What We Can Do to Make American Politics Less Dysfunctional

From a New York Times guest essay by Yuval Levin headlined “What We Can Do to Make American Politics Less Dysfunctional”:

The disarray engulfing the House of Representatives has been unprecedented, yet somehow it has also felt inevitable. No sitting speaker has ever been removed before, but the process that brought about Representative Kevin McCarthy’s overthrow was the culmination of several related trends that have amounted to a repudiation of coalition-building in American politics.

That process has been overdetermined in an era of partisan polarization and geographic sorting (Americans increasingly live in communities full of like-minded partisans), but that doesn’t mean we are powerless against it. The rules of our politics should be designed to counteract our worst vices, not to reinforce them. That means we particularly need to rethink party primaries — which give our politicians all the wrong incentives.

The upheaval in the House is rooted in the dynamics of an era of deadlock. American politics isn’t just polarized but nearly tied, and it has been that way for much of the past 30 years. The average House majority since 1995 has been just over 30 seats. The average over the previous century was more than 80 seats. The current Congress and the previous one, with their incredibly slim House majorities (first Democratic and then Republican), are rare in historical perspective.

Such narrow majorities empower the fringes of our politics. Only eight Republican members voted to remove their speaker, but when the majority’s margin is so small (and the minority party can be relied on to play its lock step part), a tiny tail can wag the dog. Razor-thin majorities are inherently unstable, yet neither party seems capable of broadening its appeal, and therefore its coalition.

Mr. McCarthy’s ouster was also a function of the centralization of power in Congress. The toppling of the speaker might suggest that House leaders are too weak, but partisan dissatisfaction with Mr. McCarthy had to do with the effectively impossible expectations members now have of party leaders. The members who rebelled against him claimed to want “regular order” in the House, but they also insisted that legislative outcomes must conform to strict partisan goals.

These are plainly contradictory demands: Regular order involves cross-partisan negotiation and bargaining, and so would result in legislative outcomes that are more durable but less ideologically satisfying. In the end, the rebels revealed their real priorities. They kicked out the speaker for passing a continuing resolution with Democratic votes, putting their weight behind the notion that party leaders must tightly control the House and prevent cross-partisan coalitions from forming. The Democrats’ unanimity in supporting the speaker’s removal evinced the same view.

But perhaps above all, the tumult in the House is a function of deformed expectations of Congress itself. Members are increasingly pulled in different directions by the imperatives of legislative work and those of electoral politics.

A legislature is an arena for negotiation, where differences are worked out through bargains. But our polarized political culture treats deals with the other party as betrayals of principle and failures of nerve. Traditionally, winning an election to Congress has meant winning a seat at the negotiating table, where you can represent the interests and priorities of your voters. Increasingly, it has come instead to mean winning a prominent platform for performative outrage, where you can articulate your voters’ frustrations with elite power, and show them that you are working to disrupt the uses of that power.

These expectations coexist, sometimes within individual members. But they point in very different directions, because the latter view does not involve traditional legislative objectives, and so is not subject to the incentives that have generally facilitated Congress’s work. Instead, some members respond to the incentives of political theater, which is often at least as well served by legislative failure as success. This impulse is evident in both parties, though it is clearly most intense among a portion of congressional Republicans.

Most members still have a more traditional view of their job, and most voters do too, and yet today’s most powerful electoral incentives nonetheless militate toward the more populist, performative view. That’s because electoral incentives for most members of the House now have to do with winning party primaries.

This is not only because geographic sorting has made more seats safe in general elections, but also because the parties have grown institutionally weak, and so have little say over who runs under their banners. Whether justifiably or not, even established incumbents and swing-seat members often worry most about primary challenges, and therefore about voters who do not want them to give ground or compromise. This effectively means they find it politically dangerous to do the job Congress exists to do.

This is a perverse misalignment of incentives. And it contributes to the dynamics that shaped the drama in the House, because it ultimately undermines the imperative for coalition-building. Our parties are deadlocked in part because neither really strives to significantly broaden its coalition — doing so would involve playing down some priorities that most energize primary voters. Power is centralized in Congress to avert unpredictable cross-partisan coalitions and more effectively stage-manage a partisan Kabuki theater.

But more than anything, party primaries now leave both voters and members confused about the purpose of Congress, and so disable the institution.

While there are some reforms of Congress’s procedures that could help it work better — like a budget process that did not culminate in needlessly dramatic crisis moments, and a committee system with more genuine legislative power — it is also increasingly clear that nominee-selection reforms are in order.

Primaries did not create our polarized culture war. They have been widely used to select congressional candidates in most of the country for over a century, and since the 1970s they have also dominated presidential-candidate selection in both parties. But party primaries have come to interact with our embittered political culture in destructive ways. As Nick Troiano argues in a forthcoming book, primaries are bad for voters, bad for parties and bad for the country.

We can’t go back to the pre-primary system in which party professionals deliberated about candidate selection. No politician wants to tell his or her most intensely devoted voters that they are the problem, and in any case that older approach had its own grave deficiencies. So reformers have to look for ways forward within the primary system. They should structure primary elections in ways that incentivize actual legislative work and draw into politics a type of officeseeker inclined to appeal to a broader range of voters and to build coalitions.

A ranked-choice election allows voters to select multiple candidates in order of preference, and then have their vote count on behalf of their second or third choice if their first or second choice is not among the top vote-getters. In most forms, it is essentially an automatic runoff. From the point of view of candidates, such a system creates a strong reason to be many voters’ second choice, as well as the first choice of some. That naturally invites a coalition-building mind-set and could do a better job of attracting candidates capable of broad appeal both on the campaign trail and in office. It would compel politicians to feel accountable to a broader swath of voters, even in safe districts where only the primary matters.

This was the experience of the Virginia Republican Party, which turned to a ranked-choice process to select its gubernatorial nominee in 2021, and through it landed on a candidate, Glenn Youngkin, capable of winning in a purple state. Similar reforms at the primary stage could plausibly help both parties, though there is reason to think that Republicans would have more to gain from deploying them, because at this point they appear to suffer more from the tendency of primaries to yield candidates who turn off winnable but uncommitted voters in the general election and who have little interest in the jobs they are elected to perform.

Republicans tend to be more staunchly opposed to such proposals, and to assume they would only benefit the left. The evidence so far does not support that assumption. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Kevin Kosar argued in a recent paper, Republicans have particularly strong reasons to consider such reforms — at least in primaries.

Deploying ranked-choice methods in general elections could tend to further weaken the parties, which is not the right way to take on our broken political culture. The two parties as institutions are actually moderating forces, because each has an interest in making its tent as broad as possible. But ranked-choice primaries would strengthen the parties, by reinforcing their ability to nominate candidates with broad appeal and better aligning primary, general-election, and governing incentives

Ranked-choice methods would be particularly valuable in congressional primaries because, as we have seen, Congress particularly suffers from the tendency of members to neglect coalition-building and deplore negotiation. The dysfunction of the national legislature is also the source from which most other constitutional dysfunctions now radiate. But if they prove effective, similar reforms might ultimately be of use in presidential primaries as well, and in primaries for state and local offices.

There is no silver bullet for what ails our politics. And ideas like these should be pursued as experiments, state by state. There is always a risk that they could make things worse. But the risks we run by doing nothing are plainly mounting.

Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”

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