Our Political Reality

Voting ourselves out of this mess is not so easy

In reading James Joyner’s post, The Leaderless GOP, and especially the comment thread therewith, I am struck by the convergence of a lot of factors that I frequently write about. Instead of trying to sort through that thread, let me note:

  1. Our parties are non-hierarchical. There is no central control over the label or nominations. The brand, therefore, is open to capture.
  2. Being non-hierarchical means trying to control the brand leads to a massive coordination/collective action problem. It was the GOP’s inability to coordinate that lead to Trump’s nomination in 2016 and is what is currently making it difficult for McCarthy and company to know what to do with MTG and such. (Parties can sometimes manage to coordinate, but it is hard. An example was the Democratic Party effectively coalescing around Biden for the nomination).
  3. The degree to which there is a head of the party, it is the presidential candidate, and especially an elected president. The degree to which this person can influence nominations (i.e., legislative primaries) the more influence they have over the party.
  4. The primary process disincentivizes third party formation (which I described in detail here not that long ago).
  5. The electoral rules mitigate against third party victories–it is just the basic math of it all: beating two opponents is harder than beating one (especially given the number of safe districts out there).
  6. The reality is: people have to choose between two parties that have a chance to win and they will vote according to that fact. (It is what Lee Drutman calls a “doom loop“). You can tell yourself that this isn’t true, or that there are possible pathways to multipartism, but the confluence of factors, of which I write about incessantly, make those pathways all but impossible.
  7. Hence, the desire for electoral reform or just any possible reforms that we might can get.
  8. There is support in the US public for at least four parties (as Jack Santucci notes, There are (at least) two “lefts” and two “rights”). The problem is, our system makes us choose between only two.
  9. The general unrepresentative nature of the system is the key problem.

I have hit the point, after a lot of time thinking about the dilemma that is US politics, where it is clear that voting ourselves out of this mess is not so easy (and seemingly impossible at the moment). The Senate is biased towards inaction and is not at all representative of the population. The House mostly consists of non-competitive seats (and is too small). The presidency, due to the Electoral College, can give the office to the candidate who wins less support and can, as we saw this year, turn a clear victory of over 7 million votes into a set of discrete debates about this state and that.

Part of why I go on and on (and on) about reform, and especially electoral reform, is because I don’t see a way out of these problems via the normal routes. Competitive pressure is what is needed to force politicians (both individually and in groups) to change behavior. If they are elected predominantly in basically fixed contests and/or where voters are basically forced to choose between only two viable options, where do those pressures come from?

So, as was noted in the discussion thread of James’ post, where do the ex-Republicans go? Some will vote Democratic. Others will eventually find themselves back voting R (while telling themselves that they are “independents”) because the D option is unpalatable. Or they will abstain (which only matters if done in huge numbers, and asymmetrically, i.e., a lot of Rs just stop voting).

And while policy ought to be the way to entice voters to a given party, if policy is nearly impossible to pass, then how is that supposed to work?

Along those lines, this Tweet comes to mind:

Indeed. But how do you pass the things that people want if the minority party in the Senate can block most of those things?

And on and on and on.

(And enough for now).

Some other relevant posts that come to mind:

Matthew Shugart: Presidentialization is still a thing

From me:

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Democratic Theory, Electoral Systems, US Politics, Voting
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    I have hit the point, after a lot of time thinking about the dilemma that is US politics, where it is clear that voting ourselves out of this mess is not so easy (and seemingly impossible at the moment).

    That clearly seems to be the case.

    Part of why I go on and on (and on) about reform, and especially electoral reform, is because I don’t see a way out of these problems via the normal routes.

    The problem is that electoral reform is an especially difficult method of “voting ourselves out of this mess.” Much more difficult than normal voting since it requires supermajorities.

    And that’s the main reason why I don’t put any hope in national electoral reform and prefer efforts in areas with a more realistic chance for some success.

    We have our long-standing disagreements on this, but I do wonder if we are on the Titanic debating whether a solo cup or a beer stein is better for bailing water.

    3
  2. Joe says:

    where do those pressures come from?

    Donning horns and fur and marching into the Capitol. That’s what I hear.

    1
  3. Slugger says:

    Excellent posting with much for all of us to think about. Not saying that I agree with everything…

  4. steve says:

    I have been pretty pessimistic about our politics for quite a while. It has become entirely tribal and our system reinforces that. Add in social media and I dont see a good way out of this. Electoral reform? No one in Congress will support that if it means they might lose.

    Steve

    4
  5. @Andy:

    And that’s the main reason why I don’t put any hope in national electoral reform and prefer efforts in areas with a more realistic chance for some success.

    There are reforms that Democrats could put in place now, and I don’t even mean the more dramatic ones, if they would do away with the legislative filibuster and act.

    But if they pretend like we can get there some other way, they are wrong.

    And I want to convince anyone who will listen that this is the case.

    Just continuing down the path we are on and fantasizing about just defeating the crazy at the ballot box (which is extremely hard for reasons noted above) or some third party option (ditto) is harder than reform in my view.

    We can talk all day long about how the GOP is a mess, has no leader, etc., and that won’t stop the fact that they have a really, really good chance of recapturing the Congress in two years.

    7
  6. @steve: I agree it is hard. But I would also note that via links to other things I have written, electoral reform are not the only reforms that I have suggested. Some, like adding states, are hard but more doable.

    And, as I repeatedly note, change can only have a chance if we talk about them, think about them, and gather support for them.

    Cancer treatment is hard, but it can save your life.

    6
  7. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Just out of curiosity, what would a viable roadmap for reform look like?

    Which concrete steps to take first, etc.?

    1
  8. gVOR08 says:

    Structural reform is necessary, but our root problems are:
    – Essentially unlimited money has corrupted politics and governance.
    – Half the country is delusional because of FOX “News” and the like.

    6
  9. Mikey says:

    I have pretty much lost all hope at this point. When a President can fail as spectacularly and murderously as Trump did and still get 75,000,000 votes, America is done. There is simply no way forward for a country where nearly half the voters support that combination of incompetence and evil. Certainly there’s no possibility whatsoever of any meaningful reform when the representative legislature is not actually representative.

    I agree with Andy’s analogy above: we’re the Titanic, and we’re arguing over the size of the cup we should use to bail out the water.

    4
  10. Kingdaddy says:

    @drj: I don’t know if it’s the easiest step, but gerrymandering by far gets my vote for what I’d like to see reformed first. Politicians choosing their voters is, on principle, deeply wrong. It’s as obvious a way to prop up incumbents as the rotten boroughs were in the British political system. Republicans have used it disproportionately to disenfranchise non-white citizens. And it is conspicuously ridiculous, a symbol of the indifference of our political system to necessary change, and the corruption of democratic ideals.

    4
  11. Kingdaddy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Thanks for writing this post, in part because it saves me at least one follow-on from what I wrote yesterday. Our political system has many virtues, but right now, it stands in the way of some important changes during a crisis of democracy. For example, the radicalization of Republicans isn’t a surprise. If the incentives are for you to stay with one of two parties, you’ll spend a lot of time nowadays interacting with people who have some pretty absolutist and reactionary ideas. You’ll learn to live with them, or even over time agree with them, if you can’t imagine flipping to the alternative. The two party system has created a hothouse of radicalization.

    2
  12. drj says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    I don’t know if it’s the easiest step, but gerrymandering by far gets my vote for what I’d like to see reformed first.

    I totally agree. But the question remains how viable this is without prior reforms.

    I’d say a new Voting Rights Act would be needed first. But you probably can’t get there without getting rid of the legislative filibuster. Of course, the Roberts Court would never let a new VRA stand. So you’d also need to expand the Supreme Court.

    So where, exactly, do you start? What would an actual roadmap look like?

  13. Mikey says:

    @drj: The filibuster would be the easiest and quickest. Kill it tomorrow. Then pass the new VRA. While it winds its way through the inevitable GOP court challenges on its way up to SCOTUS, there will be time to expand SCOTUS and seat a couple of the most liberal judges in America (bonus points if their confirmation hearings last an hour before the 50 Democratic Senators and VP Harris vote to confirm).

    Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Also never gonna happen, but a man can dream.

    1
  14. mattbernius says:

    It’s implied in the post, but I think it’s also really important to note that we as a nation tend to arguably focus too much attention on Federal Office and miss the critical role of State Legislatures in creating the conditions that led to what’s happening on the Federal Level.

    I’d argue that the seeds of all of this are heavily tied to the Republicans taking over multiple state governments in the early 2000’s and the tweaking of election rules at the state level (leading to increasingly unrepresentative systems).

    9
  15. Mikey says:

    @mattbernius:

    I’d argue that the seeds of all of this are heavily tied to the Republicans taking over multiple state governments in the early 2000’s and the tweaking of election rules at the state level (leading to increasingly unrepresentative systems).

    Specifically starting in 2010 with “Project REDMAP.”

    ‘Gerrymandering On Steroids’: How Republicans Stacked The Nation’s Statehouses

    It was never a secret. In 2010, the conservative political strategist Karl Rove took to the Wall Street Journal and laid out a plan to win majorities in state legislatures across the country.

    “He who controls redistricting can control Congress,” read the subhead to Rove’s column.

    The plan, which its architects dubbed REDMAP for Redistricting Majority Project, hinged on the fact that states redraw their electoral maps every 10 years according to new Census data. REDMAP targeted states where just a few statehouse seats could shift the balance to Republican control in the crucial Census year of 2010.

    That plan worked spectacularly. It’s why today Republicans have a majority in nearly two-thirds of the country’s state legislative chambers. And it’s why in 2012 Democratic statehouse candidates won 51 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, which voted for Barack Obama in the presidential election, yet those candidates ended up with only 28 percent of the seats in the legislature.

    3
  16. Rob Harris says:

    Thank you for this concise piece. If significant reform is possible it could start at the smaller State level. Maine has adopted ranked choice voting. Alaska has a top 4 primary and ranked choice voting. Washington and California have top 2 primary.
    I believe all of these reforms were done through ballot measures, not Legislators.
    That, I think is the path. Ballot measures in smaller states forcing reforms one at a time. Eventually office holders elected under these reformed rules become federal officials and less fearful of the changes.

    5
  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey: Indeed. Ending the filibuster would be a good first step. The arguments against ending it are tradition and that we may want to block future GOP actions.

    As to tradition (cue Tevye), let’s respect the wisdom of the Founders and put it back to the way they did it. There’s nothing in the Constitution and the original Senate rules allowed a motion to cut off debate and move the question by simple majority. And the filibuster wasn’t added to the rules because it was found necessary, it just sort of happened.

    As to future use, there is an asymmetry, Hacker and Pierson’s “drift”. The comfortable are content to leave things as they are, they can be “conservative”. They don’t need anything from government. It’s us uncomfortable liberals who want the government to do stuff. Yes, there would be occasions we’d regret giving up the filibuster, but on balance losing it would be to our advantage. Historically it’s been used mostly by GOPs and Dixiecrats to block good stuff.

    Kill it. If the GOPs really think it’s necessary they can put it back next time they’re in charge.

    2
  18. Kathy says:

    @mattbernius:

    It’s implied in the post, but I think it’s also really important to note that we as a nation tend to arguably focus too much attention on Federal Office and miss the critical role of State Legislatures in creating the conditions that led to what’s happening on the Federal Level.

    Emphasis added.

    This cannot be stressed enough.

    Gerrymandering reforms have been carried out at the state level in places like Arizona and California. mostly they’ve worked. Further electoral reforms can take place. The Constitution delegates tot he states the manner in which Representatives are elected. This can be used to reform the first-past-the-post system, on a piecemeal state-by-state basis. Other reforms are possible as well.

    At the federal level, let’s concentrate on what can be done only at that level: adding states, reforming the courts, etc.

  19. Filibuster post coming later today, in fact.

  20. Kingdaddy says:

    @mattbernius: Agree enthusiastically. Weirdly, the closer politics gets to individuals, the less voters know about it, even though the government actions involved (fixing potholes, etc.) are often more directly relevant to their lives. People know who AOC and MTG are, even though they don’t represent them, but they don’t necessarily know who their own mayor is. And, as @mattbernius said, Republicans have been making huge gains in these blindspots for decades.

    3
  21. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    A lot of the ignorance about local and even state issues is a result of the death of local media. There’s no local paper of radio station covering the city council meetings and looking into neighborhood issues. In larger markets, the TV stations are no longer locally owned and often have national political agendas. Then there is the problem of cable news…

    3
  22. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    There’s no local paper of radio station covering the city council meetings and looking into neighborhood issues.

    I’m the guy doing that.

  23. Scott F. says:

    I’d only note that the political reality you accurately describe is not new. All the conditions (1-9) have been our reality for decades at least, though it is true that some of these conditions may be trending in a worsening direction.

    Now I may be naive, but I’m convinced this moment in political time is new. Trumpism has exposed the downsides of these conditions in ways that is driving new conversations and activating people in unprecedented ways. Voter turnout for the 2020 election was the highest it has been in over a hundred years.

    The question is what happens now with the dysfunction laid bare and the people participating with their votes. Biden will pass some part of his agenda and some of it will be blocked. How this plays out – the degree to which Biden’s agenda is seen to make people’s lives better, who gets blamed for the obstructed work – I expect to tip the balance. It could go either way – more authorianism is as likely as more democracy – but something’s got to give. These conditions and the way they are trending can’t be sustained.

    2
  24. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Then you are a rare one and a vanishing breed.

    2
  25. @Scott F.: Many of the underlying issues are not new. But we are experiencing the results of a number of long term trends, such as:

    1. The fact that we have over tripled the population since we set the House size at 435.
    2. The sorting of the parties into purer entities (from an ideological POV). It is a long-term issue, but the real start of the current trend was the 1994 election.
    3. The population disparities in the Senate and EC are simply coming to the point of crisis.
    4. The usage of computers to maximize gerrymandering is less than 20 years old.

    That is just some key issues off the top of my head.

    It takes time for these problems to become manifest.

    Note that I have been writing about some of this stuff here at OTB for over a decade and I would argue that I have been demonstrated to be correct in my concerns. And I think it is only going to get worse.

    2
  26. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Then you are a rare one and a vanishing breed.

    Of this, I am quite aware. And… I’m doing it for no money (I might sell one or two ads a year–that basically keeps the lights on).

    Including the weekly column about the Ice Age Trail (written by one of the people from the group), I put out 4-12 articles a week (usually about 6). A lot of them are (clearly-labeled) press releases.

    However, I do go to the Common Council meeting for the city* and report on stuff. Now that everything is on Zoom, it’s easy to sit at home with a glass of scotch and “attend” the meeting. Most of the stuff is pretty low-key, but it’s good to get the news out.

    I’m currently working on a long-form story about the big scandal in our school district–the selling of the old primary school to a developer for $1k. That happened 2 years ago and people are still pissed off. There’s a lot of information I’m getting from area residents. It’s not Watergate, but this is important news for our little area.

    I’ve also gotten in to live-streaming. The mayor does a bi-weekly stream (that I produce and publish), and I do a semi-irregular live stream of my own. I’ve sat down with town council members, school district administrators, and business leaders.

    And I have random people stop me on the street to tell me how much they appreciate what I’m doing.

    And… in the year and a half I’ve been doing this, it seems like the “real” newspaper (owned by a conglomerate with “local” offices in a completely different city) has started doing a little bit more to report what’s going on.

    * My coverage includes a city (3k), 3 towns, and a village (totaling another 3k).

    1
  27. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    There are reforms that Democrats could put in place now, and I don’t even mean the more dramatic ones, if they would do away with the legislative filibuster and act.

    But if they pretend like we can get there some other way, they are wrong.

    And I want to convince anyone who will listen that this is the case.

    I have no particular love for the filibuster, but the logic of that argument doesn’t make sense to me. How does getting rid of the legislative filibuster improve anything? Is our judiciary and judicial nomination process stronger and better thanks to ending the filibuster there? I think the answer to that is clearly no. I don’t see how getting rid of the legislative filibuster will be any different.

    We can talk all day long about how the GOP is a mess, has no leader, etc., and that won’t stop the fact that they have a really, really good chance of recapturing the Congress in two years.

    Which is another reason to question getting rid of the legislative filibuster. If the crazy party has a structural advantage in the Senate, then it doesn’t make much sense to me to open up an avenue that is likely to benefit the crazy party more over the long term. It doesn’t make sense from either a purely Democratic partisan perspective nor a more general reform perspective. Consider, for example, what the GoP and Trump might have done during his first two years in office when the GoP controlled both houses.

    Just continuing down the path we are on and fantasizing about just defeating the crazy at the ballot box (which is extremely hard for reasons noted above) or some third party option (ditto) is harder than reform in my view.

    I agree with you on the third party – it’s a fantasy. I don’t see an alternative to defeating the GoP crazy at the ballot box. Sure it’s hard. No one is denying that. But to me it is, in relative terms, a lot easier than reforms which require 2/3 of both houses plus approval by 38 state legislatures.

    There’s also a sequencing issue here. Unless Democrats can become a supermajority party and do this on their own (leaving aside the assumption that they’d be interested), any of your reform proposals are going to need Republican support. And the only way that support is going to materialize is for the GoP to become a mainstream party again. And the only way that is going to happen is if Republicans, generally, fight to make that happen in primaries and at the ballot box.

  28. mattbernius says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    Weirdly, the closer politics gets to individuals, the less voters know about it, even though the government actions involved (fixing potholes, etc.) are often more directly relevant to their lives.

    Seconding what @Sleeping Dog this really is a byproduct of the death of local media. Margaret Sullivan’s book from last year, Ghosting the News, does an amazing job of sketching out the role that new deserts have played in shifting the attention to national politics at the detriment of local engagement.

  29. mattbernius says:

    Also big kudos to @Mu Yixiao on the citizen journalism work! That’s a really important civic duty.

    4
  30. Kingdaddy says:

    @Sleeping Dog: While the decline of local papers may have worsened the problem, the invisibility of local, county, and state government isn’t new. Especially in suburbia.

    2
  31. Andy says:

    @Kingdaddy:

    While the decline of local papers may have worsened the problem, the invisibility of local, county, and state government isn’t new.

    I still don’t understand why so many people do not take a greater interest in state and local politics. Part of it I think is the terrible state of civics education and part is that national politics has become a spectator sport. I tend to think the decline of local news is more an effect than a cause.

    I’m also continually amazed at the number of people I know who frequently complain about their representation in state and national legislatures, yet have never once contacted their representative, nor spend much time educating themselves before voting.

    I supposed the famous HL Mencken quote is appropriate here: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

  32. Mister Bluster says:

    @Sleeping Dog:..A lot of the ignorance about local and even state issues is a result of the death of local media. There’s no local paper of radio station covering the city council meetings and looking into neighborhood issues.

    Citizens living in Southern Illinois can get their fix of local and state news and information by tuning to WJPF-AM 1340 from 6-9am M-F. While the station is owned by MAX Media and syndicates the usual right wing gasbags all day long the WJPF Morning Newswatch originates from studios in Crainville IL and is anchored by lifelong resident Tom Miller. His live on air interviews include state and local elected officials of all stripes and business leaders from the Williamson Jackson Perry and Franklin county markets.

    Two weekly newspapers that I deliver, The Carbondale Times and The Murphysboro Times are published locally by The Southern Illinois Media Group which is owned by Paddock Publications. Both sheets cover local city council meetings and school events as well as feature dispatches from the State Capitol in Springfield.
    These two papers are free and are supported solely by advertising.

  33. Mister Bluster says:

    I just spent 40 minutes composing a comment complete with 3 links.
    I posted it once and saw a mistake I needed to correct.
    Since there was no EDIT function I reloaded the page and sure enough the EDIT function appeared and I made the correction and reposted.
    I proofed the item one more time found another error and corrected it.
    Now, suddenly the entire comment has vanished.
    No error notice.
    No “looks like you’ve said this before” notice.
    No comment purgatory notice.
    Just gone.

  34. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    There’s a 2-link limit. 3 links pops it into moderation. It’ll show up when approved.

  35. Mister Bluster says:

    @Sleeping Dog:..A lot of the ignorance about local and even state issues is a result of the death of local media. There’s no local paper of radio station covering the city council meetings and looking into neighborhood issues.

    Citizens here in Southern Illinois can tune in to WJPF-AM 1340 6-9am M-F and catch theWJPF Morning Newswatch. The Station is owned by Max Media and syndicates right wing gasbags all day long however Newswatch originates out of WJPF local studios in Crainville IL. Host Tom Miller is a lifelong resident of the area and interviews local and state public officials and business owners in the Williamson Jackson Perry and Franklin county market on a daily basis.

    Two local newspapers that I deliver The Carbondale Times and The Murphysboro Times are owned by The Southern Illinois Local Media Group which is owned by Paddock Publications. They are published at the Carbondale Times office in Carbondale IL and feature items covering local City Council meetings and dispatches from the State Capitol in Springfield.
    The sheets are free and supported solely by advertising.

    1
  36. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mu Yixiao:..There’s a 2-link limit.

    Obviously I am not being clear about the sequence of events.

    1. My comment successfully posted with 3 links. I saw it and clicked on all three links to test them. They all worked.
    2. I corrected a typo and reposted. I saw the comment again.
    3. I then made a second edit and when I hit save the comment vanished.

    Every time I have been sent to moderation for whatever reason I see a message.
    “You have been sent to moderation.”
    There was no message.

    I have posted comments with 3 links in the past.
    I will try it again.

    Link One: Trains

    Link Two: Planes

    Link Three: Automobiles

    Will the moderator please check and see if I have a comment in moderation.

  37. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Ah the joys of the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t, EDIT function. I know the feeling, MB.

    1
  38. Mister Bluster says:

    My comment at 15:51 is an attempt to duplicate the earlier comment that vanished.

    “Ah the joys of the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t, EDIT function.”

    I appreciate your commiseration IT. However I realize that since I have managed to remain Covid free at the age of 73 I should quit whining!

    2
  39. @Mister Bluster: There was one in moderation. I have freed it.

  40. Mister Bluster says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:..There was one in moderation. I have freed it.

    Thank you.

  41. charon says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    There’s a 2-link limit. 3 links pops it into moderation. It’ll show up when approved.

    I have put up lots of posts with 3 links no problem. Maybe it depends on type of link and where it is – for example within a blockquote.

  42. Jack S. says:

    My one observation is that anti-party reform is very much on the table, and its proponents are dragging along those who would like to see more parties. I’m not sure what can be done about this. One option is to drop reform entirely, but even if that were desirable, I don’t see it happening.

  43. Mister Bluster says:

    @charon:..Maybe it depends on type of link and where it is – for example within a blockquote.

    I’m going to attempt a test for this hypothesis.

    Link 1 Apples
    Link 2 Peaches
    Link 3 Pumpkin Pie

    Edit: Must be something else.

  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: *(not a challenge, just a question) And you have what percentage of the population of a zone as large as a state legislative district reading you? (FTR, there are 3 legislative districts overlapping the town of 12000 that I live in).

  45. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Hadn’t read far enough down thread. Thanks for the answer. Very small cohort.

  46. Mister Bluster says:

    Looks like a good way to get snagged into moderation without notice is to use the EDIT function.
    Will the moderator please check to see if I’ve been grabbed again?
    Thank You in advance.