To Vote Act or John Lewis Voting Right Act. This is a key benefit over the status quo, where a minority anti-democracy party can use the filibuster to prevent reforms that level the playing field.
Getting rid of the supermajority requirement for most legislation won’t fix all of our problems, to be sure. The bigger issue in the Senate is that it is a counter-majoritarian, geography-based system of representation that systematically deprives urbanites of their proper say in government, and enables the faction that opposes them to wield more power than it ought to. The obvious fix here is to add a bunch of new states to rebalance the Senate by urban-rural population. Statehood should be given to Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. Splitting California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois into three or four new states each would significantly help this problem. A more radical plan is to split all states with more than 8m voters into new states of 4m+ residents each. (I pick 4m because it is the population in the median state.) That would explode the size of the Senate to roughly 170 members, but simultaneously alleviate most of the demographic and geographic biases the chamber has today — a worthy tradeoff.
Another path to reform is to target the consequences of malapportionment, rather than the imbalance itself. Reformers could push to amend the Constitution to hand more power over to the House. I’m imagining a bottom-up mobilization of voters to strip the Senate of its advice and consent for judicial and executive offices and hand those powers to the (now proportional!) House. That would be easier accomplished than abolishing the chamber outright or adding 35 states. Some reformers also propose stripping the Senate of most or all of its powers and instead just giving it a legislative veto, where a 2/3rds or 3/4ths majority vote would send any legislation back to the House. The House could override the Senate’s veto with its own 2/3rds majority. This would put the chamber on a similar footing as the House of Lords in the UK, which was itself heavily reformed in the late 1900s.
III. Trickle-down democracy
I believe reforming the electoral systems of the US House and Senate would go a long way to fixing what ails our national political discourse. Removing the electoral incentives for radicalization in general and anti-democratic legislation, in particular, ought to be the chief focus of serious reformers today.
Yet the United States is just that — a union of states. And targeting problems only at the national level leaves open the opportunity for many vulnerabilities at the state level to spill over to other states, or the national discourse. So we should also think about how to improve state-level institutions for our collective benefit.
After balancing national institutions, partisan gerrymandering of state legislatures is perhaps the most consequential and underrated threat to democracy today. That’s because voters experience the consequences of representative democracy (or autocracy) at two major levels — national and state. In this way, the fact that many states have house and senate maps that allow bare majorities of voters to control supermajorities of seats presents both an egregious violation of democratic principles and real-world harms to groups that aren’t in the (super)majority. Partisan gerrymandering has also more recently been observed as a precursor to de-facto legislative coups against governors elected by popular majorities, and the prerequisite to partisan control over state elections.
What might be done? A new movement of reformers argues partisan gerrymandering is a violation of the Constitutions Guarantee Clause, which requires the United States federal government to guarantee each state “a republican form of government.” Therein lies a potential path to reform. Interested parties could challenge gerrymandered maps in courts on the grounds that they are depriving a substantial number of voters of their republican representation. Successful litigation could establish that district plans that are extremely biased against voters of one party violate their Constitutional rights, and must be redrawn. (Yet this is only a problem if states don’t all simultaneously adopt OLPR or STV, which is what I’d rather them do.)
IV. The Democratic upswing
Of course, targeting electoral institutions will not solve all of our problems. I wrote in February this year that reform must be cultural, not just political. Changing the way people think about their relationship with each other and their government will be a hard task, but ultimately, if done right, it could establish a patriotic love for more democratic institutions. So it’s worth a few final words on what that might look like.
The political scientist Robert Putnam (famous for his book Bowling Alone) made a good case for a bottom-up cultural-political movement for reforms in his newest book, published late last year. The Upswing (co-authored with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) traces the roots of the early 20th-century movement for a communitarian “we” society to mass mobilizations around individual issues, such as voting rights for women and civil rights for African Americans. The authors emphasize the importance of youth participation and strong moral leadership targeting very specific reforms as their goals.
According to Putnam and Garrett, this study of political history can illuminate how Americas can transform their society from an “I” to a “we” again. It might also be a good lesson for the power of people in groups more broadly. It is a reminder that reforms can only be accomplished if enough people send sustained signals to their leaders about what they want, and hold electorally accountable those who are not delivering.
. . .
To me, in my wishcasting and daydreaming, that’s what the future of American politics really looks like. Whether reform looks like anything on this list or not, ultimately I’d like to see a swelling of support for, and mass mobilization of people who are committed to, democracy and the remaking of American electoral institutions for the better. In the 234-year history of our country, we have come a long way. But there is still a long way to go.
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Links to what I’m reading and writing
Those of you who do programming for a living will know how it is to be working on a lengthy program for a while, especially if it has many moving parts. It consumes your idle thoughts, you constantly visualize the various bits and bobs of the program that interact to produce your product — be it an app, an analysis, an interactive, or what have you.
I am this way when it comes to the programs I write for The Economist, especially our election models. I am working on one right now, with details to come. But needless to say, in my wandering about from day to day over the past few weeks, with the fog of the model clouding other thoughts, I have not done much reading.
On the writing front, please read my latest dispatch for the paper’s US politics newsletter on Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy.” I look at some data on the countries that were invited (many of which are not so democratic!) and on the problems that Biden faces at home.
Thanks for reading
That’s it for this week. Thanks so much for reading. If you have any feedback, you can reach me at this address (or respond directly to this email if you’re reading in your inbox).