Why can’t Congress protect Dreamers or schoolkids? Americans rightly bemoan partisan polarization and political posturing. But a recent study argues that these are symptoms of a deeper dysfunction — a political duopoly that makes its own rules and serves its own interests, preventing competition for voters that would promote compromise and moderation.
In “Why Competition in the Politics Industry Is Failing America,” Katherine M. Gehl and Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter offer an arresting diagnosis: Beneath the strident partisanship, the business of politics is profoundly anticompetitive — the principal barrier to confronting our challenges.
Our major parties, they suggest, prioritize the constituencies that keep them in business — donors, lobbyists, special interests, and a limited cadre of partisan primary voters. This frustrates accountability to the customers they purport to represent: the general public. The parties’ chief concern is not to solve our problems, but to preserve two-party dominance of the political process.
How? For openers, by controlling the rules of competition in ways that limit democratic choice. Exhibit A is the primary system.
Imagine a state or district dominated by partisan voters — say, for example, Republicans. By closing its primary to all but registered Republicans, the party empowers a relatively small group of partisans to select general election candidates for everyone else. This rewards hyperpartisan primary candidates, depriving party moderates, independents, and Democrats of any meaningful choice in November. A minority of voters decides for all.
The prevalence of one-party congressional districts is buttressed by partisan gerrymandering through which parties rig boundaries to maximize the number of noncompetitive races. In 2016 fewer than 10 percent of US House districts and only 28 percent of Senate contests were competitive, according to the study. This virtually guarantees that whoever wins will have been elected in a party primary, further mocking the ideal of “one person, one vote.”
Once elected, the majority party often throttles democracy in Congress. One odious example is the GOP-engendered “Hastert rule,” whereby a speaker of the House will not allow a vote on legislation unless a majority of his or her party supports it — even if most House members overall favor the bill. This destroys any prospect of bipartisanship and compromise.
Who do these legislators propitiate by promoting gridlock and frustrating democratic governance? The same forces that put them there: a minority of partisan primary voters and the donors and interest groups who finance them in order to shape legislation and public policy. Thus the parties “compete” by pleasing their power bases instead of representing the voters. The authors cite the depressing conclusion from a 2014 survey of congressional voting: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule . . . impact on public policy.”
Awash in money, the parties cement their duopoly by controlling the components of a modern political campaign — consultants, pollsters, media experts, policy providers, voter data, organizational infrastructure, and financing – as well as access to general election debates and even a place on the ballot. And so, third-party and independent challengers face daunting odds, as do nonconforming Republicans and Democrats.
All of this reinforces the drivers of polarization: a limited customer base, an absence of broad accountability, and disincentives to problem-solving. As the authors note, targeting a broader group of voters would blur partisan differentiation — and create more pressure to act constructively.
Instead, the parties make things worse, deploying false choices and hyperpartisan rhetoric to conceal the escalating emptiness of our politics. Alienated, ever more voters turn away in disgust, or resort to fake messiahs like Donald Trump, further fraying the fabric of a functioning democracy.
The authors venture some antidotes to this systemic toxicity. Mercifully, they do not include proportional representation, which, as seen in countries like Israel, empowers fringe parties to wield disproportionate, often extreme influence on public policy. Instead, they advocate reforms designed to yield officeholders committed to seeking consensus and solving problems.
Restructuring the election process is essential. Nonpartisan primaries open to all voters, now California’s system, would favor candidates who appeal to the general electorate. Ranked-choice voting in general elections, facilitating an instant runoff, would yield officeholders elected with majority support. Nonpartisan commissions to draw legislative boundaries would limit artificially designed one-party districts.
The legislative process should curb partisan roadblocks such as the Hastert rule. And, given the slide into plutocracy powered by Citizens United, campaign finance rules should be amended to support public financing and encourage campaign contributions by average citizens.
This would require a sustained and determined grassroots effort. Americans deserve a real democracy, not this Potemkin village on the Potomac.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.