“How to Keep Extremists Out of Power”

That’s the title the NYT gave my latest piece. I’ll include an excerpt here, though it’s a bit hard to excerpt this one because I raise reform proposals in four different areas:

American democracy faces alarming risks from extremist forces that have rapidly gained ground in our politics. The most urgent focus of political reform must be to marginalize, to the extent possible, these destabilizing forces.

Every reform proposal must be judged through this lens: Is it likely to fuel or to weaken the power of extremist politics and candidates?

In healthy democracies, they are rewarded for appealing to the broadest forces in politics, not the narrowest. This is precisely why American elections take place in a “first past the post” system rather than the proportional representation system many other democracies use.

What structural changes would reward politicians whose appeal is broadest? We should start with a focus on four areas.

Reform the presidential nomination process

Until the 1970s, presidential nominees were selected through a convention-based system, which means that a candidate had to obtain a broad consensus among the various interests and factions in the party. “Brokered conventions” — which required several rounds of balloting to choose a nominee — offered a vivid demonstration of how the sausage of consensus was made. In 1952, for example, the Republican Party convention selected the more moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower over Robert A. Taft, the popular leader of the more extreme wing of the party, who opposed the creation of NATO. …

How can we restore some of the party-wide consensus the convention system required? The parties can use ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. This rewards candidates with broad appeal to a party’s voters, even if they have fewer passionate supporters. … Ranked-choice voting reduces the prospects of factional party candidates. Presidents with a broad base of support can institute major reforms, as Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan demonstrated.

Reform the party primaries

Many incumbents take more extreme positions than they might otherwise endorse because they worry about a primary challenge.

One way to help defang that threat is to eliminate “sore-loser” laws. These laws, which exist in some form in 47 states, bar candidates who have lost in a party primary from running in the general election as an independent or third-party candidate. Thus, if a more moderate candidate loses in a primary to a more extreme one, that person is shut out from the general election — even if he or she would likely beat the (sometimes extreme) winners of the party primaries. One study finds that sore-loser laws favor more ideological candidates: Democratic candidates in states with the law are nearly six points more liberal and Republicans nearly nine-to-10 points more conservative than in states without these laws. …

Reform gerrymandering

Many reformers agree on the need to take redistricting out of the hands of partisan state legislatures and give it to a commission. In several recent state ballot initiatives, voters have endorsed this change. But that still raises a question: What constitutes a fair map?

Redistricting reform should have as a goal the creation of competitive election districts. Competitive districts pressure candidates from both the left and the right, which creates incentives to appeal to the political center. They also encourage more moderate candidates to run in the first place, because they know they have a greater prospect of winning than in a district whose seat is safe for the other party.

[I’ve left out suggestions for the right direction for campaign finance reform]

Jan. 6 provided a painful demonstration of the dangerous currents gathering in American political culture. Every proposed election reform must now be measured against this reality to make sure political reform furthers American democracy.

I’m aware of ongoing debates about these issues, which there was no space to address in the NYT. My goal was to frame the general question and encourage debate and discussion about these specific proposals, along with additional ones that should be part of the conversation. I’ll respond in later posts or elsewhere to what I expect will be some pushback on some of these ideas.


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