Saturday, January 28, 2023

When Identity Dominates Politics

Third in a series on moving toward a multiparty democracy

I had intended this post to examine how more political parties might break the doom loop of our toxic political partisanship.  But I realize I need first to look at how the question of identity has come to dominate our politics.

As Lee Drutman explains in his Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, political conflict tends to break down into two dominant questions:

1. Who gets what?  This is a question of economics and the distribution of material resources.  It typically breaks down into a conflict between:
  • government as interventionist and egalitarian, actively rebalancing inequities by redistribution through social programs and taxation, and
  • a market-oriented perspective, where government protects property rights but mostly gets out of the way with little regulation, low taxes, and few transfers.

Because these are ultimately questions of money and material resources, compromise in the who-gets-what question is often possible.  Drutman gives the example:

If I think the top marginal tax rate should be 45% and start at $1,000,000 and you think it should be 25% and start at $500,000, we can meet in the middle.  Let’s say the top rate is 35%, starting at $750,000, and call it a fair compromise. (p. 132)

2. Who are we?  These are questions of national identity, culture, values, and social group hierarchy.  Today, the identity conflict is between cosmopolitan and traditionalist values.  These are much less amenable to compromise. Drutman writes:

Those who hold cosmopolitan values favor individual self-expression and personal liberation over duty and religious observance.  Cosmopolitans are more open to outsiders, more likely to want to leave the past in the past, and more eager for a transformative future.  They are less rooted in any particular place and more open to new experiences, and they embrace more universalist beliefs.  Under these values, diversity is a strength to be celebrated, and immigrants contribute more than they take away.  Cosmopolitans tend to congregate in big cities and are generally younger.

Those who hold traditionalist values are generally nostalgic about the past and pessimistic about the future.  Traditionalists value duty and responsibility over self-expression.  They tend to stay in one place and are less interested in new experiences.  They are rooted in their community and religion, and tend to live in rural areas.  They value preserving their existing community and values, which makes them skeptical toward outsiders with different values.  They often view immigrants as threats. (p. 133)

These are, of course, stereotypes.  And that’s just the problem.  They accurately describe hardly anyone.  But wedged into the two parties, stereotypes are what we’re left with.  Historically, these differences (think abortion) tend to be bitter with little room for compromise.

In the party realignment that occurred in the late 1980s and 1990s (see my previous posts in this series here and here, as well as this one from several years ago), national identity has come to dominate the political discussion, while questions of who gets what are less prominent.  

[Although the Democratic Party has had a stronger emphasis on economic redistribution (for instance, the infrastructure bills passed during the last two years during the Democratic control of the presidency, House and Senate), the Democrats, too, have a strong “donor class” that has prevented real economic distribution.  The result has been increasing economic inequality over the last forty years facilitated by both Democrats and Republicans.]

What has happened, however, is that the question of identity has come to dominate our politics, overwhelming the question of who gets what.  The “cosmopolitans” and the “traditionalists” see each other as utter strangers, even enemies.  Compromise is rare enough to be noteworthy.

In addition to the toxic partisanship that develops when identity becomes the primary issue, the real diversity of interest among people is lost.  Most people are not well represented by either “cosmopolitans” (Democrats) or “traditionalists” (Republicans).  Where does the traditionalist populist from the rust belt who has been decimated by the growing economic inequality of the last forty years find someone to represent him?  Where does the deeply pro-choice, middle-class entrepreneur committed to low regulation and low taxes find someone to represent her?  Where does the Catholic activist committed to the seamless garment of anti-abortion, anti-capital-punishment, and international pacifism find someone to represent them?  Where do I, David Hilfiker, who favors deep taxation of the wealthy with powerful redistribution to the poor and middle-class find someone to represent me?  The answers are the same: the two-party system gives none of us anyone to represent us.  Our votes don’t count because there is no one to vote for.

Two-party hyperpartisanship punishes us all.  Each of us is left voting for the candidates who offend us the least, rather than voting for those who actually represent what we want.

Next: Multiparty democracy elsewhere

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Importance of Political Parties

Second in a series on moving toward a multiparty democracy

To understand how the United States might move away from the toxic partisanship of the last forty years, it’s important to recognize that political parties are not themselves the problem.  In fact, political parties are essential to the functioning of any but the smallest democracy.

Most Americans mistrust political parties and, perhaps covertly, wish we could do without them.  More people identify as independents than as either Democrats or Republicans.  Many of the Founders were suspicious of parties, and the Constitution does not provide for them.  The Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century likewise mistrusted parties.  When we consider the toxic partisanship of contemporary American politics, it’s easy to conclude that political parties are themselves the problem.  

Modern political scientists, however, are unanimous in their belief that democracy requires political parties to structure conflict, to allow disparate citizens to work together in common purpose.  In Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, Lee Drutman writes,

  • Modern mass democracy really is unthinkable without parties because parties are the key institution leading disparate citizens to common purpose.
  • Parties help citizens to feel represented, giving them a stake in the larger political system.
  • They engage citizens who would otherwise ignore politics.
  • They explain to ordinary people why they should care about politics by broadcasting and raising the stakes. …
  • Parties set the alternatives and frame the debates.
  • They organize political conflict to render it comprehensible.
  • They help channel political ambition into responsible service and vet candidates for quality.
  • Without competing parties to aggregate and simplify alternatives, voters lack meaningful and quality choices. …
  • Dictatorships have no party competition. Democracies do. (p. 41)

So political parties are necessary.  

Political conflict and partisanship are necessary parts of the process, too.  The na├»ve notion of the Founders and later the Progressive Movement that all issues could evolve toward consensus — and thus no ultimate need for political conflict — misunderstands the nature of politics.  Issues about which there is consensus don’t need the political process.  In real life, however, groups have different interests and the political process is necessary for making decisions when groups cannot agree.  Compromise — not consensus — is the end result of the political process.

As I explored in the last post, however, when there are only two parties and they become ideologically sorted, the devolution into toxic partisanship is virtually inevitable.  The solution is not getting rid of parties but, paradoxically, to change the electoral process to encourage more parties.  The next post will describe how a multiparty system blunts the toxicity of political parties and encourages cooperation and compromise.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Toward a Multiparty Democracy

While the recent midterm elections were a welcome relief for American democracy, our political system remains mired in a toxic partisanship that is destroying the American government’s ability to act in the national interest.  As Lee Drutman has cogently written, the United States government has for the last thirty years been in a two-party doom loop that will only get worse as long as our electoral rules strangle the possibility of a multi-party democracy.

With this post, I am beginning a series on the restoration of functional democracy by reforming the electoral process to move us toward a multi-party political system.

Political science experts now recognize that a national two-party system like the United States’ — in which both parties are ideologically sorted and non-overlapping — inevitably devolves into the kind of venomous rancor that now dominates our politics.  As Drutman writes:

Once the parties polarize in a two-party system, polarization becomes a self-reinforcing dynamic.  And the more parties take strongly opposing positions, the more different they appear.  The more different the parties appear, the more the other party comes to feel like a genuine “threat,” demanding vigilance in response.  The more extreme the other party seems, the greater the need to defeat it.  The more extreme the other party, the more vindicated your side feels in taking strong, even radical, action in response.  Both sides fall into their own separate worlds of facts, full of reinforcing us-versus-them narratives.  The more totalizing partisanship becomes, the more totalizing it grows.  (p 27)

It has not always been so.  While the United States has had only two major parties for most of its political history, until the last thirty years, Drutman writes, 

The two parties have been capacious, incoherent, and overlapping.  This overlap lent a certain stability to American national politics, because it worked with, rather than against, our compromise-oriented political institutions.  (p 2)

From the early 1950s until the mid-1980s, for instance, the two political parties actually hid within them four overlapping elements:

  • liberal Democrats in the cities, upper-Midwest, and West Coast,
  • conservative Democrats in the South and rural areas,
  • liberal, establishment Republicans in the Northeast
  • conservative Republicans in the West.

None of these groups had a majority and so they had to work with each other and compromise, creating shifting coalitions to get things done.  Famously, for instance, liberal Democrats teamed with liberal Republicans to pass the Civil Rights legislations of 1964 and 1965.  Congresspeople were careful not to alienate their opponent on one issue because they might be needed to vote together on the next issue.  What was effectively a multi-party system in American politics lasted until the mid-1980s.

Following the Civil Rights legislation that brought an end to Jim Crow, however, the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” began a realignment of the parties as the Democratic Party became more urban and more diverse while the Republicans became more rural and white.  By the mid-1990s, liberals had largely fled the Republican Party and conservatives had fled the Democratic Party.  The parties had become ideologically sorted with little overlap.  Party membership had now as much to do with identity as it did with political viewpoints.  And so began the doom loop of toxic partisanship.

Readers of this blog will know that I have been extremely critical of the anti-democratic tendencies of the Republican Party over the last fifteen years.  In writing about toxic partisanship, I am not about to engage in blaming both parties equally for the dangerous democratic failures of the last decade.  But I no longer believe that we can get out of this mess by trying to destroy the Republican Party (as tempting as that possibility may be to my inner child).  Rather, we need to get out of the doom loop of toxic partisanship altogether.  Fortunately, electoral reform that could be instituted by an act of Congress without constitutional amendment — Ranked Choice Voting, multi-member House districts, reforming primaries, and enlarging the House of Representatives — would encourage multi-party democracy and provide a way out of our toxic politics.

The next posts will begin to explore what that might look like.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

 American Democracy: Off Life Support

The midterm election of 2022 was truly a miracle.  American Democracy is still very ill, but intense efforts by small-d democrats to organize and get out the vote pulled our democracy off the ventilator, leaving it breathing on its own.  It is possible to see a way forward to some health.

The election was not a fluke nor, depending on which polls you read, was it a huge surprise.  While the pundits were speculating about a red wave, in fact, the best polls’ predictions were close to a toss-up.  In the end, it appears that large parts of America want to come back to a functioning democracy.   Not a single election denier won election to a position in a swing state that would have given them control over election procedure as governor, attorney general, or secretary of state.  Even the telegenic star of the Trump show, Arizona candidate for governor Kari Lake, went down in flames.

The Republicans will have a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.  The likelihood is that this will make Kevin McCarthy speaker of an ungovernable hodgepodge.  Probably, we face two years of obstructionism and government chaos led by Republicans in the House.  But I have a fantasy that a small group of traditional Republicans might be willing to cross the lines and sometimes vote with the Democrats to keep the worst impulses of the Republicans at bay.  Ultimately the way back to a healthy democracy will come from true conservatives regrouping in a new configuration.  Could that new configuration begin with a coalition of Democrats and true Republican conservatives in the House coming together to make governance possible?

The Democrats will at least retain control of the Senate with the Vice-Presidential tie-breaking vote.  But if Georgia re-elects Senator Raphael Warnock over Trumpist Hershel Walker in the December 6 run-off election to give the Democrats a true 51-49 Senate majority, the Democrats will not have to share power with the Republicans.   This will have impact in three ways:

  • The current 50-50 split of the Senate has given extraordinary power to two single Democratic senators (in practice, that has been either West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin or Arizona Senator Kirsten Sinema) to block the Democratic agenda.  In a 51-49 Senate a single senator will no longer have the same veto power, a major practical shift.
  • Issuing subpoenas requires a majority vote of a Senate committee, which has meant that, in the evenly divided senate, Republicans could block an embarrassing subpoena (of, say, Donald Trump).  With the Republican controlled House of Representatives likely to spend an inordinate amount of time investigating the Democrats (for instance, Hunter Biden’s laptop), the ability of Senate Democrats to pursue their own investigations could be significant.
  • The power-sharing agreement between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on each of the Senate committees and sub-committees.  This has slowed down committee functioning although the practical consequences of this haven’t been obvious.

While the Georgia senatorial contest does not have the same existential importance as it did when it determined Senate control in 2020, it is, nevertheless, a consequential election.

Former President Donald Trump is playing his part in the drama (see my post from September Has Trump Destroyed the Republican Party?) by announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, thus guaranteeing a brawl which will most likely end with either Trump as a nominee who cannot win re-election in 2024 or the ever-loyal Trump base deserting the party.

American democracy is still very ill.  Ultimately, democracy cannot function with the extreme partisanship of America’s two-party system.  As I will explore in the next post, eventually the United States will have to make the changes in the electoral process to allow a multi-party system as proposed, for instance, by Fair Vote.  There is still a long way to go to recovery.  But, for now, Americans who believe in democracy have fought hard to get it off life support.  Because of them, American democracy is breathing on its own.

Friday, November 4, 2022

“Election Denial” Is a Lie, a Pernicious Threat to Democracy

What does it mean to be an “election denier”?  Both the New York Times and the Washington Post report that the vast majority of Republican candidates — over 370 out of 550 — on the ballot next Tuesday as candidates for the US House and Senate, and the state offices of governor, secretary of state and attorney general have questioned and, at times, outright denied the results of the 2020 presidential election despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  It is crucial that we recognize the deep threat that such election denial poses to our democracy.

Denial of President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election is not an error in judgment; it is a lie.  More than sixty court cases instigated by former President Trump and his allies were turned down, several accompanied by severe judicial rebukes to the lawyers for bringing frivolous claims.  The January 6 commission has clearly documented that Trump knew he lost the election and perpetrated the “Stop the Steal” movement as part of an unconstitutional, antidemocratic plot to overthrow the US government and stay in power.

According to Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger (one of two Republican on the January 6 Commission), the vast majority of Republican congressional representatives who espouse the Big Lie, do not in fact believe it themselves.  Kinzinger said,

For all but a handful of members, if you put them on truth serum, they knew that the election was fully legitimate and that Donald Trump was a joke. The vast majority of people get the joke. I think Kevin McCarthy gets the joke.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Republican voters do not get the joke.  Serious statistical attempts to determine Republican voters’ actual beliefs about the 2020 presidential election indicate that less than a third of them believe that President Joe Biden won.

It is a bedrock principle of democracy that voters decide elections and candidates accept results.  Especially in a polarized country, doubt about election results is a pernicious attack on the democratic structure itself.  If citizens harbor doubt about the validity of an election, they cannot commit themselves to the decisions the government makes.

Wide-spread election denial is a new phenomenon in American democracy.  Gracious concession speeches have always been the norm, even in bitter and hard-fought campaigns.  After the 2000 presidential election, in which the Supreme Court’s widely criticized intervention gave the presidency to George W Bush before the Florida recount was complete, Democrat Al Gore immediately accepted the results and pledged to work with the new president-elect.  

Election denial essentially originated with Donald Trump, who actually began his accusations by insisting without evidence in 2012 that Barack Obama had stolen the election.   In 2016 candidate Trump prepared for the possibility that he would lose the election by refusing to commit to accepting the results if he lost and repeating many times that the election was being rigged.  Even after he narrowly won the Electoral College, he continues to falsely claim that he won the popular vote, which he, in reality, lost by three million votes.

Claims of election irregularity and fraud must, of course, be taken seriously and, if necessary, adjudicated through the courts, especially in close elections.  But ultimately a commitment to democracy requires that a losing candidate accept the results and cede the election.  While the mass Republican denial of the 2020 presidential election is the current existential threat, Democrats have not been immune.  The small number of Democrats who refused to concede the 2020 Gore-Bush election and Democrat Stacy Abrams's ongoing refusal to acknowledge her gubernatorial loss in the 2020 Georgia election are also forms of anti-democratic election denial that undermine our constitutional order. Ultimately, losing candidates committed to democracy concede their loss and acknowledge the democratic process.

Many Republican candidates — for instance, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin — have “moderated” their election denial by acknowledging Biden’s legitimate election yet saying that “election integrity” is a major problem.  Giving the lie to their claims of moderation, both have recently campaigned on behalf of election deniers.  Such “moderation” should not be allowed to stand; “election integrity” in the 2022 midterms is just a codeword for “election denial.”  

Unfortunately, the meaning of “election integrity” will change after next Tuesday’s election when election deniers will most likely be placed in charge of some state elections in 2024 and the integrity of elections will, indeed, be a legitimate issue.

Let’s be clear: election denial — the assertion that Donald Trump won the 2020 election — is a malicious lie that eats away at the fabric of American democracy.   I fear our democracy cannot withstand the corrosion.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Minority Government — The Republican Advantage (Part II)

(Continued from post of October 28, 2022)

Hardball Politics and the Supreme Court

Despite the facts that no Republican president has won a popular majority since 2004 and Republican senators have not represented a majority of Americans since 1996, Republicans have appointed six of the nine current Supreme Court justices.  From 2017 to 2020 Donald Trump who lost the popular vote in 2016 appointed three justices who were confirmed by Republican senators who represented less than 45% of the American population.

In February 2016, during the last year of Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow the Senate to consider any appointment to the Court, claiming the appointment should await whomever was elected president ten months later, thus ultimately stealing the Democratic appointment, giving it to Republican Donald Trump who won the November 2016 election and subsequently nominated Neil Gorsuch, who was quickly confirmed by the Republican Senate.  Although McConnell’s action was technically constitutional, it was unique in American history and obviously went beyond the Senate’s responsibility to “advise and consent” on appointments.

When liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in mid-September of 2020, McConnell had no such qualms about awaiting the new president, rushing the confirmation of conservative Amy Coney Barrett through in less than thirty-six days, finishing just a week before the election of Democrat Joe Biden.

The minority party has firm control of the Supreme Court, most likely for a generation.

Statehouses Lock In Electoral Control

Since the “disputed” 2020 election, Republican controlled statehouses have implemented a raft of new laws that would make voting more difficult and other laws that take away control of the electoral process from traditional, nonpartisan, actors and give it to Republican partisans — setting up the potential for the Republican Party to control the electoral process in disputed elections.

US states have enacted more than thirty new voting restrictions since 2020, from stricter voter ID requirements to limits on mail-in voting.  Seven states have enacted laws that facilitated the de-listing of voters, without necessarily notifying the voter.  Twenty-five states have enacted laws that shifted power away from traditional election managers and, in many cases, ceded control to partisan actors.  All of these changes have been made in the name of election security, but it is important to remember that there is no evidence of significant election insecurity … prior to these laws that will now be in effect for next week’s mid-term election.

There is much debate about the actual impact of these legal changes (see here and here). What is not in debate from any except partisan election deniers, is that these laws are unnecessary and likely destructive to our democracy.

Minority Government Is Locked In

The Republican advantage is currently baked into the Constitution.  Extreme gerrymandering and hardball politics have made it worse, and the lies of the 2020 election fraud are cementing it ever more deeply.  Absent the collapse of the Republican Party due to Trump’s craziness, Republicans will continue their minority control of government for years.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Minority Government — The Republican Advantage (Part I)

If it seems to you that the Republican Party has more political power than it should, you’re not just a bitter partisan.  There is a powerful bias built into the US Constitution that currently benefits the Republican Party in both US Senate and in presidential politics.  In addition, through gerrymandering and hardball politics, the party has parlayed that constitutional bias to significant advantage in the US House of Representatives and the Supreme Court.  The party is also seeking to hardwire further advantage through changes to state electoral laws.

The US Constitution

The Senate

In the original politicking that created the US Constitution, low-population states — afraid of being overpowered by an out-of-control populism — structured the Senate so that every state had two senators, regardless of population.  Over the two-and-a-half centuries since the founding, the population discrepancy between states has widened so that California, the most populous state, now has approximately one senator per twenty million people while Wyoming, the least populous, has approximately one senator per 290,000 people.  In other words, a Wyoming resident has almost seventy times the power in the Senate as does a California resident.

There are, of course, small Democratic states, such as Delaware.  But overwhelmingly today, less-populated, rural states are Republican while larger urban states are Democratic.  In the current 50 – 50 Senate, Democrats represent almost 42 million more people than do Republicans.  In fact, as documented in The New York Intelligencer,

Republican senators haven’t represented a majority of the U.S. population since 1996 and haven’t together won a majority of Senate votes since 1998. Yet the GOP controlled the Senate from 1995 through 2007 (with a brief interregnum in 2001–02 after a party switch by Jim Jeffords) and again from 2015 until 2021.

The US Constitution has given the minority Republican Party control of the Senate for seven of the most recent twelve legislative sessions.

The Electoral College

The Constitution provides for the indirect election of the president: Voters select electors who then actually choose the president.  Every state sends electors to the Electoral College equal to its number of representatives in the House of Representatives plus its number of senators.  The number of Representatives is roughly proportional to the state’s population (and is thus democratic) but, again, the two senators give smaller states disproportionate, non-democratic power.  While not as egregious as the Senate (due to the moderating effects of the House of Representatives number), the Electoral College still gives Wyoming three votes (or one for every 190,000 residents) while California receives 55 votes (or one for every 715,000 residents); the Wyoming voter has almost four times the power in electing the president.  States small in population — and thus, current Republicans — have disproportionate impact in choosing the president.


Gerrymandering is the process of drawing voting districts to benefit one party.  As I have showed in some detail in this previous post, gerrymandering is accomplished by packing the opposition party’s voters tightly into one or several districts while spreading your own party’s voters out  over the remaining districts.  Thus, the opposition wins its proportionately fewer districts in landslides while your party wins its proportionately more districts by narrower margins.  Both parties gerrymander (the Democratic gerrymandering of Maryland’s Third District wins the prize for the most bizarre shape), but Republicans have in general been far more aggressive and successful in their gerrymandering.  Furthermore, as I explained in my last post, in 2010 the Republican Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) project, went after local state legislative races (as opposed to US congressional races), 

rais[ing] $30 million and target[ing] local state legislative races in sixteen states, including swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, funding negative ads in lower-profile state legislative races.  The Republicans commissioned polls, brought in high-powered consultants, and flooded out-of-the-way districts with ads.  Democrats were caught unaware and flatfooted.  All told, in 2010 Republicans gained nearly seven hundred state legislative seats.

The Republican Party has not won the popular vote for president since 2004 (George W Bush’s reelection) and Republican Senators have not represented a majority of the country’s voters since 1996, yet Republicans now control 62 state chambers (House or Senate) to the Democrats’ 36.  There are currently 23 Republican trifectas (where one party controls governor, House and Senate), 14 Democratic trifectas, and 13 divided governments where neither party holds trifecta control.

Dominant Republican statehouse control gives the minority Republican Party control of American politics.  Furthermore, its capacity to continue gerrymandering state legislative districts gives it the power to remain in control of statehouses.

(To be continued here.)