What is Wrong with Us?
Today, as we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his powerful message of nonviolent resistance to injustice, the District of Columbia is on lockdown by police and National Guard troops in response to a mob assault on the Capitol less than two weeks ago. This is not a good look for the United States. Over fifty years after Dr. King was assassinated for having the audacity to challenge racism in America, the whole world is witnessing evidence that racism is still acceptable to millions of us. Moreover, it appears, millions of us do not trust our own democratic elections and many of them believe violence is justified.
An FBI investigation is the easy part of our response to what happened in Washington on January 6. Punishing Trump and his followers who stormed the Capitol is important but it won’t address our real problems. As many others have noted, events of the last five years are merely symptoms of deep divisions in our country — race, class, religion, ideology, geography, sex, age — you name it. How has it come to this, and what can we do about it?
Naturally, every American who accepts Biden as our next President has advice for him. Regardless of what it is, it will not work, because he cannot fix us. We must fix us. Looking to him or any other elected official to unite the warring tribes is a form of insanity, which has been famously defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is what we do. Sixty years after John F. Kennedy asked us what we could do for our country, we are asking more than ever from our government. And instead of recognizing tradeoffs, we seek to “win” each battle or define compromise as borrowing from future generations to avoid making difficult choices. As Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter noted in The Politics Industry, these demands created a market ripe for profit by the duopoly most refer to as our two-party system.
This system, which in the middle of the 20th century actually seemed to encourage compromise, has become a source of conflict. Neither party actually relishes competition; this is why they are so fond of gerrymandering — a neat trick whereby candidates choose their voters. As each side took full advantage of rules that grant control to the party with a majority in the legislature, partisanship flourished. Today, incumbents’ greatest fear is being “primaried” by a challenger in their own party who is typically advocating more extreme policy positions. No wonder we have seen partisanship spiral out of control.
Enter Donald Trump, demagogue extraordinaire, who won the highest office in our land and managed to stay in office for a full term only because of the moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party. Prospects for him and for the GOP are not good. However, it is not reasonable to expect conservatives to respond with enthusiasm to calls for unity by Joe Biden. He has promised to be a leader for all Americans, regardless of whether we voted for him, and he deserves a chance to deliver on that promise. However, he is a lifelong Democrat who will face enormous pressure by the party to seize Executive and Legislative power. He will find it impossible to please members of either party because just as Obama found, he is always doing either too much or too little about everything.
The way out of this mess is not to bring “both sides” together but rather to get rid of the sides. Biden will probably appoint a bipartisan commission to study why we’re so divided. Nothing will come of it, primarily because if there is anything we can expect of a bipartisan commission, it is agreement to protect the system that grants power to the two parties. In addition, coping with the battered economy and public health challenges alone would be enough for any Administration, but Biden has inherited many more. Democrats are chomping at the bit to reverse perceived damage, enact a long list of policy priorities, and of course gain as many seats as possible in the next election. The last thing they want now is election reforms that introduce uncertainty and reduce their control. Yet that’s our only hope to escape the doom loop created by our party-oriented system.
Election reforms that break up the duopoly are necessary but not sufficient to fix what ails us. Politicians (and the media, and our friends and relatives) have become all too willing to tell us what we want to hear, and the proliferation of options via technology has allowed us to exclude others. Most of us have chosen a story that resonates and indulged in fantasy that it’s true and other stories are false. The only way out is for us to create new stories together through inclusive dialogue.
If you are proud of what has happened or anxious for revenge, or if you fear change more than you fear escalation of partisanship, it’s remarkable that you are still reading this. If you have never paid much attention to political science, now is a good time to start. In a nutshell, our system created extreme partisanship because we outsource primary elections to the parties and effectively force a vote between two candidates. Especially in states with electoral districts that aren’t competitive, election results are determined in primaries that may exclude voters who do not choose to register as members of the party. This effectively disenfranchises Independents and pulls candidates toward extreme views.
Primaries are paid for by states and should be open to all voters. Moreover, no one should be forced to join a political party to exercise their vote. A single primary that selects multiple candidates to advance to the general election would allow all voters to participate and lead to selection of candidates with broad appeal. Another important reform is changing the way we count the votes. Instead of “one person, one vote” (Plurality method), which often leads to a vote for the lesser of two evils, we could pick several we find acceptable (Approval method) or even rank our choices (Ranked Choice method). Like the open primary, either alternative would give candidates an incentive to appeal to all voters and not just focus on members of their own party.
A third reform addresses the disconnect between the popular vote for President and the Electoral College tally. Almost all states assign 100 percent of their votes to a single candidate. This is why a few thousand votes (out of millions) can swing an election and a disproportionate amount of campaign time and money is spent in a few “battleground” states. Every state should allocate its electoral votes proportionally.
These are simple reforms that will change election dynamics and generate constructive conversations. But make no mistake; it will take many of us years to adjust, and none of it will happen without a fight (peaceful, of course). Actually, it will take precisely 50 fights, because each state makes its own rules on how voters are registered, how candidates are selected, how electoral boundaries are established, and how votes are cast and counted. Legislatures also determine whether citizens can put questions on the ballot (initiatives and referenda).
If you are fed up with the state of our union and interested in learning more, read The Politics Industry and visit this state-by-state resource hosted by Open Primaries. For information on the growing Independent movement in politics, see IndependentVoting.org. To learn about the impressive number of diverse organizations that have recognized the need for more civil discourse, check out Fix US. And if you are so inclined, pray.