How Sore Loser Laws Explain Dysfunctional Politics

America’s political system is dysfunctional because of structural flaws. To explain, it is the structure of the political system, not corruption, ideology, or incompetent leaders, that creates the current mess in American politics.

A prime example of such structural flaws are “Sore Loser Laws.” A Sore Looser Law prevents the looser of a primary election from running in the general election. Around 47 states have some version of a Sore Loser Law in place.

For example, Nina Turner cannot challenge Shontel Brown for Ohio’s 11th District US House of Representatives seat. Turner lost to Brown in the 3 August 2021 Democratic primary.

Since the 11th is a heavily Democratic district, Brown goes to Congress because she will face no serious challenge in the 2 November 2021 general election. The Sore Loser Law prevents Turner from challenging Brown as an independent candidate or the Working Families Party Candidate.

Hence, all the money and effort spent on Turner’s behalf is a waste. Worse, Turner will have to endorse Brown and possibly campaign for Brown in the General Election. Disgustingly, Brown, a classic centrist, can now portray herself as a progressive and a champion of working-class black people when she is a creature of the elite.

How Sore Loser Laws Help Extremist Minorities

Sore Loser Laws help extremist minorities obtain and retain power because only a small percentage of Americans vote in primaries.

For example, only 19.6% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2018 US House primaries, Pew Research estimates. Frighteningly, that number grew from 13.7% of registered voters who participated in 2014 House primaries.

Hence, a well-organized or well-funded extremist minority can capture a House seat. For example, the so-called Democratic Establishment which promotes extreme neoliberal policies while masquerading as “centrists.” In the Republican Party it benefits the far-right.

For example, 62% of Democrats support single payer healthcare, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates. Yet, politicians regard support for Medicare for All as the kiss of death in the Democratic primaries.

The reason for that is a minority of college educated white upper class Democrats who oppose single payer is more likely to vote in primaries. Hence, Democratic politicians pander to that minority. Which benefits pro-corporate centrists.

Fox News Nation vs MSNBC Nation

One way to think of Republican Primary voters is as Fox News Nation. Similarly, Democratic primary voters are MSNBC Nation. The opinions on Fox News and MSNBC are not those of most Republicans or Democrats. However, the opinions on Fox are those of most Republican primary voters, while MSNBC’s opinions are those of Democratic voters.

Indeed, ratings show those networks’ viewership is tiny. But they reach the minorities who control the primaries. Deadline estimates MSNBC averaged 772,000 viewers and Fox News averaged 1.19 million viewers in a nation of 332 million people in July 2021.

Colorado’s Third US House district features a classic example of such a capture. In the June 2021 primary Lauren Boebart, a gun rights extremist and Fox News candidate defeated incumbent Scott R. Tipton. Tipton, a popular establishment candidate, had the support of President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) in the third district primary.

As US Representative, Boebart has been an embarrassment. For example, Salon alleges Boebert led a mysterious tour of the US Capitol on 12 December 2020. Salon claims the tour was reconnaissance for some extremists who took part in the 6 January 2021 US Capitol Eiot.

Boebart is only in the house because a Sore Loser Law prevented Tipton from running in the General Election. If there were no Sore Loser Law, Tipton could have run on a True Republican ticket endorsed by Trump. Instead, Trump and other Republicans had to campaign for the embarrassing Boebert.

How Sore Loser Laws help Trump

One person who benefits from Sore Loser Laws is former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida).

In January 2021, it horrified many Americans when many moderate and conservative Republicans voted against Trump’s impeachment after the January 6 Capitol Riot. Those Republicans voted against impeachment because they fear losses in closed party primary elections that will end their careers.

Conversely, US Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted to remove Trump. Unlike most Republicans, Murkowski can run in the general election if she loses the primary. In 2010, Murkowski lost the Republican primary to a “Tea Party” conservative but won the general election in November.  

Meanwhile, moderate Republicans who face primaries in states with Sore Loser Laws jump on the Trump bandwagon. For example, US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). Hence, Trump dominates the Republican Party even though most Americans despise him.

Sore Loser Laws benefit corrupt establishment candidates such as Trump and US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) because they ensure party loyalists win most elections. Loyalists win election by pandering to the party base with extreme positions, then do little or nothing in office expect follow the party bosses’ orders.

Blame the Voters not the System

Unfortunately, the media and politicians never talk about Sore Loser Laws. I only learned about those laws from  Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter’s excellent bookThe Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.

Instead, pundits, journalists, and politicians blame voters for apathy. Hence, insiders blame the people for problems they or their predecessors created.

Frighteningly, Sore Loser Laws are just of many of the structural flaws that keep our politics from being truly competitive. Other structural blockages include single-party primary elections, voter suppression, gerrymandering, plurality voting, special elections, and winner take-all elections. If you want an excellent overview of the system, see The Politics Industry.

Gehl and Porter’s allegation is that insiders built our political system to be uncompetitive. Notably, the political reform advocates at Fairvote estimate 83% of US House elections were not competitive in 2020.  

One result of this system is that politicians and activists concentrate money and resources on a few competitive elections or primaries. The Turner-Brown contest in Ohio’s 11th District is a classic example. Candidates such as Turner and Brown accumulate piles of cash. Meanwhile, the average House challenger has to hold bake sales to raise money.

How Political Structure Breeds Apathy

Another result of this system is to promote apathy. Voters rightly conclude that elections are noncompetitive and ignore them. Politicians and pundits; noting low voter turnout, attack ordinary Americans as apathetic and unpatriotic.

Another result of this system is to promote apathy. Voters rightly conclude that elections are noncompetitive and ignore them. Politicians and pundits; noting low voter turnout, attack ordinary Americans as apathetic and unpatriotic.

Instead, politicians and others resort to flag-waving get-out-the-vote propaganda. That propaganda breeds cynicism because ordinary people correctly see the system as corrupt and undemocratic.

Ultimately, this system breeds violence because ordinary people feel powerless. Frustration with the system grows, leading to outbursts such as the George Floyd riots in Summer 2020 and the 6 January 2021 Capitol Insurrection.

Congress Fears the People

Unfortunately, the reaction of the political elite to the violence is to demonize ordinary people. Republicans attack Black Lives Matter protesters as criminals, while Democrats brand Trump supporters racist terrorists.

One frightening result of this lunacy is to expand the power, budgets, and size of law enforcement and security agencies. Instead of fixing the system. The so-called leaders plan to lash out at ordinary people with violence and oppression.

For example, Congress increased funding for the US Capitol Police by $2.1 billion. Yet Capitol Police failed completely on 6 January 2021. NPR reports the funding increase passed the US Senate by a 98 to 0 vote. The House passed the measure by 416-11.

That funding will include a Capitol Police field office in Tampa, Florida, to investigate threats to Congress, The Tampa Bay Times reports. Hence, our supposedly grid locked Congress can agree on something. Disgustingly, that something is funding a secret police force to protect Congress from the American people.

The problem in America is the structure of our political structure, not the American people. Unfortunately, our leaders cannot see the problem because they benefit from the political structure.