Nye is the president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and a former member of Congress from Virginia.
The American democracy is an incredible tradition that has been the envy of the world and remained resilient through two centuries. Though it has had to adapt to constantly reach for our ideals of equality and effectiveness, it has endured.
Yet the project is straining under the stresses of destructive factionalism our Founders warned us about at the outset of the republic, and it appears near the breaking point. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s new “Democracy Index 2021” has ranked the United States as 26th in the world and rated our country as a “flawed democracy” for the sixth year running. It is time for a serious reflection on the flaws plaguing our democracy and what we can do to fix them.
The EIU report cites extremely high levels of political polarization as a key problem. Our country is largely divided into political camps that define the other camp as an existential threat. Extreme competition for congressional majority compels politicians to ramp up practices like gerrymandering electoral districts for partisan advantage, which serves to destroy faith in politics and to further polarize the behavior of officials whose elections depend primarily on the sentiments of the most extreme party faithful. Closed primaries concentrate power on the fringes, as the primary is the only competitive election in most congressional districts.
Lack of cooperation and resulting gridlock has rendered Congress largely dysfunctional, racked by increasingly common government shutdowns and an inability to complete sensible budgets on time or at all, while sectarianism prevents the basic cooperation our democracy requires to function. Political opponents are framed as such evil destructive forces that keeping them from power becomes more important than having a democracy at all. Discordant politicians have failed to come together even in the face of a concerted effort by a president to overturn a presidential election, an act which still defies a common assessment or response despite its attendant political violence. The cycle only seems to be spiraling further downward.
America is facing twin crises of dysfunctional politics and a lack of faith in our democracy. The bottom line is that our political system no longer provides incentive for elected officials to cooperate. Our electoral system is stacked in the favor of the most extreme voters, rewarding sectarian battling over cooperation, while our media is inclined to promote dramatic narratives and bombastic attention-grabbing personalities, further rewarding extremism.
If we fail to solve our fundamental incentive problem, we will remain unable to bridge the divides that tear at our country and leave us unable to rally to our greatest challenges at home and abroad.
In order to break this cycle, we must accomplish two things:
Reform our electoral system to incentivize elected officials to cooperate more, demonize less
Partisan gerrymandering, closed primaries and winner-take-all systems are products of political party invention and not protected by the Constitution. They can be changed. Various states have already implemented fixes such as independent commissions or criteria for districting, open primaries, and ranked-choice selection methods, all of which incentivize candidates to appeal to a broader group of voters, thereby promoting greater cooperation. We should promote these in all states.
Federal legislation would also be ideal for systemic reforms that are most party-agnostic when implemented across all states simultaneously, such as gerrymandering reform, and for reforms that prevent racial discrimination, such as preclearance rules. But a federal legislative strategy that combines a large comprehensive set of reforms is difficult to explain to voters plainly, and unlikely to be successful.
A better strategy would entail a piecemeal approach, starting with reforms that enjoy broad support among voters of all stripes or that have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan backing, including preclearance rules and gerrymandering reforms, and devoting more debate time to these issues. Even though progress in Congress is difficult, a more robust public debate would serve to educate voters and move sentiment in favor of reasonable reforms.
De-escalate the partisan war over voting methods and rules
American partisans, engaged in scorched earth warfare over voting methodology across numerous states, are poisoning the well for rational compromise on standards that could provide for easy, efficient, and secure voting.
The same malincentives that prevent cooperation over fundamental responsibilities like budgeting cause officials to pursue voting rules satisfying to the knee-jerk sentiments of partisan base voters but often connected to outdated or outright false perceptions — or at worst specifically designed to discourage voting among groups that might be more likely to vote for the other team. A constant swing in rules defining absentee ballot usage, early voting opportunities or acceptable voter IDs — all dependent on which party holds the majority in a state legislature — is a sure-fire way to destroy faith in the process and intensify the heated partisan mistrust that derails opportunities to find common ground.
Fixing this would require the participation of trusted nonpartisan actors, such as respected private sector CEOs, who could broker a tension-reducing set of negotiations over voting rules using a data-driven process that eschews simplistic partisan talking points. A reduction in tensions across this front might blunt the destructive power of dramatic political personalities to constantly stoke sectarian tendencies.
It is also dangerous to allow partisan competitors to police the rules of electoral competition. This is akin to having the referees in a football game also be members of the opposing teams. The elimination of partisan secretaries of state would be a good start in returning the referees to neutral status and restoring faith that elections can be conducted without partisan leaning or undue influence.
The resolution of our dire polarization will take a concerted effort to change incentives and break the cycle of partisan warfare. Fortunately the solutions, however difficult, are known and proven at smaller scales. Though focusing on systemic reform and reducing tensions is not as sexy as the next campaign or charismatic personality, our country deserves our dedication to make this effort a national priority.
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