“Americans Deserve a House of Representatives That Better Represents Them”

Ben Raderstorf and Beau Tremitiere in the Bulwark:

So in a sense, the real question is not why cross-party coalitions are appearing in state legislatures, but rather, why they aren’t more common—and why a gridlocked House of Representatives refused to elect a consensus speaker backed by a majority drawn from both parties, instead caving to the demands of a small handful of extremist legislators.

The answer is that our system makes coalition building grueling, if not impossible. Over the last several decades, the trend toward nationalized politics and the increasing brightness of the media spotlight have made it more difficult for legislators to collaborate privately and negotiate in good faith, especially at the national level. Moreover, as legal scholar Richard Pildes notes, social media combined with a rise in small-dollar campaign donations allows “individual members of Congress to function, even thrive, as free agents.” It is difficult to imagine the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Alaska outcomes happening under the glare of cable news or with social media provocateurs like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert.

The United States is not alone in facing these trends, but the effects are aggravated by our winner-take-all electoral system, where each district elects a single, plurality-winner representative. This system strongly incentivizes politicians to coalesce into two vast, directly competing parties, leading to intra-party factions instead of several distinct parties. For a host of reasons, the two main parties have each become more ideologically distinct over the last few decades. This polarization is then exacerbated by primary elections: Any legislator who attempts to build a cross-party coalition—even in an exceptional situation like the current U.S. House—risks being shunned by his or her own party’s base in the next election. A wide range of research has found that primary elections disincentivize compromise in precisely this way.

This is true not just for the GOP, but also for Democrats, who could have offered Republicans an offramp during the speakership impasse earlier this month but had no incentive to do so. As unlikely as Kevin McCarthy was to reach across the aisle to cut a deal, he was just as unlikely to find a warm reception there, even among those inclined towards the possibility. Instead, the 212 House Democrats seemingly relished the theater (some literally bringing popcorn) and repeatedly voted against adjournment in hopes of keeping the embarrassing show going.

The good news is, these rules and incentives can be changed. Instead of electing our representatives through primaries followed by winner-take-all elections, we could instead transition to proportional representation, which avoids the harmful incentives of both….

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