Can multi-party democracy break us out of the "doom loop" of American politics?

Author Lee Drutman on how to escape the era of hyper-partisanship — and end the endless wars of American politics

Published March 7, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant butting heads (Getty Images/teddyandmia)
Democratic donkey and Republican elephant butting heads (Getty Images/teddyandmia)

Our parties are stuck. Our politics have become nationalized. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have gone extinct. The American geographic and ideological divide mirrors a sharp and dangerous debate over national identity. The other party seems like a permanent threat. Every election is therefore an existential fight. Meanwhile, deal-making has collapsed, grinding our government into hopeless gridlock, without any easy way out. 

Lee Drutman calls this the "doom loop," a fully divided party system that's a fundamental mismatch for our institutions. But his masterful new book doesn't just identify the problem and describe its historical roots, he offers solutions that will get us past this era of hyper-partisanship and polarization that has overwhelmed our constitutional system of checks and balances.

In "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop," the New America fellow and frequent Vox columnist calls for the reinvention of our democracy as a multiparty system that allows for greater fluidity, actual compromise and more accurate representation of voters. Multi-party democracies, he argues, are stronger and more stable democracies. Our own democracy, with its antiquated winner-take-all or first-past-the-post system, is actually an outlier among more functional systems that use some form of proportional representation.

Indeed, Drutman argues, America had a four-party system throughout much of the 20th century, as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats formed flexible coalitions that made legislation possible, and convinced most Americans that the nation would not devolve into crisis if the other side captured power. One of his crucial solutions: Larger, multi-member congressional districts, combined with ranked choice voting, that would crack open a binary two-party system, create hundreds of swing seats nationwide, incentivize compromise and better represent the opinions of more Americans.

He has an important message for Democrats as well: Escalation will make it worse. Playing "constitutional hardball" — by ending the filibuster or expanding the Supreme Court — will backfire. If one party goes nihilistic, escalation can't be the solution and could lead to violence. The answer lies in changing the incentive system: The way Congress operates, and the electoral process that puts its members on Capitol Hill.

"Political institutions are driving Americans apart instead of bringing them together. American political institutions are rewarding hardline conflict instead of compromise. In so doing, American political institutions are sowing their own destruction," Drutman writes. The stakes are high. "America's winner takes all electoral rules are the antiquated and cracking levees of a political system that is flooding with toxic conflicts. If we don't fix these underlying structural issues and channel conflict better, everything else is just taking buckets to a flood."

We spoke earlier this month. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Is it fair to say that you'd call the major issue facing our politics right now this mismatch between two binary political parties, set against each other in a system that isn't built for — and has become overwhelmed by — this era's hyper-partisanship and polarization?

Yes. Not only is it not built for it, but there are two problems with this strong, truly nationalized two-party system with both sides competing for narrow majorities. One, that doesn't work with our political institutions, which demand broad compromise and become dysfunctional, and in fact are designed to become dysfunctional with narrow majoritarianism as the guiding principle.

The second problem is what it does to all of us. It drives us all crazy and plays on all of the us-versus-them circuits in our brain, and it oversimplifies hard political territory into overly simple black and white conflict. That, in turn, raises the stakes to a point where we are willing to support increasingly outside-the-norms anti-democratic tendencies on our side in order to control power.

We're willing to think the worst of the other side, as well. The numbers in recent Pew Center polls showed that, increasingly, Americans don't want their children to marry someone of the opposite party. That was startling, but perhaps it shouldn't have been. It's a dangerous moment.

It is dangerous. We've come to a moment in which our political opponents seem like enemies, not fellow citizens. This is a function of a number of things. It's a function of the high stakes of every election, and the negative zero-sum campaigning that follows around that. It's also a function of an electoral system that has sorted us into a rural party and an urban party, so more Americans are likely to be surrounded by partisans on the same side. There's less marriage between parties, parent-child partisan transfer is higher. There is a sense in which people don't even know what the other side really is, and so it becomes easy to subscribe to oversimplified stereotypes. Maybe it even feels good to subscribe to oversimplified stereotypes because it makes your side seem clearly right. If everybody around you agrees with you, it tends to reaffirm your own sense of righteousness.

The geographic divide has been pushed to an extreme, but the parties also represent these two opposite visions of national identity. 

You have one party that is the party of urban, cosmopolitan, multiracial, multicultural, increasingly secular, urban America, and another party that is the party of rural, exurban, traditionalist, white America, much older. These parties may be more diverse than those stereotypes, but at their core, that's what they get reduced to. Then we have this binary conflict in which it's not just about who controls the narrow majority, but also who gets to impose their vision of America on the other half, and that creates an incredibly emotional fear-ridden politics that if the other side gets into power, they're going to try to take away our fundamental right to be who we are.

You call this a "doom loop." That's a frightful phrase. How urgent a crisis is this? How many alarm bells should we hear ringing?

It's a doom loop because it is continuing to escalate, and it threatens the fundamental foundation of democracy, which is that you have to have some shared understanding of fairness and legitimacy. Conflict is important in politics. We should disagree on things. If issues were all easily resolved, they wouldn't be political issues. Politics is where we fight about the things we disagree about. But the problem is when we don't have a process for agreeing how to resolve those disagreements — because we don't think that any process can be fair if our side loses. That is the space that we're entering into now.

This is how democracies die, when there is intense hyper-partisanship and a breakdown of forbearance and mutual toleration. Different sides have to agree that the most important thing is to keep the democracy going, to keep the rules and norms of fairness going. When they no longer agree on that, the whole thing falls apart.

There are some Salon readers right now screaming at their computers, and I think I hear them saying: "Yes, I'm with you on hyper-partisanship and the importance of small-d democratic norms. But it's not my side playing constitutional hardball, or that stole a seat on the Supreme Court by leaving it open for a year, or conducting voter purges, or that wildly gerrymandered state legislatures." You are very careful in this book not to place blame onto one set of people or parties. But is it equal? Don't we have to talk about that?

It's not equal. I think any dispassionate observer would see that there have been some asymmetry, that Republicans have pushed boundaries much further than the Democrats, have been much more aggressive than Democrats. I think that stems to some extent from the fact that the Republican electorate is declining in population size while the Democratic electorate expands, and that the political institutions give a distorted plus to Republicans. Republicans are trying to maintain and expand that bias. I acknowledge all that, but I think the danger comes from thinking that if only the Republican Party can be beaten into submission, then our problems will be solved.

What if the argument is different: Not that Republicans need to be beaten into submission, but that the problem in our politics is that they've become a fundamentally anti-majoritarian party with few, if any, reasonable voices trying to pull them back from that cliff? As a result, a different kind of political warfare is necessary. You seem to be cautioning Democrats to de-escalate, or else the entire American experiment is at risk. Is that the price Democrats have to pay for finding a way back to these norms?

There's a lot of temptation to engage in more constitutional hardball, but we need to think about what the endgame is, and what the Democrats win if they engage in more constitutional hardball. 

If Democrats are out there saying, "We're going to wipe out Republicans, and once we're finished, Republicans will have no power," think about how the Republicans will respond to that, particularly the most conservative elements in the Republican Party, who would be increasingly dominant. If Democrats expand, it will mean that they're winning over moderates, and you will be left with a Republican Party that is at its most revanchist and aggressive because that's who will control power. Then you're looking at potentially violent responses.

You propose multiparty democracy as a solution. Why is that a better approach at this moment? How does more parties in an era of partisanship help break the fever?

I think the most important reason in this particular moment is that it breaks the zero-sum binary, which I think is at the heart of so many of our political problems. 

One of the things I argue in this book, and I think is pretty important for understanding this current moment, is that the 2010s are actually an aberration in American political history. For the first time we actually have two truly distinct separated parties with no overlap. For a long time in America, we had two political parties, but within those parties, we really had multiple overlapping parties, and the overlapping part is the key. What that meant was that there were ways to work out deals and compromises, and the stakes of any given election were not nearly as high because whoever won, there was going to be some bargaining and some negotiating across a broader ideological spectrum.

You had Connecticut Republicans, and Democrats in South Dakota and North Dakota. It made the parties more diverse, so that it wasn't clear the Democratic Party was just the party of urban, cosmopolitan America, and the Republican Party wasn't just the party of rural, traditionalist America. The problem is, there's no getting back to that in our current electoral system because the Democrats have basically given up on rural America because they're not going to win. So why invest? Republicans have basically given up on New England and urban America because they're not going to win any of those seats.

And everybody's voting for national power. Politics has become totally nationalized. There's no clear resolution of that binary contest for the narrow but elusive majority. The only way out is to bring back the diversity that existed in the country and that made our system work — to bring that pluralism by having a multiparty democracy. Then I think you'd see that there's actually quite a bit more diversity in rural America than we get to see, and there's more political diversity, in urban America than we get to see. You'd see some new parties emerge, and you'd see different compromises emerging on different issues.

I think the challenge in this moment is that we can't see underneath that Democrat versus Republican boxing match, with the same two tired boxers fighting each other — when, actually, there's a lot more possibility for building majorities across a wide range of issues if it weren't the case that neither party wanted to work together because they thought they could use that issue for an electoral advantage in the next election.

We share a sense of a game-changing solution: The Fair Representation Act, which would transform the U.S. House from 435 winner-takes-all single-member districts into a body elected from larger, multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting. It's an elegant reform that would all but end gerrymandering and dramatically increase both the number of competitive seats as well as the spectrum of voices in the House. It would more accurately reflect the politics of the nation. And you believe we can get there.

Yes, the technical way is straightforward, and that's the Fair Representation Act in Congress, which would create multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting for the House. I think we also add ranked-choice voting for the Senate. I would also increase the size of the House to 700 members, and I would get rid of congressional primaries. But that is not going to happen this week or this year.

The way that we get it practically and politically is we come to a shared understanding that the system that we have now doesn't work, and it's not something that we have to suffer. We can change the way we vote, and we can break that zero-sum dynamic. Probably we would want to start at the state and local level, where action is already taking place. We're already seeing numerous cities, New York City most recently, changing to a system of ranked-choice voting. Maine became the first state to adopt ranked-choice voting. We see more states adopting it in 2020. This is something that folks can get involved with on the local level, on the state level. Big political change usually comes from outside of Washington.

I think change happens when people realize that we don't have to be stuck with this antiquated system that, frankly, disenfranchises most voters. In a winner-take-all plurality system, most voters don't live in competitive districts, so their votes don't really count, and parties aren't speaking to them. In a proportional system, like multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting, your vote would count wherever you live, and parties would actually try to work for your vote. You'd also have more choices. You'd have more parties to choose from. More and more folks feel like neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party really represents them. About two-thirds of Americans say they'd like to see more than two parties competing. This is a way to do it. Then they can actually work together to get stuff done because they're not competing for a narrow majority.

I'm in Massachusetts, which has a Republican governor who just got re-elected, one of the most popular governors in the country. Yet the state hasn't elected a Democrat to Congress since 1994. It's a 9-0 delegation. If you're a Republican in Massachusetts, you are completely shut out of representation in Congress, and likely will be, except for a wildly fluky year. So what you're describing makes perfect sense as far as fairness. It also would require three of those Massachusetts Democrats, probably, to lose their seats, and those are the people who would have to vote on a change like this. Politically, how do we make a big structural change like this happen?

Well, politically, there has to be tremendous public pressure for this to happen. I think it would probably have to start in the states, and there would be some demonstration effect that this works and it works better. I think a lot of members of Congress in Washington are extremely frustrated with how things work. Nobody in Congress is happy with how things work. I think members don't have a chance to think big about how things could be otherwise because their schedules are so crammed, and they spend so much time fundraising and flying around and meeting people that there's no time to think beyond the current pressures. And there are a lot of pressures that encourage them not to think big and think beyond this, including electoral pressures.

Change happens slowly, and then all at once an idea whose time has come builds, and eventually you reach a moment in which members say, "Well, what are we doing? We are fighting against each other and not solving any problems, and trying to get this elusive chalice of power, when we could actually be trying to solve some problems."

I think a lot of members have the experience of being newly elected, coming to Washington, and saying, "Oh, I'm going to work on some real problems, and I'm going to try to do this in a broad way and build a bipartisan coalition." They start finding somebody on the other side who might be sympathetic, they have one or two conversations, and they get a knock on the door from somebody in leadership. "What the hell are you doing? You're blurring the message." You know? Those guys are the enemy. You can't work with them. And if you keep doing that, good luck when your re-election comes if you want the party to support you, and if you want to get on a choice committee. Most members get the message pretty quickly.

Can more parties break the problem, break this fever, if partisanship is the problem? Is there a fear here that you end up with the same gridlock, just with more parties?

It's not that partisanship is the problem. It's that hyper-partisanship is the problem. I think it's important to distinguish those two things. Parties are official institutions for modern mass democracy because they organize conflict, they engage and organize citizens. Without parties, politics would be chaos, and ultimately demagoguery. So, partisanship is important, but the problem is when partisanship becomes so overwhelming that everything becomes in service to that party trying to win this elusive, narrow majority. That's the moment that we're in.

I think with more parties you would see different compromises on different issues. Again, the key thing to understand is that so much of what is happening now is a function of this narrow, binary complex in which both sides could potentially control power in Washington in any given election. That's been basically going on since the early '90s, and shows no signs of abating, and the organization of that political conflict is increasingly a density divide, rural versus urban, and a cultural divide in which the stakes are incredibly high.

Pull both parties apart and what you find is that there is actually more overlap and more potential agreement if the incentives weren't to destroy and demonize the other party, and the incentives to destroy and demonize the other party are really a function of trying to win that narrow majoritarianism. You'd find parties to the left competing for rural votes, you'd find parties to the right competing for urban votes — if they didn't have to win a majority in any single district, but could win 20 percent in a district. And you'd see the diversity and pluralism of this country, which is essential to a representative democracy.

Last question: As you look at the situation we are in, as you look at the situations democracies are in around the world, how optimistic are you that we're capable of solving these problems, or likely to?

Well, I am hopeful. I think folks are very engaged, and there's a new generation entering politics that is bringing a new energy. There was a period of time in which I think a lot of people were taking democracy for granted and didn't realize that it was something that you actually had to work to preserve. I think a lot of people have realized that actually it requires a steady commitment, and the level of civic engagement, particularly in the U.S., in the last few years has been off the charts. I think we are seeing the signs of a new era of democratic reform and renewal ahead. The 2020s are going to be a very exciting decade for political reform in the U.S.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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