Like millions of my fellow Americans, I was profoundly relieved by the election result when it finally arrived last weekend. Yet for so many of us, the relief did not spill over to happiness. As glad as we are to be rid of Trump, we are far from excited by the prospect of four years of Joe Biden’s neoliberal policy priorities and bipartisan deal-making.
The perennial choice between a terrible president and a barely tolerable one is such a persistent feature of the Republican and Democratic Party duopoly that we take it as a given. And yet no one ever voted for such a system, and no true democrat would design it this way from scratch. Critics of today’s two-party system often point out that it is both anti-democratic (in the sense that it systematically overrides the popular will) and anti-Democratic (in the sense that it systematically favors Republicans). Republicans clearly view the preservation of the anti-democratic elements of our system as an existential issue. Donald Trump claimed earlier this year that if it became easier to vote, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” More recently, Lindsey Graham said outright that “if we don’t do something about voting by mail, we’re going to lose our ability to elect a Republican in this country.”
It is easy enough to understand why Republicans continue to double down on all the structural and improvised impediments (gerrymandering, voter suppression, Senate malapportionment, etc.) that have worked well for them in recent decades. What is less clear is why the Democrats continue to cheerfully go along with a system that disenfranchises their constituents and arbitrarily excludes them from the halls of power. Presumably if the Electoral College had tipped in Trump’s favor again with Biden winning the popular vote, Biden would have followed Hillary Clinton’s path of gracefully conceding and attending the inauguration as though everything is fine and normal. In fact, even with Senate control yet to be determined, Biden’s team has floated compromise Cabinet candidates—including Republicans—meant to placate Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, the man who fed Obama’s presidency into the wood chipper and promises to do the same with Biden’s. The party that would most benefit from systematic reform—and that potentially commands the votes necessary to pull it off—instead accepts a wide range of constraints as a brute fact. Why?
Some constraints—such as the overrepresentation of small-state power in the Senate and in the Electoral College—are written into the Constitution, and the obstacles to amending the Constitution are considerable. But the surprising persistence of many of the arbitrary and anti-democratic elements of the American political system stem from an extra-constitutional factor: namely, the two-party system. Both parties—not just the Republicans—are acting rationally to preserve their privileged role as members of an exclusive party duopoly, privileges that would be threatened under a genuinely democratic system. In other words, the Democrats are cooperating with the Republicans to keep America anti-democratic, even when that means allowing it to remain anti-Democratic as well.
Why do the Democrats continue to cheerfully go along with a system that disenfranchises their constituents and arbitrarily excludes them from the halls of power?
These days, many writers—including the living incarnation of Beltway common sense, Vox co-founder Ezra Klein—recognize that the two-party system is incompatible with the Framers’ constitutional design. James Madison famously worried about the dangers of factional politics, although his greatest fear was of an unjust majority trampling the rights of those in the minority. (Today we have the opposite.) In previous eras, where the two parties were less cohesive and cross-party alliances were more common, the system could function with a certain amount of bipartisan comity and compromise. But now that the two parties are fully polarized so that every Democrat is more liberal than every Republican, that kind of cooperation has become virtually impossible. Both parties seek to use the many veto points in our system to thwart their opponents to the greatest possible extent. Something has to give—we either need to return to the less polarized comity of the postwar era, or our institutions need to restructure to reflect the new polarized reality.
Looking back at the partisan alignments of the 1950s and 1960s, though, you can see the impossibility of the former option. In Congress, there was at once a solid bloc of liberal Republicans mostly based in the North, and conservative—and often explicitly segregationist—Democrats throughout the South who rode to office on the backs of their constituents’ resentment of the party of Lincoln. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed by a 290-130 vote in the House, it took a coalition of twenty-seven Republicans and forty-four Democrats to break the filibuster in the Senate that was led by the racist “Dixiecrats.” Conversely, much of Ronald Reagan’s early agenda in the 1980s succeeded because a large group of conservative Democrats—following the lead of the so-called “Reagan Democrats” among the voting population—sided with Republicans, even as Speaker Tip O’Neill led a 269-166 Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. By the time Newt Gingrich sparked a 1994 Republican takeover in the House, liberal Republicans were well on the way to extinction, and most conservative Democrats had either left the party or lost their seats as the Republicans’ infamous “Southern Strategy” finally convinced the erstwhile Dixiecrat supporters to join the GOP. It is difficult to see how we could return to the pre-Gingrich dynamic—nor, given the key role of segregationists in the postwar idyll of bipartisanship, why anyone should want to.
It is also a mistake to claim that both parties make indiscriminate use of the system’s veto points. In the current era, no one could seriously argue that the Democrats have attempted to maximize their institutional leverage to even remotely the same degree as the Republicans. If anything, they have seemingly bent over backward to accommodate Republican power grabs. Al Gore hastily conceded to what at the time seemed like a once-in-a-century Electoral College upset in the 2000 election, while George W. Bush fought tooth-and-nail to secure his victory. Obama squandered a historic mandate—including a rare moment with a Senate majority of 60-40 (including independents who caucused with Democrats) in 2009—by allowing the filibuster to destroy his ability to legislate, govern, and shape the judiciary. He also declined to take any extraordinary action to secure a liberal majority on the Supreme Court in the face of Mitch McConnell’s obstruction. Again and again, Democrats have seemingly ceded midterm elections in advance, most devastatingly in 2010, after which Republicans redrew Congressional and legislative districts to their advantage in key states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. In the 2013 Shelby decision, the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act: that decision allowed a new wave of Republican voter suppression tactics to take hold, especially in Southern states. It is easy enough to blame any one of these Democratic failures on the disposition of individual politicians, but such a clear pattern must have deeper systemic causes.
The evidence suggests that the party that commands a built-in and growing demographic majority and that won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections simply does not want to press its advantage. Why not? I propose that key members of the Democratic establishment are more concerned with disciplining and containing the party’s left flank than with maximizing their power as such and view the idiosyncrasies of the federal system—and the advantages they give the Republicans—as potent tools for achieving those ends. To see how this works, consider the institutional factors that help entrench the party duopoly as a whole rather than favoring any particular party. The most potent is the pervasive use of first-past-the-post voting at every level from local elections to the apportionment of presidential electors. In other words, in a contest where the top two candidates win, say, 41 percent and 40 percent while two others win perhaps 10 percent and 8 percent, the election goes to the 41 percent winner, and 58 percent come up empty-handed. (Some states, such as Georgia and Louisiana, solve this with run-off elections, but most do not.) In the same way, all but two states use a winner-take-all method to choose electors for president; thus, when Bush was said to have won 537 more votes in Florida in 2000, he won all of that state’s twenty-nine electoral votes.
There is no constitutional mandate to use these methods of voting, but the reason for this rare bipartisan consensus is obvious: it prevents the emergence of third-party challengers. The mechanism is familiar to anyone who has ever been brow-beaten for voting for Ralph Nader or Jill Stein: it creates a zero-sum scenario in which a vote for any third party is considered “wasted” and is often said to tip the balance in the opposite direction from what the third party stands for. Also important is the sheer existence of fifty distinct electoral systems, each with its own idiosyncratic standards and deadlines. This mass of confusion creates a significant barrier to entry for any party outside the duopoly—which, in another moment of touching bipartisan unity, automatically grant each other a slot on the ballot in every state, red or blue.
Key members of the Democratic establishment are more concerned with disciplining and containing the party’s left flank than with maximizing their power.
Within a playing field that is structurally tilted in favor of the party duopoly, each party pursues its own strategy to maintain its privileged perch. We can see that perhaps most clearly in their differing approach to one area where they operate relatively independently: the primary system. Republicans, with a structural minority position that is compounded by the unpopularity of their policies, need to generate high levels of enthusiasm. Hence they tend to allow primary challenges to discipline elected officials, even sacrificing very high-ranking members (most dramatically in the case of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was unseated by a Tea Party challenger in 2014) to maintain partisan zeal among their voters. Democrats, by contrast, attempt to thwart primary challenges wherever possible, even rallying behind Joe Lieberman—easily the most hated Democrat among the party’s base at that time—after he lost a primary in Connecticut in 2006. (In the end, Lieberman was able to hold onto his Senate seat by running independently as the candidate for the Connecticut for Lieberman Party.) And as the recent Kentucky senatorial election shows, if given a choice, the Democratic establishment would rather lose with a mediocre moderate candidate than take a chance on a more charismatic progressive—even against the reviled Mitch McConnell.
The most powerful tool for disciplining the Democrats’ left flank is of course the threat of Republican rule. Again and again, voters are asked to turn out for Democrats, who constitute the last line of defense against the Republicans’ vile tyranny, then to sympathize as Democrats are reluctantly “forced” by the oddities of the constitutional system (like the malapportionment of the Senate) or else by supposedly sacred “norms” (like the Senate filibuster) to work with those selfsame villains. It may well be that the paltry legislative successes that Democrats manage under these circumstances are the most we can ever hope for, because the American people will simply never tolerate more progressive policies—despite consistently favoring them in public opinion polling. Yet surely the plainest explanation is that the Democratic leadership simply prefers a more centrist neoliberal policy agenda and is therefore quite content with an institutional set-up that allows them to pursue that goal without making any undesirable concessions to an increasingly progressive base. After all, where is the left wing going to go?
Even with all the hand-wringing in Washington about polarization, do the party elites really dislike it? From an outside, common sense perspective, polarization seems to make the system unworkable, as even the most routine legislation is subject to endless delays and vetoes. But from the perspective of the party duopoly, it entrenches their power by insulating them from any real democratic accountability. Defeats—even major ones—do not result in any serious reflection or change of approach, because they don’t have to. The party leaders are free to double down on their preferred agenda, secure in the knowledge that they will have their turn in power soon enough. Democrats, especially, seem to believe that the inherent demographic advantages of their majority-minority coalition will inevitably give them the upper hand in our current system. Imagine, for example, how the Electoral College might give them a “lock” if Texas were ever to turn blue. That day is of course perpetually deferred, as the Republicans, who are well aware of the same demographic trends, attempt to counteract them through gerrymandering and voter suppression. Yet Democrats prefer to wait patiently rather than go through the bother of reforming the electoral system.
This assurance of a natural seasonal alternation in power may seem naïve in a context where Republicans are still refusing to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory and, more dangerous in the long term, where they have installed a Supreme Court majority that is amenable to Republican gerrymandering and voter-suppression plans. As serious as that threat is, though, the Republicans are facing a shrinking demographic base. Trump’s puzzling gain among some parts of the Latino communities in Florida and Texas may point toward the possibility of winning elections the old-fashioned way by actually appealing to a wider range of voters. Yet here Republicans appear to be caught between a rock and a hard place, as reaching out to conservative Latinos—a perennial proposal for expanding the Republicans’ electoral reach ever since the George W. Bush years—risks alienating their white anti-immigration base. Much as the Latino outreach strategy appeals to policy wonks and columnists, if the party really had reason to believe it could diversify, it wouldn’t be so militant against expanding the vote. The Republicans’ constant stacking of the deck is unjust and illegitimate, but it is also a mark of weakness—a last-ditch effort to stay relevant as a party.
The real threat to the two-party order would come from Democrats actually pressing their advantage, reforming the system to remove its anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) elements. In that scenario, the Republicans might well be condemned to permanent minority status—and rightly so. Yet that shift would not necessarily result in a permanent Democratic supermajority; it could lead to a splintering of the Democratic Party into multiple competing parties. Under such a dispensation, the Centrist Neoliberal Party would surely continue to be relevant, but it would no longer be guaranteed to be in the driver’s seat. Its prospects would be particularly questionable if first-past-the-post and the winner-take-all method of Electoral College tabulation were abolished and replaced with some kind of proportional representation, which would remove the blackmail of strategic voting.
A system in which people could vote for an option that sincerely reflected their preference without perversely benefiting the opposite cause would be a more just and rational one. It is not clear how we can get there from here, but one step is surely to recognize that such a system would be contrary to the interests of the current elites who hold the balance of power in the Democratic Party. This is why neither the most commanding victory nor the most humiliating defeat has ever prompted that party to lift a finger to bring about democratic reforms. An honest assessment of the American political scene must start from the premise that the Democrats fully intend to rule alongside the Republicans indefinitely—meaning that they too, perhaps even more insidiously than their openly anti-democratic colleagues, are an obstacle on the path to truly ruling ourselves.