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Can Ranked-Choice Voting Save American Democracy?


In his new book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America,” the political scientist Lee Drutman explains the ways in which he thinks American democracy has atrophied or broken down, and what can be done to heal it. “Trump may not so much be the problem,” Drutman writes. “He is instead the symptom of something much bigger.” That something is our two-party structure, which Drutman believes has approached collapse. He believes it has increased partisanship by making everything a binary choice, and that partisanship has itself been worsened by the sorting of the parties into ideologically coherent entities rather than fluid coalitions. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the Democratic Party was full of Southern conservatives, and the G.O.P. had a large, moderate wing of elected officials in the Northeast.

Drutman believes that some form of proportional representation with ranked-choice voting could lead to an increase in the number of viable parties, which would in turn reduce partisanship, and eventually gridlock and extremism. Ranked-choice voting, of course, means that voters’ second and third choices matter, too, giving candidates incentives to not alienate their opponents’ supporters. (Hendrik Hertzberg has written extensively for The New Yorker on ranked-choice voting and other potential electoral reforms.)

I recently spoke by phone with Drutman, who is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether one party is to blame for the current crisis, why ideologically incoherent voting can benefit democracy, and the place of right-wing conservatism in a multiparty system.

It seems as if you are arguing that the problems with our democracy are as much structural as political, if that makes sense—that the politics can be fixed by changing the structures. Is that a fair way of putting it?

I wouldn’t say that politics can be fixed. I think it’s always going to be messy. But a lot of the problems that are most dire in this particular moment are a product of having a genuine two-party system. There is no overlap between the two parties, which is something that I think is quite new in this moment and that is at odds with our political institutions, which demand broad compromise, not zero-sum trench warfare. And it also drives us all crazy, because it really plays into us-versus-them thinking that is inherent in our hardwiring.

O.K. So then what would be a more fair way of putting it?

That a lot of the problems that we are experiencing now are a function of our political institutions and particularly our electoral institutions, which tend to generate just two parties.

What would you say to the argument that regardless of the political system, democracies around the world seem to be breaking down?

I think democracies around the world are all facing certain challenges. The backlash to the financial crisis and increasing globalization, immigration, changing demographics, and urban/rural polarization—those are issues that are affecting all Western democracies. The question is which type of political-party system is better equipped to resolve those dynamics.

The two-party system in the U.S. exacerbates those conflicts in a binary way, and it doesn’t allow for an easy realignment. It’s almost impossible for new parties to emerge, and we just get two tired boxers stuck in a ring continuing to punch each other. The advantage of the multiparty systems throughout Western Europe is that although they’re also experiencing some of these same shocks, the party system can change, and new parties can emerge, and old parties can die. And you can see more responses from the system in which not everything is cast in this binary, us-against-them battle. There are different coalitions that come and go, and new coalitions can form. And it’s messy, but all politics is messy. But I think what you’ve seen is that in most of the Western European democracies, although there is a populist far right that has risen, it has not gained power. In the U.S. it has gained power.

You write in the book, “This is the danger in a two-party system: while it is easier to marginalize the resentments and discontent in the short term, it can backfire in the long term. Marginalization feeds the sustaining populist myth of elite disdain and neglect. And once anti-system political sentiment grows big enough to take control of a major party, democracy becomes unstable.” Aren’t we seeing this in Europe, with the far-right parties saying they are being treated with disdain and neglect and pushed aside from coalitions, and subsequently gaining?

I don’t think it will be enough to gain power. It certainly helped those parties, but to build a winning coalition in a multiparty system, you actually have to build a true majority. And if that sentiment builds to a true majority, then it’s trouble, whatever political system you have.

If you do the math and think about the Republican primary in 2016, you’d say, well, about forty per cent of voters are Republican, or Republican-leaning. About thirty per cent of them wanted Donald Trump. That should be a twelve per cent party. But instead, Trump got the head spot in the United States government and has basically transformed the Republican Party. Because of partisanship being what it is in a two-party system, a lot of folks on the political right said, “Well, I don’t like the guy. He’s kind of crude. But, well, he has the right enemies,” and eventually they’ve warmed up to him. In a multiparty system, there would have been another party for folks to join if Trump had taken over their party. But since there’s only one game in town, a lot of folks have found themselves looking past his obvious shortcomings to just say, “Well, at least he’s better than the Democrats.”

Are there any other specific benefits you think would accrue from having multiple parties?

I think the proportional-voting system that would get us to multiple parties would do wonders for voter turnout. We have quite low voter turnout in the U.S., and that has been pretty stagnant for a long time, despite many efforts to increase turnout. If there are more parties, people are more likely to feel like one of the parties represents them, speaks to them, and they’re excited to vote for it. But even more important, in a proportional system, every vote counts, because there are no swing districts or swing states and you don’t have to live in Iowa or some suburban district near Philadelphia in order for your vote to count. And most people, if their vote doesn’t count, say, “Well, what’s the point of voting?” And even more important, the parties don’t bother to recruit people to vote, because why waste money on recruiting voters who don’t matter? Just focus on the limited ten to fifteen per cent of swing districts that actually matter. People feel like they’re better represented in multiparty systems because they feel like they actually have a party that speaks for them.

One point your book makes several times is that the parties used to be less ideologically sorted, with northern liberals in the G.O.P. and southern conservatives in the Democratic Party. That might have positive effects for partisanship and how the government functioned and so on. But it also seems wrong in the sense that people were often voting for a party that they didn’t really believe in, because of the name of the party and the history behind that party. And that seems not totally healthy for democracy either. Was our democracy in somewhat better shape because people were confused about what they were voting for, or am I looking at it wrong?

No, I think you’re looking at it right. It’s the sad trade-off in a two-party system, which is either you have parties that are incoherent and people don’t know exactly what it is they’re voting for, or you have parties that are quite distinct and then they can’t work together at all, which our political system requires. We are a separation-of-powers system that is set up to require broad compromise and coalition. That was the critique of the bipartisanship of an earlier era—that the voters aren’t able to send clear signals because the parties don’t really stand for anything.

I think the advantage of multiparty democracy is that it doesn’t force that trade-off, and you can have multiple parties that build different coalitions. But voters can also send clear signals about what parties they actually support, because the parties offer more different alternatives. So people feel like they are clear in what signals they’re sending, and then the coalitions form after the election and have to represent a genuine majority.

Trump changed the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party is currently changing and will change more if Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren wins the nomination. Is your theory that that is good because it shows parties can change and that they’re malleable, and that we’re not stuck in ideological ruts? Or is your theory that this is bad because we’re so partisan that if someone takes over a party, they can get people in the party to kind of go for whatever they want, because the alternative seems worse?

I look at it much more in the second way. And that’s informed by a lot of political science that suggests that voters really aren’t that ideological. They’re much more partisan. Most people don’t read The New Yorker and pay attention to the politics as closely as you and I do. And mostly they just say, “Well, I’m a Democrat because people like me are Democrats,” or “I’m a Republican because people like me are Republicans, and whoever the nominee is I’ll support that person.” Look at the ways in which what it has meant to be a Republican has changed under Trump. That’s partisanship now. Ideology is fluid for a lot of people. Identity and partisanship are much more fixed, and I think that’s what we’re experiencing in this moment and will probably experience in the future.

You write, “The problem is not just Republicans (or Democrats). The problem is the toxic politics of the two-party system.” Is that correct? I realize saying one party is to blame by definition seems partisan and leads to increased partisanship, but what if it’s basically true?

I definitely struggled with this point and I’m sympathetic to arguments that suggest that the Republican Party is more of a problem than the Democratic Party, because the Republican Party has certainly pushed the limits of constitutional hardball much more aggressively, made it harder for a lot of people to vote. and has pushed gerrymandering much more aggressively. Perhaps Republicans would see it differently. But, for me, the bigger issue here is where that thinking pushes us. So say you’re a partisan Democrat and you say, “Well, if the Democrats could just win enough elections and get total control, everything would be O.K.” Well, one, is that really going to happen anytime in the near future? I think we overstate demography as destiny and underrate the ways in which our political institutions overrepresent the rural party. So I don’t think that’s a feasible plan going forward, even if it’s a reasonable premise.

The second thing, which worries me even more, is that if the plan is for the Democrats to just try to wipe out the Republicans, that means that whatever moderates are still in the Republican Party would have left it. And then the Republican Party just becomes even more the concentration of rural, left-behind, gun-owning, “America is for whites and Christians”—and these are the folks who are girding up for a civil war if they feel that they’re not going to have a voice. These are the folks who thought that if Hillary Clinton became President, she was going to prevent their ability to be practicing Christians in this country. I think we know from history that when a losing side feels like it’s going to be a permanent minority, and it has no legitimate path back to power, it turns aggressive and violent. And I don’t like that future either, so I don’t see that as a way forward.

Two issues on which America and the G.O.P. are rather unique in the Western world are race and climate change. How do you think those two issues would be dealt with in a multiparty system?

I look at the European countries, which are much further ahead of us on moving to renewable energy and reducing their carbon. So those are multiparty democracies and they’ve achieved much more on climate. If you look at polling, there is more and more support for doing something to mitigate global warming. But in a binary political system, it’s often minorities who get to rule, because if you’re the plurality of a plurality party, you get power. So I think you would probably, in a multiparty United States, see at least one if not two parties on the right that are open to some form of carbon-reduction policy, maybe a carbon tax, which would be market-based.

Race is a complicated and broad subject. America is becoming much more multiracial, and it is a challenge to build a multiracial democracy and to sustain it. But I think the challenge is made much worse by a binary political system in which one side says, “Well, America is a white Christian nation, and if minorities want to be part of our country, they have to join that culture, and that’s our heritage, and we want fewer minorities.” And the other side saying, “Well, America is a nation of immigrants, and we need to be a diverse society, and we need to elevate a lot of people who have been marginalized into positions of power.” So what you’ve done in that binary system is you’ve created a zero-sum conflict about the future of American national identity and who are we as a nation, which is a very tricky thing to navigate. But it is incredibly dangerous to navigate that in a way in which two sides are competing for power, and both sides feel that if the other side gets into power, their side is going to be marginalized and oppressed.

Would a multiparty system change the role of money in politics?

Most members of Congress complain endlessly about having to raise all this money, but when it comes to voting for campaign-finance reform, especially on the Republican side, they’re told that, well, you shouldn’t vote for this because it would hurt you. But I think in a multiparty system, in which you don’t have that binary dynamic of one party being in the majority, and one party being in the minority, and there is no one party that would have a clear, definitive advantage by being able to raise unlimited sums of money, you would see the ability to build a majority coalition around some form of campaign-finance reform.

What’s the healthiest democracy in the world right now?

We constantly mention the Northern European countries as having pretty healthy, stable democracies. I think Ireland is looking pretty good. It’s a tough time for democracies, generally, but I think certain democracies are better equipped to weather these storms and certain democracies are not. And I worry that, with our two-party system and the binary hyper-partisanship, we have a ship that’s not well equipped to navigate these storms.



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