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We Need Electoral Reform — and a Whole Lot More

The United States would be much better off with a multiparty, proportional representation system. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that this “one quick fix” would root out the rot that pervades America's political economy.

US president Ronald Reagan standing on indoor balcony overlooking crowd with White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan (back) and Chairman New York Stock Exchange John J. Phelan Jr (R) during visit at Stock Exchange. Diana Walker / LIFE Images Collection via Getty

Earlier this year, New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set off a minor media controversy with an elementary political observation: “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” Party loyalists howled in protest, but she was absolutely right. Our uniquely terrible party system shoehorns at least four different potential parties — social democrats, neoliberals, country club Republicans, and social conservatives — into just two. Even when one of the parties has unified control of government, this does not necessarily translate into a coherent governing agenda. As former House Speaker Paul Ryan complained before setting off for greener pastures in the private sector, “we basically run a coalition government without the efficiency of a parliamentary system.”

The upshot is a dysfunctional political system that nobody likes, which cannot address the country’s most pressing problems, and yet is seemingly immune to even the most cosmetic changes. Roughly 40 percent of Americans, including a supermajority of younger voters, say they want a third major party. An increasing proportion of the public identifies as politically independent. Congress is widely reviled, and surveys regularly find it to be less popular than head lice, hemorrhoids, and sexually transmitted infections. It’s no wonder Donald Trump is president and Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg are leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Each, in their different ways, represents the widely felt yearning for an outsider, whether counterfeit or genuine, to blow up the system and break the wretched impasse of US politics.

According to Lee Drutman, the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, the only way out is by adopting a proportional multiparty electoral system similar to those found in many other countries. Drutman calls for an expanded House of Representatives elected through multi-winner ranked choice voting, a Senate elected through single-winner ranked choice voting, the abolition of primary elections, and ranked choice voting for the presidency. In his view, today’s toxic partisanship is the product of a fundamental mismatch between the country’s winner-take-all electoral system and its anti-majoritarian governing institutions.

In Drutman’s telling, this setup worked well in the mid-twentieth century, when the two major parties effectively contained an incoherent and cross-cutting four-party system: liberal Democrats and Republicans from the nation’s urban and industrial centers, and conservative Democrats and Republicans spanning the South and small-town and rural areas around the country. This electoral alignment was functional, Drutman argues, because it was consistent with the anti-majoritarian, compromise-oriented design of the country’s governing institutions.

Now that we have a nationalized two-party system split along geographical lines and organized around culture war questions, the mismatch between the electoral system and the governing institutions is unsustainable. Neither party has an incentive to act constructively and collaborate with their counterpart to pass legislation when they’re in the minority. The overriding goal now is to become the majority in order to impose your party’s nonnegotiable conception of national identity on the other.

Drutman’s case for multiparty democracy is fundamentally conservative: by proposing a major reform to the electoral system, he seeks to preserve what he sees as the founders’ basic commitment to negotiation, bargaining, and compromise. Unbundling the two parties’ ideological profiles and giving voters more choices, Drutman argues, could attenuate political pendulum swings and encourage the culture of coalition-building and incremental change that is often found in countries with proportional, multiparty systems. Increasing electoral choice and competition could increase voter turnout, more faithfully reflect popular opinion, and combat the tendency toward minority rule that our supposedly majoritarian system actually generates. In short, it could restore the kind of Madisonian pluralism that now seems like a quaint relic of a bygone era.

Drutman is certainly correct that a proportional multiparty system is preferable to the undemocratic, dysfunctional, and destructive arrangement the country is currently groaning under. It would be more representative and genuinely majoritarian, and it would create institutional space for the democratic-socialist left to organize itself independently of liberals by eliminating the problem of lesser-evilism. In that sense, the Left should welcome the rising interest in electoral reform that seems to be taking hold among liberals like Drutman and even some conservatives. Overhauling the country’s antiquated political institutions was a central demand of the socialist movement a century ago, and it should become a focus of the revitalized movement today.

Drutman makes an effective case for multiparty democracy, and his important book deserves a wide readership. His defense of the need for strong parties against the deeply rooted tradition of American anti-partisanship is particularly welcome.

Nonetheless, he overstates the extent to which electoral reform can be the silver bullet, the one weird trick that will fix US politics and usher in a new era of moderation and stability. Proportional systems in other countries have not forestalled bitter polarization over issues of national identity or prevented the rise of far-right parties. Long-standing pillars of national party systems have collapsed seemingly overnight, and it’s become increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions even in ostensible paragons of moderation like Germany. Welfare states and labor movements have been rolled back across the capitalist world, regardless of the nature of any specific country’s political system.

Adopting a multiparty proportional system would certainly be a positive development for the Left and the country in general. But it would only address the symptoms of political degeneration, not the causes. American rot runs much deeper than the electoral rules, which ultimately can’t address its source: a nakedly predatory, zero-sum capitalism that is driving national decline.

The Great Moderation

Much of Drutman’s argument turns on a contrast between today’s era of toxic partisanship and the high tide of the New Deal order, which he depicts as a relative golden age of political functionality and productivity. This is because, according to Drutman, political competition was organized primarily around bargainable economic conflicts rather than zero-sum conceptions of national or racial identity.

Of course, this arrangement required suppressing the issue whose emergence would later realign the party system — Jim Crow and the racial subordination of African Americans in general. But as long as economic disputes defined the main line of partisan conflict, Democrats and Republicans both could provide a political home to white voters with different cultural orientations across geographical regions.

As Drutman observes, from “the 1930s through the early 1960s, Democratic presidents supported keeping civil rights legislation buried in unfriendly congressional committees; they wanted Democrats to hold the South and win national majorities. In this party system, identity split the parties internally. This meant the parties didn’t distinguish themselves on the issue and thus they denied voters a clear, partisan choice on that conflict.”

A much larger proportion of the workforce was unionized than today, and unions had close links to the Democratic Party in many states and localities. As such, many white voters were part of institutions that organized them into politics primarily on the basis of economic, not cultural or racial issues.

The result, in Drutman’s view, was a political order whose schisms allowed for a greater degree of moderation, compromise, and legislative productivity. Indeed, this was the period that saw the passage of nearly all the country’s major acts of social legislation. “When the parties fought primarily over economic issues,” Drutman argues, “they contained both traditionalists and cosmopolitans, and national political conflict was moderate and often banal.”

But when the Civil Rights Movement forced its demands on the political agenda, it activated the dormant fault line running through each party and realigned the focus of partisan conflict. “As the coalitions reordered around questions of identity, national conflict became polarized and electrifying — but also toxic.” White traditionalists rallied to the Republicans, African Americans and cosmopolitan whites rallied to the Democrats, and the cross-cutting partisan identities of the New Deal order gave way to the destructive partisanship of the current period.

Politically Oriented Capitalism

It is certainly true that questions of macroeconomic management tended to dominate the postwar agenda and that there was a broad consensus in favor of (or at least resigned to) Keynesian economics and government social programs. But American business never really accepted labor unions as legitimate actors in the political economy and sought to roll back union power at every opportunity. The fierce battle over the Taft-Hartley “slave labor bill,” passed in reaction to the massive postwar strike wave, was anything but moderate and banal — nor were the anticommunist purges of the McCarthy era or the McClellan committee investigations of the late 1950s.

The political attack on labor, which began in the immediate aftermath of World War II, was one of the main drivers behind the transformation of the US economy that began in the late 1960s and accelerated during the Carter and Reagan administrations. So long as the power of elites was at least partially balanced by popular forces like the labor movement, they could not establish a monopoly of influence over the legislative process or the administrative apparatus.

In that sense, the period of moderation and compromise that Drutman idealizes was an artifact of the titanic class struggles of the 1930s. Those struggles established organized labor as a force to be reckoned with, strengthened the state, and increased its autonomy relative to capitalist class power. It was this balance of class power, unique in the history of the country, which shaped the political contours of the postwar period and allowed government action to be something other than a simple instrument of narrow ruling-class interests.

The postwar elite consensus began to crack in the 1960s, as the US-sponsored Bretton Woods system came apart under pressure from increasing international competition, decreasing profitability, and heightened social and class conflicts across the core capitalist countries. With the global system in crisis and labor in a weakened position, economic elites worked with political allies in both major parties to reshape the US political economy in their interests.

As the sociologist Richard Lachmann argues in his new book First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship, this process transformed the structure of the US ruling class, which had long been split between local/regional- and national-level elites. The wave of corporate mergers and financial deregulation that began in the 1970s upset the balance of power between these two sections of the ruling class — greatly strengthening the hand of bigger, national-level actors against smaller, more localized competitors, who often had different interests and lobbied for different policies.

The consolidation of elite interests within major sectors like finance allowed them to effectively capture government agencies and powers, weakening the state’s independence and, consequently, its capacity to protect the system as a whole instead of the narrow interests of specific sets of elites. With labor and state actors in a weakened position, Lachmann argues, “elites are able to block new social programs that threaten their hold over existing budget items or their capacities to profit by providing services such as health care, education, credit, and retirement benefits that could be offered through government but are instead left to the private sector.”

The result is a political system that either completely fails to tackle pressing national problems, or does so in the most inefficient, ineffective, and corrupt ways possible. Think, for example, of George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D program, which protects big pharma from competition from generic drug producers, and Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which guarantees multibillion-dollar profits for the parasitic private health insurance industry.

The restructuring of the US ruling class made it possible for elites to amass enough power to capture governmental resources and use them to undermine the interests of workers, consumers, and potential competing elites. This “turn to the political,” as Lachmann describes it, has “resulted in either inconclusive or heightened elite conflict” and created more opportunities for leading sections of the ruling class to “solidify their authority over sectors of the state and economy that they walled off from rival elites.”

General Motors CEO Charles Wilson’s quip “what’s good for GM is good for America, and vice versa” was certainly self-serving, but during the golden age of postwar capitalism it also contained a good deal of truth. This is the essence of capitalist hegemony: the ability to plausibly claim that the interests of the ruling class are the interests of society as a whole.

During the postwar period distributional conflicts were not necessarily zero-sum because of the dominant position the United States held in the global order. This is no longer the case. The United States is still the single most powerful country in the world, but its leading position is no longer unquestioned. Almost all new income accrues to the top 1 percent, and financialization has made politics more important to profit-making than productivity growth, which today stands at historic lows. As Dylan Riley has argued, capital’s increasing dependence on the state has also hollowed out their traditional political vehicles, the two major parties. This has opened the way not just for charismatic figures like Trump to take one over, but for billionaires like Bloomberg and the Koch brothers to build their own lavishly funded para-parties outside the formal structures of the Democratic and Republican parties.

The turn toward politically oriented capitalism, not the two-party system itself, lies at the root of the dysfunctionality Drutman so ably describes. Our country’s electoral rules are certainly awful, and should be reformed along the lines Drutman proposes. But they only magnify and exacerbate a deeper problem: elites marshaling political power to pursue their own parochial interests at the expense of anything resembling a general or public interest. This is a system of plunder that produces wealth without prosperity, domination without leadership.

Perils of the Presidency

These structural transformations have dragged both major parties to the right on economic questions. Since the neoliberal policy prescriptions of both parties are highly unpopular, they have an electoral incentive to stoke culture war issues to differentiate themselves and mobilize their respective voting bases. Drutman rightfully notes that when political conflict is organized along these lines “the rich can soak the poor,” which is exactly what has happened over the last forty years. The result is a glaring mismatch between the needs, interests, and preferences of the vast majority and actual public policy outcomes, which systematically favor the very rich.

The endless din of culture war amid widening immiseration only drives popular disgust with politics. For decades, we have been trapped in an ever-escalating cycle of the “most important election of our lifetimes” followed by gridlock and inaction on the issues that most affect people’s lives.

Over time, Drutman argues, “this cycle of overpromising and underdelivering has contributed to deep distrust of politicians (who never seem to fulfill these promises),” which fuels a self-reinforcing doom loop “where politicians continually bash and then promise to transform Washington, which, thanks to their bashing and partisan fighting, is in even more desperate need of transformation.” Considering the anger and disillusionment this cycle generates, it was only a matter of time before a figure like Donald Trump took advantage of the primary system to win a major party nomination and then the White House.

It tends to be easier for far-right parties to enter legislatures in proportional systems, but it is more difficult for them to win a significant degree of power. By contrast, since two-party systems actually tend to generate minority rule, a disciplined and well-funded extremist movement can take over one of the two major parties, win an election, and govern alone. This becomes an even bigger problem in presidential systems like our own, where the executive branch is separate from the legislature and the president serves as both head of state and head of government.

Given this situation, it’s odd that Drutman downplays the problems of presidentialism in the United States. He is correct to note that the United States differs from other presidential systems because the White House lacks the kinds of formal legislative powers that presidents enjoy elsewhere.

But his argument that the US presidency “is at the weak end of the presidential democracy constitutional powers spectrum” seems overly formalistic and strangely detached from the drift of political events. It is true that US presidents lack strong and formal legislative powers, but the presidency has long since burst its constitutional bounds and become the most powerful office in the political system. It is the focal point of US politics, it structures partisan conflict at all levels, and it shapes the ideological profiles of the parties.

One of the main consequences of the Trump presidency is the further transformation of the Republican Party into one of the most extreme right-wing parties in the world. Since taking office in 2017 an astonishing 40 percent of GOP congressional members, most of them relative moderates, have either retired or suffered defeat in primary elections. Those who remain have tended to make a Damascene conversion from Trump critic to loyalist, as exemplified by the pathetic figure of Lindsey Graham.

Drutman is compelled to recognize how a weak and unpopular Congress means a more powerful presidency, which leads to more nationalized and high-stakes elections, which generates more toxic partisanship, and so on. But the very real danger of presidential authoritarianism unfortunately receives relatively little attention in his analysis and reform proposals.

In The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, a collection of lectures published in 2013, the constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman offers a chilling preview of what has actually come to pass under the Trump presidency. After Obama, he forecast, “the next insurgent president may not possess the same sense of constitutional restraint. He may insist on fulfilling his self-proclaimed popular mandate even if it provokes a profound constitutional crisis. And so long as he has enough partisan supporters in the Senate, the prospect of impeachment will not serve as a significant deterrent.”

We should not discount the possibility that Trump will cry fraud and refuse to leave office in the event of a narrow election loss later this year. If the first three years of the Trump administration are any guide, congressional Republicans and GOP-appointed judges could very well back his claims, no matter how outlandish. What happens then?

Turbulence Ahead

The specter of civil conflict haunts Drutman’s book. Full-blown civil war may not be on the agenda, but he’s right that the current arrangement is increasingly unsustainable and could well make acts of political intimidation and violence commonplace. Something has to give.

Drutman’s preference is a return to distributional conflict, which in his view would detoxify partisanship and allow for a greater degree of political moderation and compromise. He argues that economic questions are emerging as the new cross-cutting dimension of US politics, as both major parties hold together broad coalitions that span the class spectrum. Trump’s rise to power is often attributed to his appeal to the so-called “white working class,” but this narrative is largely a media confection that doesn’t bear much scrutiny. The mass base of the GOP is still the provincial middle class, not a put-upon and left-behind proletariat.

If one of the major parties splits along class lines it will be the Democrats, not the Republicans. The defining characteristic of the Democrats is that they are a ruling-class party that has to pretend otherwise for electoral purposes. There has long been a dormant class fault line running through the party’s base, but no major figure has dared to activate it until Bernie Sanders. Sanders is waging his political revolution on the strength of a working-class base that is turning out to donate, rally, and vote in the millions. The recent New Hampshire primary put the class character of the Democratic primary race into stark relief, as the poorest towns in the state voted heavily for Sanders. The Vermont senator has turned the campaign into a referendum on the power of the billionaire class, and is vying to replace the culture war as the central dividing line of US politics with a new one: working-class democracy versus oligarchy.

If the reaction to Sanders’s growing success is any indication, a turn to class politics will only intensify political conflict, not reduce it. Considering the state-dependent nature of US capitalism today, ruling elites will use every means at their disposal, both fair and foul, to maintain their domination over government power. Much the same is true of Democratic Party insiders, who view a Sanders presidency as an existential threat not just to their ideological predispositions but their livelihoods as well. If he wins the White House, Sanders will do everything he can to reshape the Democratic Party in his political image, and the small army of consultants and grifters who have done so well under the neoliberal dispensation will be left out in the cold.

A Sanders presidency could very well be the trigger for the kind of electoral overhaul that Drutman calls for in his book. As he notes, major electoral reform has been achieved only when established politicians and insiders supported it to protect themselves from competition. In a number of European countries, conservative parties implemented proportional representation as means of defending themselves against socialist and labor parties backed by growing working-class movements.

Consecutive Trump and Sanders presidencies could be the chain of events that pushes the political establishment to embrace a proportional multiparty system, and perhaps even a weaker presidency, out of sheer self-preservation. Where do Democratic moderates go if the Sanders insurgency makes them political orphans? A far-right Republican Party will not adopt them, and unless they’re willing to accept subordination to the Left they’ll be squeezed out altogether. In that light, ending the two-party system may quickly become a very tempting object for both the center-left and the center-right.

If the advocates of moderation really want what they say they want, they should take up the cudgels for the junior senator from Vermont. Mr Drutman, when are you going on your Bernie Journey?