This is the fifth in a series of opinion pieces on how to fix democracy.
I. The problem
DEMOCRACY HAS always been an imperfect way to govern. But today we are pushing the system to breaking point. It is like expecting a sturdy wooden bridge built for horse carts to carry endless streams of heaving lorries. We need to reform democracy substantially in order to save it. If we do not, the system itself is in danger of collapse and something very dark may take its place.
To buttress democracy, first consider some of the forces breaking it. Self-governance is hard. In America it is especially tough. If it is difficult for five people even to agree on pizza toppings, never mind for 330m people to agree on abortion, guns, involvement in Afghanistan and the top marginal tax rate.
Strikingly, data from Beyond Conflict, an NGO that promotes reconciliation in conflict areas, show that Americans feel “dehumanised” by the opposing party—a sentiment often associated with political violence—at roughly the same level as Israelis and Palestinians viewed each other during the Gaza War in 2014.
Moreover democracy is being asked to deal with policy challenges that have longer time horizons and more complexity than in the past. So the urgency to fix problems can seem less apparent: it is more like termites in the basement than a collapsing roof. Complexity also opens up a space for demagoguery. Beating back Hitler was no easy feat—but the need to do so was easier to explain than why universal health care requires a health insurance mandate.
Many voters are convinced that politicians are selling them out. They have a point. When I ran for Congress in 2009 as a Democratic candidate in Illinois, I went hat-in-hand to rich donors, as all candidates must. After one meeting with a group of private-equity types, one of them pulled me aside and asked how I felt about the “taxation of carried interest”—an arcane policy that lets major investors pay less tax on their earnings.
I told the fellow that income was income, and that “carried interest” ought to be taxed the same way as everyone else’s paycheck, and not as capital gains.
“That’s too bad,” he said, and walked away. He did not write me a cheque. I lost the race.
But at that moment, as I watched him saunter off, I had wanted to call him back and say: “Hey. I’m probably the only candidate in this race who even knows what carried interest is. And this is a private conversation. I could tell you whatever you wanted to hear—and I didn’t. But here’s the thing: I’m right on the economics—carried interest should be taxed as income.”
Voters imagine money buying influence in exchanges like the one I described. (It probably did not help that two of the last four men who held the seat I was running for had been sent to prison for corruption.) But the reality is subtler. It did not matter that I was taught by economists at the University of Chicago and took classes from three Nobel Prize winners. Political issues devolve into protecting one’s niche perks. In this case, some of the wealthiest people in the country cared about one issue: whether they could pay a lower tax rate than the people who make their lattes and mow their lawns. More cunning candidates tolerate this to get into office.
The constant need for fundraising also drives partisanship. Emails with subject-lines like “Help me strike a compromise to bring down the deficit” are certain to remain unopened. But drop into an inbox “The Republicans will end Medicare” or “The Democrats are killing babies” and the contributions will flow, helping to make the partisanship ever more toxic.
Some of the wealthiest people in the country cared about one issue: whether they could pay a lower tax rate than the people who make their lattes and mow their lawns
In this environment, the biggest threat to a candidate is not from an opposition party with a different set of policies but from the extremist end of his or her own party. Hence the rise of the word “primary” as a verb, as in “The Democrats may primary him.” The optimal strategy is ideological purity, even if it means getting nothing done as a legislator.
Now for the really dangerous part: changing demographics have made the electoral college and the Senate increasingly out of sync, as population grows in blue states and wanes in red ones. By 2040 it is possible that roughly 70% of Senate seats will be controlled by 30% of the population. If we are looking for something that can ignite the current partisan tinder, this is it: a prolonged period in which the political will of the majority is thwarted by a minority opposition.
II. The solution
The situation looks bleak. But it need not be. There is a solution, and it is to rebuild the centre ground in American politics. This requires re-engineering our institutions to foster centrism, moderation and compromise—to ensure the bridge can withstand the 21st-century loads asked of it.
There are lots of ways to do this but the two boldest ideas are to create an independent group of centrist legislators to act as the “king makers” to pass legislation, and to implement something called “ranked-choice” voting that would make it harder for candidates on the political extremes to win election. Consider both in turn.
First, the legislators. It is easy to imagine that a bipartisan group of prominent politicians could step aside from their parties, band together, and create a new movement of the centre. I called this the “fulcrum strategy” in my book “The Centrist Manifesto” in 2013, and it is similar to the recent moves by Labour MPs in Britain, now joined by a few Conservatives.
Just a small handful of defections would go a long way to changing America’s political dynamic. It could provide a pragmatic center of gravity, restore a shared political narrative, rebuild the connective tissue between the parties, and place a healthy check on the Trump administration and whoever comes after, in a way that is less partisan than the Democrats today.
Could it happen? Absolutely. Here is what Jeff Flake, a former Republican senator from Arizona said at a conference this month at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “With three or four Rs and three or four Dems, if they come together now, or just about any time—the Senate rarely has more than a three-, four-, five- or six-person majority on either side—you could really change that place. You could create a completely different power structure. And that would be very healthy right now.”
A handful of defections would go a long way to changing America’s political dynamic. It could provide a pragmatic center of gravity
Joel Searby, a political consultant working to rebuild the centre ground of American politics, says there is “high interest” in doing something like this. Mr Searby has met with chiefs of staff for a handful of senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to pitch the fulcrum idea. “They’re taking meetings with me in their Senate offices, and they know exactly what I’m there to talk about,” he says.
Moreover the Senate just got a new member who is less beholden to the political establishment than most: Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 who is also a former governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country. He has been a critic of the president from his own party. Will Mr Romney be the guy to change American politics forever? Or could it be the senator for Maine, Susan Collins? Or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat in a red state? It will only take a few.
The same fulcrum strategy could work at the state level. For all the talk of “red” and “blue” states, the fact is that many state legislatures are as narrowly divided as the Senate, meaning that a mere handful of centrists could band together to restore sanity.
In fact, in Alaska this just happened. After the mid-term election in 2018, a single Republican lawmaker refused to be the 21st vote that would give his party control of the 40-person legislature. Instead, he negotiated a governing coalition of eight Republicans, 15 Democrats and two independents. Committee chairs will be shared across parties and there is an independent speaker of the house.
The public seems receptive to this. After all, the two most popular governors are Republicans in blue states: Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. This suggests that there are politicians able to cross the partisan divide and that voters will embrace them.
Politics needs to evolve with the times like everything else. The Republican Party emerged to deal with the thorny issue of slavery. Emmanuel Macron built a new party in France and captured a parliamentary majority. If economists can count almost 5,000 breakfast cereals in America, why should its citizens settle for just two political parties?
Precedents exist, such as Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party that emerged in 2012. There are also examples of tiny factions that exert outsized influence, such as small, religious parties in Israel and Japan. A centrist faction can play the same role in America.
If economists can count almost 5,000 breakfast cereals, why should citizens settle for just two political parties?
Then there is the issue of voting. There is a powerful change that would be a force for moderation: replace the primary system with a “top four, ranked choice” voting system. Yes, it needs a better name. But it’s the best way to hold elections with multiple candidates.
It works like this: In the first round of voting, the four top vote-getters advance. In the second round, voters rank those four candidates.
If no candidate wins an outright majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Those who voted for that candidate get their second choice instead. And this process of counting the next-best-candidate continues until one person gets a majority.
This system has three huge advantages. First, it minimises partisanship. Candidates would no longer compete to attract support from the most ideological members of their party but from all voters, which would have a moderating influence.
Second, this would create space for new political competition since independents and third parties would no longer present a “spoiler problem”. For example, Ralph Nader would have been eliminated in 2000 after the first round; most of his votes would probably have gone to Al Gore, who then would have become president.
Third, ranked-choice voting also creates an incentive for candidates to behave more civilly because it is important to be many voters’ “second choice”. Maligning other candidates—and all the other nasty tactics of modern elections—would carry a higher price.
Maine has adopted something like ranked-choice voting in general elections (albeit still with primaries to choose general-election candidates). In 2018 a congressman was elected who did not get the most first-choice votes, but was a second choice for many.
Most of our social and political questions are not as zero-sum as partisans suggest. Polls show that the public is more willing to embrace compromise on hard issues than politicians, suggesting that bipartisan leadership could go a long way.
A cultural change is needed around democracy. Last year Unite America, a political organisation that I founded, supported more than 40 independent candidates in races ranging from state legislatures to the governorship of Alaska. The theory of change was that independents could transcend the current partisanship and present a refreshing option for voters.
Nearly all of our endorsed independent candidates lost. The effort to transform democracy has to be bigger and more multifaceted. Nick Troiano, who led Unite America’s election work, argues that democracy can only be saved by “a cultural movement on par with civil rights and marriage equality”.
This sort of cultural change has happened before, notably around capitalism in the early 20th century. The economic winners like Rockefeller and Carnegie are remembered today by the foundations that bear their names. So too, we need a new generation of “political philanthropists”.
Democracy can only be saved by a cultural movement on par with civil rights and marriage equality
Instead of spreading the cash to put their names on libraries and parks, they can donate to politicians who commit to rebuilding the political centre. The reason legislators don’t defect from their party is fear of losing financial support and thus the next election. Political philanthropy could make for braver politicians—and better democratic outcomes.
The political landscape could change quickly. Reforms like the “fulcrum strategy” and “ranked voting” will make it easier for independents and members of new parties to get elected. Public support for both parties is in secular decline. And much of the partisanship is negative partisanship, meaning that party identification is driven mostly by loathing for the other side. A solid majority of Americans say that the country needs a third major political party.
Even partisanship may have a silver lining. The good news about tribalism is that people follow their leaders, and with better leaders we could go to better places. The same forces that turn Republicans against trade, or persuaded Democrats to dig in on immigration, could work in reverse.
And we do not hate each other as much as we think we do. Indeed, the data from Beyond Conflict found that voters believe that members of the other party think worse of them than they actually do. It turns out that we have not dehumanised each other to the same degree as the Palestinians and the Israelis; it only feels that way.
There are four faces on America’s Mount Rushmore monument: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. With democracy under siege, it is worth thinking about each of them.
George Washington was an independent and warned about political “factions” in his farewell address. Thomas Jefferson said the greatest evil was “a Division of the Republic into two great Parties.” Abraham Lincoln was part of the new Republican Party that arose when the two extant parties could not manage the issue of slavery. Teddy Roosevelt made a third run for president with his own “Bull Moose Party.”
What the four leaders carved in stone share is an unease with partisanship, a willingness to challenge political orthodoxy, and an unwavering belief in democracy. Those are the right principles to bear in mind as we look to strengthen the foundations of our system.
Charles Wheelan teaches at Dartmouth College and is co-chairman of Unite America, a political organisation he founded to foster centrism. He is the author of several books on economics and statistics. In 2009 he ran for Congress for Illinois’s 5th District. From 1997 to 2002 he was the Midwest correspondent for TheNewsEditorial.
Also in this series:
Matthew Taylor: Citizen deliberation is the gateway to a better politics
Cass Sunstein: Political savagery makes self-government impossible
Audrey Tang: Inside Taiwan’s new digital democracy
David Cay Johnston: We can beat the real enemies of the people—those who suppress voter turnout