“Can Our Political Institutions Handle Our Political Divisions?”

New Lee Drutman report for the New America Foundation:

Executive Summary

The United States is a politically divided nation. These divisions have only grown deeper in the past decade. They are increasingly paralyzing our democratic institutions, which rely on cooperation and compromise to function. They are threatening to tear our country apart.

Divided societies have survived as democracies. But to do so, divided societies require careful attention to the design of their political institutions.

For too long, political reformers have attended to the downstream consequences of division, trying to bridge ever-widening political divides by getting political elites to build relationships and work together across party lines. This paper argues that these efforts may be futile. Instead, we need to attend to the institutional choices that are exacerbating these divides. We may not heal the divisions overnight. But to the extent they exist, we can manage them.

Scholarship on managing divided societies through democratic structures leads to three basic institutional recommendations: a weak executive, a strong legislature elected through proportional representation, and a high degree of federalism. Unfortunately, the U.S. only has one of these features: federalism.

This paper briefly covers each of these three topics, assessing the ways in which our political institutions exacerbate our political divides, and how they could instead mitigate and diffuse our divides.

The recommendation is straightforward. We need to shift the institutional balance of power — away from the executive, and towards the legislature and state and local government, to the greatest extent possible. Fortunately, our existing Constitution allows us to make the necessary changes. It is more a matter of political understanding and political will.


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