Structural Changes to American Politics
Recently, I have become convinced that the only massive structural reforms to our government can fix the insane mess that is American politics.
To explain, the structure of our political institutions rewards many destructive behaviors. Primary elections, midterm elections, the Electoral College, gerrymandered districts, the overrepresentation of small states in the US Senate, and first-past-the-post voting encourage hyper-partisanship, voter suppression, and racism, for example.
Hypocritically, voters blame politicians for behavior the system encourages. Worse, politicians criticize ordinary people for lacking patriotism or civic spirit when they refuse to participate in a corrupt system that is rigged against them.
The structure of our government turns politics into a doom loop that works this way. Votes elect a “reform candidate” such as President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) or US Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York). Once in office, the reform candidate acts like other politicians because that is the behavior the system rewards.
The Real Cause of the Culture War
Then the voters attack the reform candidate as a fraud or a sell-out. One result of this is that politicians such as Trump engage in “culture war” politics to win the votes of tiny minorities they need to win elections. Unfortunately, the culture war politics alienate most voters.
A consequence of culture war politics is that growing numbers of Americans view segments of society as the enemy. For example, many of color, especially blacks, view white Republicans as the enemy. Similarly, white Republicans view people of color and intellectuals as the enemy. Some intellectuals and upper-class whites now view Christians or Evangelicals as the enemy.
These views develop because it pays for politicians and their allies in the media to encourage such beliefs through the culture war. Hence, partisan news outlets such as MSNBC, Fox News, Breitbart, Pod Save America, One America, NewsMax, etc promote the culture war to drive voters.
In American politics, the culture war has two purposes. First, it discourages votes by deliberately alienating segments of the population from the political system. The hope is to discourage the other side from voting against you.
How Politics Drives the Culture War
Second. the culture war encourages your side to vote by making absurd claims about the damage the other side will do in power or is doing in power.
Examples of these claims include the fantasies; liberals are coming to take your guns, white Republicans are restoring Jim Crow, Democrats (or Republicans) “stole” the last election, leftists are teaching your children to hate America, and Democrats are planning to Defund the Police. Such claims are bullshit, but they become political gospel.
One result of this fantasy politics is to breed cynicism and discourage political participation when the hysterical claims never come true. Another consequence is rising frustration as politicians ignore the nation’s actual problems, for example rising poverty, growing income inequality, a housing shortage, and a broken healthcare system.
A final problem is that the culture war tropes need to become more hysterical and absurd to motivate voters. For example, Republicans’ embrace of the QAnon nonsense and Democrats’ embrace of the imbecilic Russiagate conspiracy. Political discourse turns into fantasy land, which drives millions of voters away from the polls.
Structural Changes that could Fix the System
Change One: Abolish the Electoral College and elect the president and vice president by popular vote.
The Electoral College is the unelected body that elects the president and vice president. Since they pick electors by state, the outcome of the Electoral College vote can differ from the popular vote.
The ideal solution is to abolish the Electoral College through a short Constitutional Amendment. Passing such an amendment is tough because of the Constitution. The Constitution requires a vote of two-thirds of state legislatures to pass an amendment or call a Constitutional Convention to rewrite the Constitution. I think getting two-thirds of the state legislature to pass anything could be impossible in today’s political climate.
Alternatives to abolishing the Electoral College include the National Popular Vote Compact, which requires states to assign their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The problem with this is, it that it will require electors to support candidates a majority of a state’s residents vote against. I think that’s wrong.
Another alternative is to have presidential candidates sign a pledge not to take office if they do not win the popular vote. Unfortunately, this will be impossible to enforce. Remember, Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) opposed the Electoral College until it put him in the White House. An interesting; and probably unconstitutional possibility, is a federal law requiring the President to win the popular vote.
Electoral College abolition is a limited solution. In 2016, Electoral College abolition could have kept the unhinged, impotent, power mad, corrupt, and racist Trump out of office. Unfortunately, the unhinged, corrupt, power-mad, incompetent, and paranoid Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York) won the popular vote in 2016.
Merely changing the people we put in the Oval Office will not fix the system nor address the underlying problems. Indeed, focusing on the Presidency makes the situation worse by giving people false hope and encouraging Americans to waste time, money, resources, and efforts in presidential elections.
Change Two: Abolish or Reform Primaries
The primary system is the enormous problem with our political system that almost nobody talks about.
Primary elections are problematic because only 16%-32% of the electorate vote in them. Yet primaries often determine the winners of the elections. The big problem is that primary electorates differ from the general electorate.
For example, in 2016, polls shows general election voters preferred former Governor John Kasich (R-Ohio). Notably, 45% of registered voters nationwide said they would vote for Kasich in March 2016.
Those voters preferred Kasich to Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York) by a margin of 45%-39% a Monmouth Poll estimated. A Fox News Poll Found voters preferred Kasich to Clinton by a margin of 11 points.
Yet, Politico’s Nick Gass noted Kasich “mathematically has no shot at winning the GOP nomination outright.” History proved Gass correct, Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) won the 2016 Republican Primary and the presidential election even though a March 2016 Monmouth Poll found 60% of voters disapproved of him. Similarly, Monmouth estimated that 50% of voters disapproved of the Democratic nominee Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York).
One result of the primary was that voter turnout in 2016 fell to a historic low, with 55% of eligible voters casting ballots, CNN estimates. A major reason many voters stayed away was that they disapproved of both presidential candidates.
The obvious fix to this problem is to reform or abolish primaries. One solution is the open or jungle primary in which all candidates compete. They use this system in Louisiana, California, and Washington State. Jungle primaries could make elections more competitive, but they may not increase turnout.
I think a better solution is to allow any party that can prove it has the support of 10% of registered voters to field candidates in the general election. We could also use party-list elections in which the party chooses the candidates. Since a large percentage of people vote for parties rather than candidates, this could be more fair.
In the general election, we could use ranked-choice voting to choose a winner. In ranked-choice balloting, voters list their preferences with their favorite first. If no candidate wins over 50%, the candidates participate in instant run offs until somebody gets over 50% of the vote.
Several US jurisdictions including New York City and Maine are experimenting with ranked-choice voting. Some observers credit ranked-choice voting for moderate Eric Adams’ (D-Brooklyn) upset victory in the New York City Democratic Mayoral Primary.
Another intriguing solution is to abolish Sore Loser Laws. Sore Loser Laws prevent primary losers from competing in the general election. Hence, a mainstream candidate who loses to a wingnut in the primary cannot challenge the whacko in the general election.
Instead, in our sick system, the mainstream candidate has to campaign for the wingnut, even if the whacko is a racist or a lunatic. Hence, the wingnut appears to be a legitimate candidate, a rational choice, and “mainstream.”
One result of this system is the modern Democratic Party in which a small cadre of neoliberal extremists, such as Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), masquerade as “moderates” and force the party to adopt an extremist agenda they disguise as “compromise.” Republicans are heading in a similar direction; in which racists such as Trump and imperialist warmongers such as US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-Graham), pass as mainstream conservatives.
In both cases, we get parties completely alienated from their bases and most voters. I think the control of the two major parties by extremist majorities explains why 33% of eligible voters or 80 million Americans did not vote in 2020. Many of those people correctly conclude neither party represents their beliefs or interests. Hence, they have no reason to go to the polls.
I think abolishing or reforming primaries will go a long way to reforming elections. Unfortunately, killing primaries will be tough because professional politicians benefit from them.
Solution Three: Abolish Midterm Elections
Midterm elections are one of most destructive and least-discussed flaws in America’s electoral system.
To explain, the Constitution mandates the election of US Representatives every two years. This means that US Representatives have to run for reelection every two years. Hence, representatives spend half their time campaigning or raising money for campaigns.
This creates a terrible system in which representatives spend almost no time legislating. Instead, a small cadre of leaders, Congressional staffs, and lobbyists does the work and controls the House.
Representatives neglect the essential and constitutionally mandated work of the House. They spend all their time campaigning, instead, which politicizes the entire process.
Midterm elections corrupt the system because the typical representative needs to raise several million dollars to finance a campaign every two years. Hence, midterm elections increase the power and influence of donors and put representatives at their mercy. This explains why our federal government and Congress serves the rich and big corporations while ignoring ordinary people.
Another problem with midterms is that they give a minority a veto on the majority vote. To elaborate, only around 40% of Americans vote in midterm elections, Fairvote estimates.
Those midterm voters are older, richer, whiter, better-educated, and more conservative than most Americans. Hence, a minority can throttle a party’s agenda even if a majority of Americans voted for that party in the general election.
Most Americans want higher taxes on the rich. However, midterm voters and donors do not, so the tax rate on the rich stays low even as essential programs such as Social Security run out of money.
Midterm elections partially explain why nothing changes in Washington. US Representatives have a powerful incentive to do nothing and maintain the status if they want reelection.
The solution to this problem is a Constitutional Amendment expanding US Representative terms to four years. Moreover, the US Representative terms should be simultaneous with the president’s. Hence, Americans would vote for representatives and the President at the same time.
Similarly, I would like to see US Senators elected during presidential election years. To do this, we would have to limit Senators’ terms to four years or expand them to eight years. Hence, Americans would elect Congress at the same time as the President. Moreover, representatives could have several years to legislate and need less money for reelection.
I think a Constitutional Amendment to change US Representatives’ terms is doable. Many Representatives and former representatives hate constant campaigning and want to end it. They could twist state legislators’ arms to pass the amendment.
Two logical people to lead the campaign for this amendment are former US Speakers of the House John Boehner (R-Florida) and Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). Both quit Congress in disgust because they could not accomplish anything in the House. A left-wing leader for the campaign could be Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D-Minneapolis). Ellison quit the House in disgust after Democratic leaders sabotaged his career there.
Abolishing midterms is a simple change that will be easy to sell to voters. Remember, states spend tens of millions of dollars holding midterm elections. Eliminating them will save taxpayers enormous amounts of money.
Solution Four: End Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering is the practice of creating “safe districts” or “rotten boroughs” to ensure the election of a party’s candidate.
Gerrymandering magnifies the effects of midterms and primaries by creating districts tiny minorities can easily dominate. For example, rural-white or urban black districts. A popular tactic is to split population centers into several districts to dilute the vote of the majority.
In recent years, Republicans have become masters of Gerrymandering. In fact, Democratic data firm TargetSmart estimates Republicans could retake the US House of Representatives in 2022 through gerrymandering in four Southern States. Those states are Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas.
Furthermore, TargetSmart claims Republicans could redraw 187 Congressional districts to their advantage over the next year. The GOP can redraw those districts because it controls state legislatures. In most states, legislatures set US Representatives Districts, so the party in charge can gerrymander districts to its advantage.
Unlike primaries and midterms, gerrymandering attracts organized opposition. The US House recently passed the America Votes Act which bans Gerrymandering. Unfortunately, that measure died in the US Senate because of the egoistical antics of Sinema and Manchin.
Movie star and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-California) has led a successful campaign for state referendums creating boards to set districts. However, legislatures still draw most congressional districts.
I think the logical solution to gerrymandering is a federal agency that will draw congressional districts. My suggestion is to have this agency redraw the districts every four years. So the House will reflect the nation’s population. I think we can dispense with the nonsense known as the US Census because algorithms make it easy to estimate the US population without a count.
Solution Five: Proportional Representation
Under a proportional representation system, any party that gets a large percentage of the vote receives a seat from a legislative district or geographic region.
In a proportional system, a district has multiple representatives. If 50% of the district votes Democrat and 45% Republican. The district will send both a Democrat and a Republican to Congress. If the Greens or the Libertarians get 30% of the vote, they could also send a representative to Congress.
The advantage of proportional representation is that it does not shut major parties out of power. In most elections, both Democrats and Republicans will get some seats.
America’s current system, plurality voting, uses a winner takes-all method. Since there is only one winner per district, parties have a powerful incentive to shut the other party out.
We have gerrymandering, voter suppression, and culture war politics in America because plurality voting rewards those tactics. Proportional representation will not make politics gentle, but it could make politics nicer.
To explain, parties will have to cooperate and be nice because the other guys will usually have a proportion of the vote. One advantage to proportional representation is that it gives minorities some representation and power. Thus, conservatives, Christians, blacks, rural residents, and others will not fear the political system because they will participate in it.
One of the worst features of American politics is that certain groups always vote for specific parties they perceive as representing their interests. For instance, rural whites and evangelicals usually vote Republican, while suburban whites and blacks normally support Democrats.
The groups vote this way because some influence is better than no influence. IE, evangelical Christians know they have no influence with Democrats and African Americans know they have no influence with Republicans.
Hence, plurality voting makes the system nastier by allowing candidates to pander to racial, cultural, and class prejudices. This leads to the election of open white supremacists such as Trump and black nationalists.
Similarly, cultural issues such as abortion assume a disproportionate level of importance. Compromise becomes impossible because candidates need the support of small minorities who feel strongly about those issues to win elections.
America already has a corrupt form of proportional representation in the US Senate and the gerrymandered US House. The problem is our proportional representation only gives representation to some proportions of the population.
My suggestion is to change the US House to a proportional system. My suggestion is districts of one state or two million voters, whichever is larger. Each district gets three proportionally elected representatives.
One advantage of this system is that small states get more representation. Another advantage is that large unrepresented groups will get representation. For example, Democrats in Texas, and Republicans in California and Colorado.
To explain, Republicans make up around 25% to 30% of California’s population. Yet most California Republicans get no representation. Neither Lone Star State Democrats who make up 40% of Texas’s population
Proportional representation could discourage gerrymandering because the other side gets representation no matter how they draw the district.
Solution Six: Fix the US Senate
The problem with the US Senate is that it gives all states the same number of Senators. Hence, the United States Senate provides the same representation (two Senators) to Texas (population 29 million) and California (population 39.51 million) as to Rhode Island (population 1.059 million) and Wyoming (population 578,759).
This system gives small states a veto over anything most of the population wants. For example, 73% of Americans including 54% of Republicans, 91% of Democrats, and 54% of “independents,” support stricter gun control laws, a 2019 Politico/Morning Consult Poll estimates. For example, 72% of Americans want to ban high-capacity magazines for guns.
Interestingly, only 44% of Americans think gun ownership is an important right. Yet, “gun rights” is a major political issue. Notably, federal gun control laws are weaker now than 20 years ago. Republicans allowed a ban on the sale of semiautomatic firearms (what the press wrongly calls assault weapons) to the public to lapse.
American gun control laws are weak because the US Senate gives disproportionate representation to low population rural states such as Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas. Rural state Senators have no incentive to compromise on gun legislation because they can kill any gun law.
The US Senate will become far less representative soon. By 2040, 30% of Americans will have 70 senators representing them. David Birdsell estimates, Washington Post national codependent Philip Bump writes Moreover, 30 US Senators could represent 70% of Americans in 2040.
To elaborate, Birdsell forecasts 70% of Americans will live in 15 states in 2040. Hence, those people will elect just 30 Senators. Birdsell is the dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College.
I think the only workable solution to this imbalance will be a Constitutional Amendment allowing states to elect US Senators by population. For example, allow each state one additional US Senator for every five million residents. Hence, California would have seven additional Senators and Texas will get give five additional Senators.
We should elect US Senators proportionately, so that they represent most of state’s residents. Finally, I recommend election of Senators from a party list. Under the party list system, people will vote for parties and not candidates. That could reduce the celebrity and horse race aspects of the system. Moreover, since most people vote by party, the system will be fairer.
Another change I recommend is that when a Senate seat falls empty. Allow the party that won the last election, not the governor or the legislature to fill it. Hence, respect voters’ wishes.
Passing such a Constitutional Amendment will be difficult because the Constitution requires the vote of two-thirds of state legislatures to pass an amendment. Thus, I think we will need to find some means of forcing or scaring small state legislatures into passing the amendment.
My suspicion is that we will need a terrible scare such as a military coup or near revolution to force states legislatures to fix the Senate. Note, a mob attack on the Capitol did not suffice. My fear is we will need something far worse to force our leaders to act. Perhaps Mitch McConnell’s body hanging from a lamppost in front of the Capitol.
The most important change America needs is leaders similar to the Founding Fathers, who are not afraid to tinker with the system.
One reason our government is such a mess that is that brain-dead leaders; such as Joe Biden and Joe Manchin are afraid to change anything. President Biden is afraid to suggest modest reforms such as killing the filibuster and packing the Supreme Court. Manchin views the filibuster as a command from God he must fight for at all costs. I think such lunacy will destroy the system by making reform impossible.
America can only solve its problems if our leaders will change the system.