How to depolarize a country

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Last week, the Democrats’ voting rights bills went down in flames, defeated by the Senate filibuster and united Republican opposition. While this doesn’t signal the immediate collapse of American democracy as some have lamented, it does mean that, at least for now, Congress will not take action to repair a political system that is barreling toward a crisis.

At times like these, it’s worth taking a step back to reassess things. Just what exactly are the roots of our current democratic decay, and what can we to do fix it?

Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, has a clear answer: transform the way our elections work. In his 2020 book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, Drutman argued that the very nature of a two-party system tends toward extreme polarization and conflict. Because voters and parties are forced into binary choices and competition, they come to see the other side not just as rivals but as enemies. What’s more, two-party systems have a tough time keeping extreme anti-democratic parties — like, say, the modern GOP — out of power.

To break the two-party hammerlock, Drutman proposes changing the way American elections work — to adopt a new system along the lines of what Ireland uses, where there are multiple representatives for each district.

It’s a radical vision for how we do elections and, for the next few years, an inconceivable one. If a Democratic trifecta can’t pass a much more moderate set of voting rights bills, what would take to pass a reform aimed at abolishing the political duopoly wholesale?

What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Drutman, probing both his diagnosis of American democracy’s woes and what it would take for something like his solution to ever come about. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act failed because two Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, were unwilling to part with the filibuster. Doesn’t that make you a little more pessimistic about any kind of big democracy reform? How can you expect the system to get fixed if it can’t deal with an immediate threat staring at us right in the face?

Lee Drutman

I’m pretty convinced that things are going to get worse over the next few years. The question is, do they get better?

There’s a part of me that feels like the only way we get to major structural reform is for the Republicans to win unified government in 2025 and then just overreach incredibly. And that there’s a huge backlash and Democrats are convinced that we need to reform the system and come into Congress and have unified government in 2029, recognizing that they have limited time and pass sweeping reforms. I mean, that’s my optimistic case at this point: that the ’20s will be a decade of decline and then renewal.

There are a lot of structural reasons why I think that is actually quite possible, a lot of them having to do with changing demographics in the youth bulge, as well as the changing politics of climate. But I don’t know things could be bad for a while and we could wind up with a decades-long period of low-level political violence and other broader problems, especially depending on how the climate stuff plays out.

Zack Beauchamp

But when you put it like that, it suggests that the problem isn’t the party system per se.

We’re in agreement that the evolution of the Republican Party has really pushed us in the anti-democratic direction that we’re going. So if that’s the case, then it seems like the drivers of the Republican Party’s changes are primarily longstanding social dynamics in American politics — fundamentally, the conflict over race that has defined the structure and the arc of US history for so long.

And if that’s the case, why would having multiple parties change things so much? I mean, in the 1850s, you had Democrats, Whigs, and Republicans. The Whigs ended up falling apart because they just couldn’t navigate the question of slavery.

The fact that we had three parties for a brief period of time didn’t prevent the Civil War. That was really a conflict about slavery, not the number of parties that we had.

Lee Drutman

Right, fair enough. I think there are two ways that I would think about this in the current system.

One is just a practical challenge. Say you’re a Democrat and you think the Republican Party is incredibly dangerous: a party that’s been taken over by an extreme illiberal faction. Yet Republicans keep winning elections because they’re the default party for the [part] of the country that sees the Democrats as the opposition, or can’t bring themselves to vote for Democrats. So that’s a problem because I don’t see any way in which Democrats win an overwhelming national majority.

But what if there were a center-right party that could get 15 percent of the vote? [They] could align with Democrats to have a supermajority pro-democracy coalition, as you see in many other countries with proportional multi-party systems — Israel being a recent example.

So that’s on the practical side of how you get out of this. And then the other question that I think is worth asking is: Why did the Republican Party go so crazy? And I think a lot of that does have to do with the binary party system.

If you are a plurality of a plurality, as I think the MAGA faction initially was, you can take over one of the two major parties and there’s nowhere else for folks in that party to go — unless they want to join the opposing party. And this binary us-against-them mentality, it creates a political situation in which the Republicans basically had to double down on racist rhetoric because their economic policies were incredibly unpopular. They could do that in a two-party system, because there are only two [options].

Zack Beauchamp

Your proposal for enabling the rise of a multi-party system is a much more radical reform than what the Senate just rejected. The model that you like the best is basically patterned off of Ireland, with two notable features: ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts.

Can you talk about how those would work and why you think they’re desirable in the American context?

Lee Drutman

The Irish system involves multi-member districts: Rather than having a single member represent a single distinct geographical region, you have a much larger geographical region, and then you have [multiple] people represent that region and they’re elected proportionally. In a five-person district, the top five candidates would, after an election, go to Congress.

The Irish use ranked-choice voting as part of that. When you go into the [voting] booth, you rank candidates in order of preference and then candidates are eliminated from the bottom up. That means that you can vote for candidates that you might not think will have a chance, but your vote is not wasted: You get a backup vote. And in practice, that encourages candidates to be a little nicer to each other and work together and build coalitions.

I would note that it’s also the system that Northern Ireland adopted when it finally ended the Troubles and had a peace agreement, because it’s a system that encourages cross-cutting coalitions in tense times. If you look around the world and you look at what constitutional scholars and comparative political scientists say about how to build democracy in a diverse society, the thing that they would absolutely say is the worst, most dangerous thing to do is to have a heavily majoritarian binary system.

Zack Beauchamp

But It’s hard to get Congress to agree on anything, let alone to imagine the two parties coming together and agreeing to vote on for a new electoral system that would make them fracture or even, potentially, collapse.

So even if you’re right that the two-party system is at the root of our problems, and some kind of wholesale reform of how elections work could fix things, how could we plausibly imagine getting from point A to point B?

Lee Drutman

The first thing is that we have to think in terms of individual lawmakers and not in terms of parties. But the parties are really coalitions of groups [and] individual members of Congress. And there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party right now who are pretty unhappy with the direction of the leadership, and there are at least a few people in the Republican Party who are unhappy with the leadership.

So would AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and many of the progressive Democrats rather have their own party, and maybe form a coalition with the moderate Democrats but get to stand on their own? I think so. Might some centrist Republicans wish to run on their own party? I think absolutely.

So if you think in terms of individual members and factions and groups, there’s a potential [for] a lot of folks who are in Congress to say, “Look, this system isn’t working for us. We hate it. And I can get elected under a different system, and I actually might enjoy being a member of Congress more under that other system.”

Zack Beauchamp

In theory, yes. In practice, the problem is that in a hyperpolarized environment, whenever something gets proposed by one party or a member of one party, the people in the other party tend to take a reflexive stand against it.

So let’s take your hypothetical. You start with an AOC-sponsored bill that would change us to an Irish-style system. You can imagine every Republican in Congress running against it on grounds of it’s the far-left radical socialist takeover plan for American democracy. And you can see the reverse happening if Republicans proposed something like this.

It seems like the structure of a two-party system makes it very, very difficult to imagine a world in which individual legislators start thinking as individuals, in the way that you describe, given the partisan identities that get activated in any debate over a legislative proposal to change things.

Lee Drutman

Yes, that is certainly true. I hope that AOC does not introduce this legislation, or at least gets a surprising Republican co-sponsor, for precisely the reason that you suggest.

I think the challenge is really building that broad coalition at the start, in a way that it becomes harder to characterize this as a Democratic or a Republican bill. We’re clearly not there, but maybe we will be, and maybe it means that some states start experimenting with this.

There’s an interesting proposal in Wyoming — a very conservative state. There are some folks in the legislature there who are thinking about using multi-member proportional districts in their legislature. And one of the reasons for that is because the Republican Party in Wyoming is divided. It’s divided between a more classic conservative Liz Cheney wing and a more radical anti-Liz Cheney, pro-MAGA faction.

You see this in a lot of states, or in any city, that are solidly one party. California is an overwhelmingly blue state, but there are divides within the Democratic Party. New York City certainly divides within the Democratic Party, as the primary showed, although the ranked-choice voting made for some interesting coalitions. But the broader challenge is that we’ve got to think in terms of these intraparty factions, think about the coalitions that could emerge, and start building them ahead of time.

Two Senate races I’ll be watching most closely in 2022 are Alaska and Utah: Alaska, because of Lisa Murkowski running under a new system with ranked-choice voting; Utah, because Evan McMullin is trying to run as an independent and he’s going to try to challenge Mike Lee.

Now, the only way Evan McMullin wins is if Democrats basically stand down. And Democrats should stand down and endorse McMullin, because there’s no way a Democrat is going to win statewide in Utah. You could imagine that happening in a couple of states. I mean, there’s no way Democrats are going to win in Missouri or Louisiana, but a moderate independent might win if Democrats stand down. And then you could envision a group of moderate independent center-right folks who could support more transformative legislation.

Now, is that a long shot? Sure. But could it happen? Absolutely.

Zack Beauchamp

I think it’s worth dwelling on the reasons why that could be fairly characterized as a long shot, because it illustrates just how much of a mess we are in, in certain ways.

If you’re a Democrat and you hear Lee Drutman making this argument, I think you’d probably say two things. You say one, we can win in deep red states: We just won in Alabama in 2017. And two, even moderate Republicans now aren’t very helpful for the Democratic agenda.

So if Democrats can’t get Mitt Romney on board on their signature legislation, why would they sacrifice even a long-shot chance of getting another Doug Jones in office in favor of a moderate conservative who’s not going to back any of the things that their voters really care about?

I’m not saying your scenario is unlikely as some kind of gotcha — you’ve already said that it is. Instead, I’m emphasizing this point because it shows the ways in which partisan self-interest so distorts the way that parties and voters think about the world. Even if in the long run, it would be good for American democracy to have a larger moderate Republican faction — and I think it probably would be — it’s very difficult to imagine Democrats being willing to make the kind of sacrifice that you’re describing.

Lee Drutman

You’re getting at this really important dynamic between the short term and the long term. In the short term, we always have to win the next election because if the other side gets total power, they’re going to do awful things. And look: As basically a partisan Democrat, I kind of believe that. If Republicans get total power, they’re going to do some pretty awful things.

But at the same time, if we don’t take some chances and some gambles, we’re going to be stuck in the same cycle. And I think there’s a pretty good chance that Republicans will win at least the next two elections. And so if it’s a long shot for Democrats to win in 2022 and in 2024, then maybe we should just try a bunch of things that could potentially break this doom loop and get us to a better place for the long term. Be willing to take some short-term gambles, because if we keep doing the same thing we’re going to keep winding up in the same place.

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