Troiano is executive director of Unite America, which promotes an array of electoral reforms and helps finance other advocacy organizations, and political candidates, with a commitment to cross-partisanship. (It is a donor to The Fulcrum.)
The battle over the replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg represents the next step, albeit a significant one, in a trend of political escalation that threatens the very foundation and functioning of our democracy.
Our political system is caught in a "doom loop" of partisanship and polarization, as both major parties trade long-term institutional stability for short-term political gain in what they rationalize as a fight for the soul of our country.
How America's two-party doom loop is driving division www.youtube.com
If it continues, the doom loop will break our country in half — unless we act to break it first.
Both political parties have played a role in the ongoing tit for tat over judicial confirmations. In 2013, when Democrats controlled the Senate, they invoked the "nuclear option" and eliminated filibusters against lower federal court nominees so they could be confirmed with slim party-line majorities. And the Republicans now in charge are set to up the ante by violating a precedent they set themselves four years ago with regard to considering Supreme Court nominations in presidential election years.
Should Republicans succeed in confirming a new justice this fall, Democrats will feel even more emboldened –– if they win control of the Senate and White House –– to pursue ideas some are already floating, from "packing the court" with additional, and likeminded, justices to packing the Senate itself by admitting the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as reliably Democratic states.
Then, all bets would be off.
A Republican Party that retains a geographical and political advantage in both the Senate and the Electoral College could surely respond in kind in 2022 and 2024. Nothing, for example, forces the Senate to confirm any president's Supreme Court nominations. Nothing even forces Congress to fund the Supreme Court.
Ultimately, we can only have a democracy if some things matter more than winning power in it. The norm of political forbearance, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explained in "How Democracies Die" (Crown, 2018), requires self-restraint on the exercise of political power even if one has the legal right to do so. "Democracies cannot work without it," they write. Nor can they long survive.
The doom loop will continue to spiral out of control, if not for the intervention of courageous leaders and different incentives.
The most immediate way to at least slow down the doom loop is for a group of at least eight senators –– four Democrats and four Republicans –– to join as a bloc that can effectively deny either party an outright majority on any norm-busting maneuvers moving forward.
Right now, that could mean: no one confirmed for the Supreme Court before the election, and no court packing after the election. In a new session starting next year, that could mean: new Senate rules that restore deliberation and compromise, including reforming rather than abolishing the filibuster.
The most effective way to actually break the doom loop, however, would be enacting nonpartisan reforms to our electoral system that can fundamentally change governing incentives by increasing political competition, participation and accountability.
Political scientist Lee Drutman, who coined the doom loop phrase, explains: "We are now in an era in which we have two truly distinct national parties, organized around two competing visions of national identity. It works against, not with our political institutions."
Over the last several decades, the two dominant parties have sorted themselves along clearly contrasting dividing lines –– demographically, geographically and ideologically. This stark set of binary splits has reinforced zero-sum politics, in which any kind of compromise is betrayal and the other side is not just wrong but evil.
Politicians have every incentive to raise the stakes even higher in order to get attention, raise campaign money and then win the votes to build their own political power, because most of them are largely insulated within their own parties and only face competition from their respective extremes.
The only way to change how our leaders behave is to change how they are elected.
For example, the most obvious and popular electoral reform, though far from the most powerful, is to end partisan gerrymandering –– thereby creating more competitive districts in which more voters will matter and voters can hold their leaders more accountable. Many states have already implemented independent redistricting commissions, and Congress could act to mandate their use nationally.
There are a range of other reforms –– from eliminating partisan primaries to implementing ranked-choice voting –– that could have an even more powerful impact on the incentives of our leaders. While there is no silver bullet reform, any hope of de-escalating continuing political retribution will require politicians to reconsider how to achieve what is obviously most important to them: how they get elected.
The time for political reform is not after the next big fight; there will always be another to come. The time for reform is now. What hangs in the balance is not a single Supreme Court seat, but the legitimacy of our entire experiment of democratic self-governance.
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Troiano is executive director of Unite America, a nonpartisan organization seeking "to bridge the divide by enacting structural political reforms and electing candidates who put people over party."
Leading up to Tuesday's state legislative primaries in Virginia, a Roanoke Times editorial asked a key question of our political times: "Will what's left of the center hold?"
The paper went on: "Do voters in one-party districts want legislators who can at least see the center or do they want someone further to the left or the right? When the choice is left to hardcore party activists, the answer is often the latter – which explains why we see so few moderates in either party, and so little bipartisanship in either Richmond or Washington."
Party loyalists and ideological extremists often prevail in low turnout primaries. But not always. And not on Tuesday.
All three candidates endorsed by Unite Virginia, a state affiliate of Unite America, won heavily contested elections. Two were Democrats running in open seats for delegate, Martha Mugler and Suhas Subramanyam. The other was incumbent Republican State Sen. Emmett Hanger. Each prevailed over competition from their ideological flank in lopsided districts where general elections are forgone conclusions.
The significance is not their commitment to a "centrist" label – in fact, these leaders are principled progressives and conservatives – but their shared commitment to finding common ground on issues that will improve the lives of their constituents and championing structural reforms that will make our political process more accountable to the people.
Their wins are not just wins for their party, but for all the people of the state.
Take Hanger, for example. He was Republican chief co-patron of a redistricting reform amendment last session in Richmond, which is moving through an arduous process and must be approved by the state legislature in two consecutive sessions before going on the ballot for voter approval. He's also won numerous awards for his effectiveness as a legislator. Yet he faced a far-right primary challenger, in large part, because he had the political courage to work across the aisle to expand Medicaid.
His primary was brutal. Despite being pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, an outside group leafletted the senator's own church parking lot, warning voters that he funnels money to Planned Parenthood "to kill unborn babies," and also canvassed his neighborhood claiming he was coming for their guns.
Unite Virginia spent heavily to defend Hanger, knowing whichever candidate won the primary would be elected in November in the solidly right-leaning district. Thanks in part to this support, in January a statesman and reformer will return to Richmond, where he has signaled a willingness to help organize a new bipartisan caucus to regularly bring together leaders from both parties.
Unite Virginia's successful pilot project offers political reformers a critical electoral strategy to scale for 2020 and beyond: Apply a counter-weighing force to partisan flamethrowers in primaries on both sides – not to influence which party controls government, but to influence which leaders control both parties.
The need and opportunity for proactive engagement in primary elections is only growing because an increasing number of elections are decided in primaries and, for the first time in more than a century, all but one state legislature is controlled by a single party.
As the New York Times recently reported, legislatures have "grown more tense and vitriolic." Republicans and Democrats in the minority are boycotting sessions entirely, as majority parties flex their muscle, instituting ambitions agendas not only to secure policy wins but also to establish political dominance.
As Michael Wear observed of the abortion debates in both red Alabama and blue New York, they were driven by "politicians supported by advocacy groups and moneyed interests whose goal is to attain whatever level of power is necessary to act unilaterally. This is what a representative democracy looks like when stripped of trust, respect, virtue, and sense of community."
Electing pragmatic reformers such as Muglar, Subramanyam, and Hanger can blunt disturbing trends of party tribalism by building bridges across a widening partisan gulf. We saw a similar situation play out in Alaska this year when a group of Democrats, Republicans and independents created a majority coalition, ensuring every bill passed had bipartisan support.
The aim of political reform is good governance and – ultimately – better policy outcomes on issues that impact people's lives, from education to health care.
We must not forget the recipe for good governance requires both the right incentives and the right leaders; that is, both reforms to unrig a broken system and the leaders who will put people over party.
Reforms like automatic voter registration, independent redistricting commissions, open primaries and ranked-choice voting are all important and necessary. But, by themselves, they are insufficient to cure our politics of growing polarization or deliver policy solutions.
Electoral politics may be more controversial than non-partisan rules changes, but elections matter and leadership matters – especially in the 26 states where citizen-initiated ballot measures are unable to force reform upon our broken system.
Electing strong leaders who are reform-minded and solutions-oriented is an indispensable part of a national strategy to improve our politics and solve our pressing challenges. Virginia has paved a path forward for our movement to follow.