The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A foreign solution to America’s political dysfunction

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It’s hard to sugarcoat the Senate’s acquittal of former president Donald Trump. On Saturday, 43 Republican senators rejected the House impeachment managers’ rather convincing case that Trump helped incite the violent Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. Unmoved even by fresh evidence that their colleagues in the House had directly pleaded with Trump to call off the insurrectionist mob, the Republican lawmakers opted to stand by Trump, marking once more the polarization that defines American politics.

Some of the senators may have little sympathy for the former president, yet made the partisan choice to appease an increasingly extremist Republican base. A recent poll conducted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that nearly 4 out of 10 Republicans believe that political violence is justifiable and could be necessary in a troubled domestic future. Another poll found that three-quarters of Republican voters want Trump to play a prominent role in the party’s future.

Analysts point to the asymmetry of U.S. politics. Comparative studies place the Republican Party on the far right of the Western political spectrum and the Democrats closer to the center. But the intensifying divide within the United States has heightened a sense of zero-sum conflict, one that could be seen in the passions and terror of the deadly Jan. 6 attack. Trump may carry some blame for the combustible atmosphere surrounding Washington, but the problems run deeper, down to the aging pillars of the American political experiment.

Citing different models found in other advanced democracies, a growing cohort of experts fault both the American two-party system and the electoral politics it engenders. “Two-party winner-take-all politics is fueling a calamitous zero-sum toxic partisanship,” wrote Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank, in his 2020 book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.” “But there’s a way out. America can become a multiparty democracy and break the destructive binary.”

For Drutman, the experience of the Trump presidency and its violent coda hammered home the need for substantive political reform. An angry, conspiratorial brand of politics backed by a minority of voters captured half of the two-party system. “We need a center-right party that believes in free and fair and legitimate elections, and that party can only exist if the Republican Party is split into pieces,” Drutman told Today’s WorldView.

Drutman is hardly alone in this view. According to a Gallup poll released Monday, some 62 percent of Americans want the emergence of a third party — the highest number since Gallup started asking about a third party in 2003 — while only a third of Americans said they thought the current two parties adequately represented the public.

Of course, there’s no consensus on what that viable third party ought to be and certainly no clear pathway for it to take power. One can already see American politics fractured roughly among four factions, with the oft-feuding progressive and centrist wings of the Democrats on one side, and the establishment and Trumpist wings of the Republicans on the other. But the entire architecture of the American electoral system disincentivizes political splintering. And the practice of gerrymandering, which sees state governments draw districts in such a way that the vote gets skewed in the ruling party’s favor, has made competitive elections even harder.

As Drutman sees it, multiparty democracy can only flourish in the United States on top of a new system of elections that allows for a more accurate reflection of the electorate. He is an advocate of forms of proportional representation voting that exist in many other countries, where elections apportion seats in the national legislature on the basis of the vote share won by that particular party. Proportional representation, or PR, voting varies in its implementation country-to-country, but the version Drutman likes the most is Ireland’s mix of multi-seat districts and ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank their order of preference for a slate of candidates and helps ensure that every ballot carries weight.

There can be drawbacks — Israel’s dizzying PR system has put the country in its own doom loop of electioneering in recent years. But scholars tend to agree that it produces healthier democratic outcomes. “Parliamentary democracies with PR elections and stable multiparty coalition governments, typical of the Nordic region, generate a broader consensus about welfare policies addressing inequality, exclusion, and social justice,” wrote Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, “and this avoids the adversarial winner-take-all divisive politics and social inequality more characteristic of majoritarian systems.”

There are plenty of other countries that also stage “first-past-the-post” elections like the United States. In Canada and Britain, calls for proportional representation routinely come from parties that win a far bigger share of overall votes than their number of seats in parliament reflects. But multiparty parliamentary systems can still yield a kind of conciliatory politics that seems hard to imagine in Washington’s present partisan climate.

“The incentives to compromise or cooperate with political rivals are absent in a two-party, winner-take-all system — while cooperation between opposing parties through coalition governments, which is the usual governing arrangement in countries with proportional voting systems, promote gentler, kinder politics,” noted political scientists Noam Gidron, James Adams and Will Horne. They added that, “without reforming basic features of the U.S. electoral system, plurality-based, winner-take-all partisan competition will likely continue to sustain political hostility.”

In a thought exercise, Drutman ventured to Today’s WorldView a scenario in which the United States had something like Germany’s hybrid system, where the Bundestag, or national parliament, is elected through a mix of proportional representation and plurality-based voting. The hardcore Trumpist wing of the Republicans would in this setting be closest to the anti-establishment, far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD. “They would be a fringe, far-right party that would be kept out of power, or at best a junior partner in a coalition,” said Drutman.

Instead, in the United States, the political system functionally enabled de facto minority rule, a state of affairs that has both provoked a volatile partisan divide and distorted the priorities of national politics. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post last week, Drutman wrote that some proposed political reforms around voting would ultimately be in the interest of mainstream Republicans and compel them to stop “chasing a shrinking constituency that is mobilized through increasingly extreme threat rhetoric.”

Revamping American democracy seems a daunting project, but Drutman argues that there’s nothing in the Constitution preventing substantive election reforms. On the state level in a few places, ranked-choice voting has already been implemented. Democrats are pushing a major bill, dubbed the For the People Act, that would standardize rules around elections, establish independent state-level redistricting commissions, make voter registration automatic and campaign financing more transparent, among other provisions. Another piece of legislation advanced by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) would convert the House into a chamber elected by new multi-seat districts with ranked-choice voting.

Drutman cites the experience of New Zealand, which after years of public discontent, scrapped its first-past-the-post model for a form of proportional representation in 1993 — and hasn’t looked back. “It’s one of those issues that once you think about it for a while, it makes sense,” he said. “But we just don’t think about it.”

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