Beware of Complicated Restructuring

Colleen McGrath/The Herald-Mail via AP

A poll worker hands out "I Voted" stickers during a primary election at Maugansville Elementary School in Maugansville, Maryland. 

Although I am a friend of Ben Page and Marty Gilens and a fan of their tireless work on behalf of equality and democracy, their article “Making American Democracy Representative”has limited appeal for me. I agree with some of their proposals, but I disagree with others. I also disagree with a fundamental premise of their approach, and instead favor a more feasible alternative path to making American politics more democratic. 

I do support their first proposal, ranked-choice voting, and admire the work that reformers have done in Maine to implement ranked choice under difficult political circumstances, though it is not the only way to address the problem of spoiler candidates. Fusion voting—that is, allowing cross-endorsements of candidates by multiple parties—has some of the same effects. Fusion in New York, Connecticut, and a few other states has enabled third parties, including the Working Families Party, to have major influence in elections without being forced into the spoiler role.

The creation of multi-member, proportional representation districts for Congress, coupled with RCV, would also be a good idea, at least in theory. Multi-party parliamentary systems do a better job than our system in reflecting a society’s major strands of opinion and ensuring their representation in legislative bodies. But I say “in theory” because building support for multi-member PR districts would be tremendously difficult in view of American political traditions. This is not to say that reformers should think small, but any movement for change has to make strategic resource and priority choices.

But now to my particular objections: The proposal that Page and Gilens make to eliminate primaries is a bad idea. Political parties play a productive role in organizing people, formulating programs, and choosing candidates to advance that agenda. We can certainly critique the way the major parties are operating, but eliminating primaries, taking away party-lever voting, and having one mega-election with individual candidates in November would eviscerate parties in ways that we would rue.

In an effort to make politics less polarizing, Page and Gilens aim their proposals at too broad a target—political parties. To be sure, the polarization and tribalization of our politics, indeed of our whole society, is a frightening development. But blaming parties in general and therefore structurally weakening them seems like a be-careful-what-you wish-for moment in the extreme. Page and Gilens ignore the evidence that polarization is asymmetrical: It is the Republican Party that has become more extreme, as studies by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson and by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have demonstrated.

Page and Gilens also blame activists and organizers who are out educating and mobilizing people around a set of issues and ideas. Citizen organizing is essential to bringing about change and to sustaining a lively and engaged democracy, even if some organizing is hateful and mean-spirited. Undermining the influence of organized activists in the electoral process in an attempt to have a moderate, centrist consensus would drain some of the life out of our democracy. In addition, the kind of centrist consensus we have had in recent decades has exacerbated inequality, loosened necessary regulations, and invited financial crisis. This is not a past to be pined for. Lessening the impact of organizing and “interest groups,” as if all interests were the same, is a gift to the interests that benefit most from the status quo.

The single biggest surprise here is about big money. Although Page and Gilens have elsewhere criticized political inequality and called for regulation of campaign finance, they leave those regulatory reforms out of the formula for fixing democracy that they propose in this article. If our system were redesigned along the lines they suggest without limiting the power of money, the rich donor class could focus all their funding on one November free-for-all in which parties and activists would be hobbled.

All of this points to what I think is the fundamental flaw in the premise of the mega-reform that Page and Gilens propose. In its totality, it creates a complicated set of structural changes that will be extremely difficult to achieve and could have unforeseen collateral consequences, in the hope of solving problems that could be addressed in other ways.

In the Prospect’s fall issue, “The Good News from the Voting Wars,” Cecily Hines and I highlight the remarkable number of reforms achieved at the state level all around the country that have opened up expanded opportunities for people to register and vote. These reforms have been hard-won by organizers and activists who understand that full participation by every voter in every community is the best way to bring about a truly responsive democracy. The new rules they have brought about are in effect today and are being utilized by campaigns, organizers, and activists to boost turnout and the possibilities of progressive change.

If the election of 2018 is characterized by a larger and more representative turnout, it will not only increase the chances for a blue wave but will help create more opportunities for an expanded democracy. Advocates and activists need to continue to fight to beat back voter suppression, take down the barriers to voting, limit the power of big money, and eliminate gerrymandering. In addition, if we have reforms that ensure that everyone registers and votes, that will be a big deal in and of itself.

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