The world is facing a gathering crisis of liberal democracy. As I argued here last month, freedom and democracy have been retreating in many countries, including in Europe. Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are pushing anti-democratic values with increasing energy, resourcefulness, and determination. If they succeed, the world will be a very different place—and for the United States, a more hostile one.
The United States and its liberal democratic allies must develop a new global strategy to counter the power projection of expansive autocracies, and to reboot an international campaign to promote democratic values and ideas. But we also need to renew the core of what we are fighting for: the worth of our own democracy.
The problems with our democracy—ever-deepening polarization, incivility, gridlock, dysfunction, conflicts of interest, and disregard for democratic norms—are not just problems of political culture and behavior. Politicians are driven by incentives, especially the desire to get re-elected. Institutions heavily shape these incentives, and our institutions are in need of reform. Unless we reform our democracy, we will be increasingly hard-pressed to improve the health of democracy globally.
The reform agenda for American democracy is a long one. It must include measures to reduce the implicit corruption in our systems of lobbying and campaign finance, and to eliminate the grotesque unfairness of partisan gerrymandering. But we must also address other factors that have reduced our politics to a wasteland of bitter, uncompromising partisan polarization. To a degree not seen in more than a century, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill now operate in incompatible ideological corners, with virtually no common ground or willingness to compromise. As a result, legislative and confirmation battles, not to mention elections, have become zero-sum struggles in which anything goes and the only aim is total victory. Since 1947, the voting record of the average Republican in Congress has moved dramatically to the right, the average Democratic voting record has moved less dramatically but still significantly to the left, and (not coincidentally) the average number of bills passed per Congress has dropped by about two-thirds.
Among the mass public, people are sorting themselves into partisan and ideological tribes. The percentage of Democrats and Republicans with a “very unfavorable” view of the other party has roughly tripled since 1994, to about 45 percent. Fewer and fewer party identifiers socialize with, or even live among, people with different partisan and ideological views. And in recent years, social media have put this sorting process on steroids, with the predictable consequences for tolerance of opposing points of view.
Social and cultural drivers of this process admit of no easy fix. But we can change the perverse institutional incentives. A key factor pulling the parties to the extremes is our electoral system, which nominates candidates in low-turnout party primaries and then elects them in November through “first past the post” voting (in which whoever gets the most votes wins, even if it is far from a majority).
There is a clear step pattern in the polarization problem. Congress is much more polarized than the people. And among the people, the politically engaged are much more ideologically polarized than the general public. But it is the politically engaged who turn out to vote in party primaries. They increasingly punish incumbents too ready to compromise with the other side, or candidates (incumbent or not) who lean toward moderation. Consider Richard Lugar and Robert Bennett, two highly respected conservative senators who were defeated some years ago by more radical conservatives in low-turnout Republican primaries (or in Bennett’s case, an even more narrowly based party convention). Or consider Eric Cantor, the former Republican House Speaker in waiting. Despite Cantor’s staunchly conservative voting record, he was defeated for re-nomination in 2014 by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat, who had accused Cantor of being soft on immigration.
With these grimly polarizing trends in mind, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a principled (but for this day and age, distinctly quaint) conservative, took to the Senate floor on October 24 to announce that he would not run next year for a second term. This followed a similar announcement by Senator Bob Corker, the mainstream Tennessee conservative who followed in Lugar’s footsteps as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Neither Flake nor Corker buys into the nativist, slash-and-burn politics of the Tea Party and the ascendant Trump-Bannon wing of the Republican Party.
In one of the most eloquent and important speeches in recent Senate history, Flake decried the “indecency of our discourse” and the “coarseness of our leadership.” Liberated from a Republican primary battle he seemed likely to lose and clearly alluding to President Trump, Flake denounced the “casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals.” Corker sounded similar themes, condemning Trump for a pattern of instability, enmity, and deceit that is debasing our democracy.
The dilemma faced by Flake and Corker is placing more and more members of Congress in a partisan and ideological straitjacket. Flake won the 2012 Republican nomination in a primary that drew about a sixth of registered voters, with Arizona’s Democratic primary drawing only another 12 percent. By contrast, Arizona’s 2012 general election drew 74 percent of registered voters. When only a small fraction of a state’s voters bother to turn out in the primaries, they tend to be the most ideologically committed. If the 2018 Arizona primary turnout is the same as in 2012, less than ten percent of the state’s voters will determine the Republican nominee for Senate.
There are antidotes to this damaging distortion of our electoral process. One is to make primaries open to independents and even voters of other parties. Another is to move primary elections closer to the general election, when voter interest is greater. These fixes might help at the margins to mitigate the current polarizing trends, though in the case of Arizona, primaries are already open to independents and occur relatively late in the summer.
The most promising change is ranked choice voting, sometimes called “the instant runoff.” Imagine that Arizona’s voters had serious options beyond a Democrat and a Republican, and that instead of voting for a single Senate candidate in the general election, voters could rank their choices one, two, three, and so on. Under ranked choice voting, if no candidate gets a majority of first place votes, the candidate with the lowest number of such votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to their voters’ second choices. The process continues until someone gets a majority or a final-round plurality. The instant run-off has the potential to lower the temperature of political polarization, by enabling voters to opt for an independent or third-party candidate without fear that in doing so they will “waste” their vote and thus help elect the candidate they dislike the most.
What if Arizona had ranked choice voting? Flake could have made his clarion call on the Senate floor and then announced that he was running as an independent. Corker could have done the same in Tennessee. Under ranked choice voting, each might have had a decent chance of winning. Indeed, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski did (just barely) win re-election as an independent in the 2010 general election after losing the Republican primary to a Tea Party candidate. But she had to mount a heroic and improbable write-in campaign because of the “sore loser” rule, which (in 45 states) prevents a candidate from getting on the ballot in the general election if he or she loses a party primary. If states also moved to eliminate this undemocratic rule, incumbents could wage a principled campaign in defense of moderation in the primary, and if they lose, come back to run in the general election as an independent. Joe Lieberman did this in Connecticut after losing the Democratic primary in 2006, and he won as an independent—because Connecticut is one of the few states without a sore loser rule.
There is growing interest in ranked choice voting. It is being used in a number of American cities, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland, Maine. This past November, the voters of Maine approved a citizen’s initiative to implement ranked choice voting for all of the state’s elections beginning in 2018, including primary and general races for governor, state legislature, and the U.S. House and Senate. However, the state’s two political party establishments, including almost all of the Republicans and key leaders of the Democrats, swiftly moved to kill the effort. First, they obtained a non-binding ruling from the Maine Supreme Court that the initiative was in conflict with a provision of the state constitution requiring that state officials be elected by plurality. This advisory opinion did not affect the use of ranked choice voting in party primaries, or in electing Maine’s two U.S. House members and two Senators, but both houses of Maine’s legislature nevertheless voted on October 23rd for a bill essentially burying the initiative.
Many people in Maine reacted with outrage that the two party establishments would so blithely disregard the will of the electorate. This included not just supporters of ranked choice voting but also opponents like conservative columnist Jim Fossel, who opined: “The Legislature’s inability to accept the outcome of a free and fair election shouldn’t just be of concern to ranked-choice voting supporters, but to all of us as citizens.”
Maine’s citizens then mobilized again, this time to gather the 61,000 signatures needed to place a “people’s veto” on the June 2018 primary election ballot. Since it was adopted in 1909, the people’s veto has been used in Maine about 30 times, most recently in 2011 to restore a provision for same-day voter registration that the state legislature had modified. But it has never before been used to restore a citizen’s initiative that the legislature had nullified.
The battle is on. If reform advocates in Maine can gather the necessary signatures within the brisk 90-day time limit (from the public release of their petition on November 6), then ranked choice voting will be used in the June 2018 party primaries. If the voters then approve the veto that June, ranked choice voting will be used for Maine’s U.S. House and Senate elections beginning in November, and for all subsequent party primaries. Rarely in recent American history has a political struggle so clearly exposed the gulf between a two-party duopoly that does not want more electoral choice and a public that craves it.
A growing portion of the electorate is fed up with politics as warfare and politicians who just aren’t listening to the public’s frustration. Many reforms are needed, but ranked choice voting can be the Archimedean lever of change, enabling a small force to move a great weight. The people of Maine are now that small but resolute force. The choices they make in the coming months could begin to move the great dead weight of political polarization and decay in our democracy.