“The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization”

Yasha Mounk has a new piece in The Atlantic that highlights a study by the Carnegie Endowment led by Jennifer McCoy. Here’s a key passage of Mounk’s piece towards the end:

One approach that could alleviate polarization in the U.S. is institutional reform. Right now, many congressional districts are gerrymandered, shielding incumbents from competitive primaries while making them hostage to the extremist portion of their base. Some states have attenuated this problem by taking districting out of party control. But other measures, such as adopting the single transferable vote or creating multimember districts, could also shift political incentives away from polarization.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mounk that we need to look for institutional solutions to help address the threat of what the Carnegie report calls “pernicious polarization” (not just sharp divergence in ideology, but divergence that threatens the ongoing operation of democracy itself). In addition to the specific reforms he mentions, ELB readers know that I’ve advocated consideration of “round-robin voting,” which is based on centuries-old exploration, by Condorcet especially, of the idea that a series of one-on-one comparisons among all available options (including candidates in an election) is the best way to identify which option is most preferred by a majority. Although additional empirical research is necessary, there are theoretical reasons to believe that the mathematical properties of round-robin voting would be an especially effective institutional device to ameliorate the kind of pernicious polarization that McCoy and Mount describe: to win round-robin elections, parties and their candidates would need to position themselves so that they could win the median voter against every other opponent–in contrast to conventional plurality elections, where (assuming Duverger’s law is operating to force a two-party system) each party and its nominee simply has to be more preferred than the other side. The plurality-winner system can devolve into a lesser-of-two-evils situation. Lee Drutman has usefully proposed a kind of proportional representation as a way to escape the pernicious polarization of this lesser-of-two-evils “doom loop“, but that type of institutional solution is obviously unavailable for statewide elections in the United State, like those for U.S. Senator, governor, and so forth.

If one is worried about what Mounk, McCoy, and Drutman describe, and think that the institutional remedy needs to extend to statewide elections, then one ought to at least consider the possibility of round-robin voting in comparison to potential alternatives. Mounk, for example, cites California “top-two” system as a potentially promising reform. But there’s reason to be concerned, based on what we know so far, that the California system may not be as effective in countering pernicious polarization as other options. Yet if Congress required all states to elect majority rather than plurality winners for seats in Congress, as I’ve argued previously, then states would need to experiment with institutional reform along the lines that Mounk proposes.

Share this: