Polarization and Political Reform

In a NYT article today, John Schwartz accurately quotes me as expressing skepticism about whether various political reforms are likely to fundamentally transform the hyerpolarized politics of our era. I want to elaborate briefly on those comments, since John could only take a single line from our lengthy conversation.

There are many political reforms I support, of course, including many mentioned in the article. I have written and litigated against partisan gerrymandering for decades; I support automatic voter registration; I’ve been a strong supporter for years of ranked-choice voting. Many good reasons exist to support these and other reforms, in my view.

But I think it’s a mistake for reformers to believe, or to advocate, that these reforms will dramatically reduce the hyperpolarized dynamic of our politics. As I said in the NYT piece, and wrote about at length back in 2010, the polarization of our politics didn’t begin recently. It began in the late 1970s and has been increasing relentlessly ever since. This polarization is the product of large historical and structural forces. And precisely because that’s the case, it’s not likely that there are magic-bullet, specific institutional reforms that will fundamentally transform our polarized politics.

Much of Western Europe is experiencing an increasingly polarized party dynamic as well in recent years, and many of these countries already have automatic voter registration and have their election districts (in countries that use districted elections) drawn by non-partisan bodies. The structural forces driving extreme polarization of democratic politics today are much deeper than can be cured by simple institutional changes.

We should still support political reforms that are likely to improve the democratic process in a variety of ways. But we should not mislead ourselves or others into thinking that these reforms can dissolve our hyperpartisan structure of politics. Indeed, promising more than reforms can plausibly deliver can undermine the cause of reform itself, as voters become cynical when reforms that have been over-sold fail to work out as voters have been promised.

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