US Capitol Building (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Yes, our political system is badly broken. But it doesn't have to be this way

Our political system runs on a set of hidden rules. They don't work for anyone — except the system itself



Katherine M. Gehl - Michael E. Porter
June 6, 2020 4:00PM (UTC)

On May 29, four days after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody after a deli-counter dispute over the validity of a $20 bill, The New Yorker's Susan Glasser captured the moment in time with the following tweet:

2020 started out like 1974, then switched to some horrible combination of 1918 and 1929. Now: 1968. Ugh.

Without a doubt, 2020 is a year of multi-dimensional volatility and significance that is forcing us to reflect on lessons from our history — many of which we still haven't learned. 

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Echoes of the polarized politics of 1974 were already banging off the walls in early January as the country prepared for one of the most divisive and complicated election years in generations.

Then, almost overnight, COVID-19 accelerated the chaos and created ample opportunity for Americans to be introduced to, or reminded of, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and the Great Depression that followed in 1929. 

Now, with George Floyd's death, comes a steady barrage of conflict and rage the likes of which we haven't felt since 1968, a year of great loss at home — Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy — and overseas, where almost 17,000 troops died in the Vietnam War. 

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Americans are sick, scared and angry. With public trust in the federal government at a depressing 17% — down from 73% in 1964 — choosing to turn to our elected officials for health, security and calm feels for many Americans like a waste of energy. 

We choose to direct our energy toward the political system itself, specifically toward a set of mostly unknown but critically important rules that prevent our politics from serving the public interest. These rules, which are like system software quietly humming along in the background, have allowed too many problems to go unaddressed for generations. If we can change these rules, we have a better chance of electing leaders empowered to solve these problems and revivify the American dream — for all Americans.

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There is no time to waste. Putting the current and pressing crises aside for a moment, America's democracy and economic competitiveness have been declining for decades. While we complain about how our political system performs — especially during periods of national upheaval — we rarely question its nature. We accept dysfunction, division and inaction as normal. And when we return to our polling places on Election Day and yet again see only two choices on our ballots — neither of which we really like — we accept that as normal, too.

But it doesn't have to be this way. 

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We can have a healthier politics that rewards cross-partisanship and compromise — non-negotiable approaches in a healthy system. We can, for the good of our children and grandchildren, make preparing for worst-case scenarios like pandemics and depressions as important for our elected officials as it is today for them to prepare their re-election campaigns.

How? Three steps:

Step 1: See how America's political system really works

Most Americans believe our political system is a public institution that follows a set of detailed, impartial principles, structures and practices derived from the Constitution. 

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It isn't. 

There are only a handful of sentences in our Constitution detailing how Congress should work, and only a few lines describing the rules of congressional elections. 

Most of the rules that shape the day-to-day behavior and outcomes in the political system have been perversely optimized — and even expressly designed — by the textbook duopoly at the center of the political-industrial complex: the Democrats and the Republicans. This is a core finding of Politics Industry Theory, our focus over the last five years.

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Spurred in part by the economic and social decline that has been underway in America for decades, we endeavored to take a fresh, deep and historical dive into our political system, focusing on the structure and nature of competition so that we could identify powerful solutions. That work culminates in our new book, "The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy," to be published through Harvard Business Review Press on June 23. (We borrow from it in this piece.)

By nearly every measure, and despite ongoing conflict and crisis, the American politics industry — the two-party duopoly and the supporting actors around it — is thriving. Campaigns are seemingly endless and put to work an immense roster of canvassers, pollsters and staff. Top consultants are in high demand, and the media interest has never been greater. Overall spending — a normal proxy for an industry's success — continues to rise, year after year; direct political spending at the federal level was at least $16 billion during the 2016 election cycle. 

All the while much of America is not thriving. The confluence of events over the first half of 2020 should be proof enough, but the cycle of our politics industry failing the public interest while continuing to thrive has proceeded unimpeded for decades, with no new competition.

Fail, thrive, repeat. That's American politics. 

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How can an industry so flush with resources and influence fail its customers — us — so consistently? In any other industry this large and thriving, with as much customer dissatisfaction, some entrepreneur would see a major opportunity and create a new competitor. But that doesn't happen in our politics. Why? The answer to these questions lies in understanding the nature of competition in American politics. 

Step 2: Use the Force(s)

The key tool we use to understand the nature of competition in the politics industry is the Five Forces, the gold-standard framework designed to understand industry structure and its effects on the nature of competition in for-profit industries. This approach recognizes that an industry is a complex system, involving numerous actors who compete but also collaborate.

The politics industry is driven by the same five forces that shape competition in any industry: rivalry, the clout of buyers and suppliers, the threat of new entrants and the threat of substitutes. An industry's structure is the overall configuration of these five competitive forces. 

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Applying the Five Forces to politics for the first time was revealing. It showed how American politics is an industrial-strength perversion of competition. The party rivals have managed over generations to enrich and entrench their duopoly, while failing spectacularly to serve their customers — us. The duopoly has written its own rules and optimized others for its own gain, all the while perverting and subverting the forces of healthy competition — the forces that would drive accountability and create opportunity for new entrants into the industry.

Politics is the only major industry in America in which the rivals — the Democratic Party and the Republican Party — decide how their game is played, with no independent regulation or hope for an antitrust lawsuit. In the politics industry, there are few incentives to solve problems, little accountability for results, and no countervailing forces to restore healthy competition. 

The participants in the politics industry, be they senior officials or junior staffers, are, for the most part, rational actors who will continue to act in accordance with the established incentives — especially if doing so perpetuates successful careers. 

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Wrong. 

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While the politics industry is fixed (for and by those in the industry), it's broken for us. 

Step 3: Change the rules, change the incentives — change the game, and the results

Try American politics on for size: Let's say you are a member of Congress. In front of you sits a bill that addresses a critical issue — like pandemic relief — that deserves a bi-partisan push. As an elected official, you should consider several seemingly obvious questions: Is this a good idea? Is this the right policy for the country? Is this what the majority of my constituents want? 

But as a participant in our current political system, you have only one question to answer: Will I make it back through my party's next primary election — the hurdle to reach the general election — if I vote for this? If the answer to that question is no, then the rational incentive to get re-elected — to keep your seat — compels you to vote against this bill.

But perhaps this time you decide to put country over party. You take the risk and publicly endorse the bill's artful compromise solution. You ignore the pleas and pressure from your party leadership. You weather threats and temptations from special interests (who don't want compromise). And you vote in favor of the bill.

You are in trouble.

For the purposes of your upcoming re-election campaign, it doesn't matter if the bill passes or not. It doesn't matter if you are lauded by pundits, good-government reformers, or local constituents for your bipartisan leadership. It doesn't really matter if the bill is destined to produce good outcomes. What does matter, assuming you want to keep your job, is how your side of the partisan system you just bucked is going to respond. 

Here's where one of the most powerful verbs in American politics comes into play: Yyou're about to get primaried. In the next party primary election, a contest for the party's nomination dominated by special interests and sharply ideological voters, you can expect a challenge (either from a party-preferred candidate, or someone further to your left or right.) 

And you're probably going to lose, either because you never learned or don't care about the golden rule of American politics: There is virtually no intersection between our elected officials acting in the public interest and the likelihood of their getting re-elected. In other words, if America's legislators do their jobs the way we want and need them to, they're likely to lose those jobs. And if an individual is brave enough to run without the backing of either party, he or she will be resigned to "spoiler" status — a threat to the status quo in the political-industrial complex — and likely bullied out of the race entirely. 

This is absurd.

How do we fix it? 

Most efforts to change the politics industry revolve around a laundry list of reforms, from reducing money in politics to instituting term limits or establishing Election Day as a national holiday. While we endorse some elements of the popular reform agenda, many of its proposals don't address the root causes of system failure or aren't viable from the start. Or both. 

What is doable and worth doing? What is powerful and achievable? Nonpartisan political innovation. 

The political innovation prescription today is clear: change the rules that govern congressional elections and legislating. This will unleash powerful forces of healthy competition in American politics and foster a system that incentivizes — and therefore delivers — results in the public interest. 

Our political system must encourage robust debate, from the fringes to the mainstream. We need elections that can't be "spoiled," votes in those elections that can't be "wasted," and elected officials who aren't allergic to compromise.

Hamstrung legislators, spoiled elections, wasted votes, and the staking out of binary extremes across every congressional district in America, are toxic byproducts of our two prevalent election structures, which are as outdated as they are destructive to healthy competition: party primaries and plurality voting. 

Party primaries require voters to select either a Republican or a Democratic ballot. This requirement has, over time, forced current and aspiring congresspeople to move further to the left or the right on the political spectrum — and stay there if they hope to get elected. Because primaries are low-turnout elections dominated by highly engaged partisans and special interests, they function almost exclusively as tests of fealty to these gatekeepers, not the public interest, and they hang like swords of Damocles over the heads of elected officials. Winning a seat in Congress only increases your duty to these hyper-partisan industry superintendents. If you cross party lines, your punishment awaits in the next party primary.

Just this week, Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat in New York, was caught on a hot mic saying, "If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care," while pleading to participate in a press conference around the unrest related to the George Floyd killing.

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, lost his seat in Florida in 2018, and has commented openly about the impact of primaries. In 2019, he told The New York Times, "the greatest fear any member of Congress has these days is losing a primary.... that's the foremost motivator." 

In the politics industry, the only candidates who can thread the party-primary needle are those who put self-preservation ahead of the pursuit of the better ideas, balanced leadership and bipartisanship our country needs. As Katherine often says, "party primaries create an eye of the needle through which no problem-solving politician can pass."

Plurality voting, the general-election structure that clinches unhealthy competition in our congressional elections, is a relic of a bygone and immature election practice that was borrowed, ironically, from Great Britain, to get off the ground. But in 2020, the plurality system is at best a drag on our democracy. As you likely know, plurality voting means that in any race with more than two candidates, winning doesn't require a majority. For example, in a three-way race, a candidate can win with as little as 34% of the vote — indicating that two-thirds of voters preferred someone else. 

Plurality voting not only weakens the mandate of the winner, it protects the preordained nature of elections that is so crucial to maintaining the duopoly. Most importantly, it creates the spoiler argument, which has a bone-chilling effect on new competition. If non-duopoly-approved candidates throw their hats in the ring, they are often vilified by one side of the duopoly or the other because an additional option on the ballot could split the vote and hand victory to the spoiler's most ideologically dissimilar opponent. In plurality elections, the Spoiler's Dilemma is always a lose-lose — a hallmark of unhealthy competition. 

The resulting stasis — we never have an option outside the duopoly — flies in the face of the prevailing will of the American people: More Americans identify as Independent (41%) than as a Democrat (30%) or a Republican (27%).

 

In almost every other healthy industry, a third, fourth, or fifth choice is not only appreciated by customers, but demanded, and healthy competition almost always makes the industry's products better, or cheaper, or both. Don't like Nikes or Adidas? Try Reebok. Or New Balance. Or maybe even an on-trend pair of All Birds. 

We have to get rid of plurality voting and party primaries. To do so, we prescribe a powerful, nonpartisan package we call "Final-Five Voting." 

With Final-Five Voting, instead of party primaries, we will have nonpartisan primaries from which up to five candidates can proceed to the general election. No more needles to thread or Gordian knots to wrestle within partisan legislative bubbles. Then, instead of the first-past-the-post, winner-take-all plurality system, we'll have a ranked-choice experience, a new process in which voters can rank candidates in order of preference. Ranked-choice voting ensures the winner has majority support and can solve problems, while still creating space for the new ideas and bold candidacies — from the center and the fringes — that deserve a seat at the table, a voice in the political marketplace of ideas.  

Final-Five Voting will change the very nature of competition in American politics. It isn't designed to force people to abandon their ideological views, their parties, or to change who wins; it's designed to change what the winners are incentivized to do — and not do — on behalf of the American people.

The men and women of Congress can be renewed to serve and legislate with problem-solving purpose — and we the people can hold them accountable for it.

Innovation, results and accountability. That's what we like to call "Free Market Politics." 

*  *  *  *

It bears repeating: Our political system does not have to be this way. 

Thankfully, we are not alone in believing in a new, cross-partisan future ready for the taking. We were honored to have two active and impressive members of Congress, both of whom are military veterans — Mike Gallagher, a Republican in Wisconsin, and Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat in Pennsylvania — come together to write the foreword for our book. We thought it fitting to let them have the last word here, because without them — brave leaders from both parties willing to consider and support new approaches — we won't get anywhere. 

The next generation of elected servant leaders is not required to carry on the dysfunctional legacy of gridlock and bad blood that has defined our recent politics. We must match our love of country with a system that's designed to serve the people, not the political-industrial complex. We want to look back on our careers in public service and see that we were able to make American lives better, coast to coast. We know you want the same.

To learn more about Final-Five Voting, visit www.Political-innovation.org. 


Katherine M. Gehl

Katherine M. Gehl is the former CEO of Gehl Foods and the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation. She is co-author of "The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy."

MORE FROM Katherine M. Gehl

Michael E. Porter

Michael E. Porter is a university professor at Harvard Business School. He is co-author of "The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy."

MORE FROM Michael E. Porter


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bipartisan Duopoly Books Commentary Democracy Elections Party Primaries Politics The Politics Industry Voting

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