Chuck Todd of NBC starts his new column: “Yes, democracy is messy. … But there’s messy — and then there’s the current state of American politics.”
He astutely attributes the problem to the new information–and disinformation–ecosystem that has arisen in recent years: “There’s former President Donald Trump’s rhetorical control of the right-wing information ecosystem, which seems to force otherwise well-meaning GOP elected officials to go against their own beliefs (and even their own negotiated bills, in the case of the proposed bipartisan border deal) and fall in line for fear of losing their jobs or being canceled by the right’s noise machine.”
But he fails to discuss the larger implications of this astute point. America faces a governance crisis, to invoke Rick Pildes’s work, because there no longer exists an equilibrium that prevailed reasonably well for at least a half-century. After World War II and through the end of the 20th century, there were three elements of American politics that enabled the system to function adequately (although in the last couple of decades of that century there emerged the trends that have since developed into the current crisis):
First, the American electorate exhibited relatively low levels of partisan polarization.
Second, the American news media was dominated by the three major TV networks and a single newspaper in each hometown.
Third, the plurality-winner electoral system, coupled with partisan primaries, operating in conjunction with the first two factors kept American politics within the proverbial 40-yard-lines. For example, the transition from Truman to Eisenhower then back to Kennedy was hardly huge swings of the ideological pendulum.
But now the existing system cannot maintain the same balance. The American electorate is much more polarized than before, becoming “tribal” in its partisanship (even if the electorate itself is not as polarized as the governing elite). The new media environment, as Todd observed, has fragmented in a way that makes the current situation a night-and-day difference from what it was in the Walter Cronkite era.
What hasn’t changed (for the most part) is the electoral system: it’s the same plurality-winner general election, with partisan primaries determining the general election candidates.
The key point is that this same electoral system cannot handle the new cultural conditions of partisan polarization and media fragmentation, whereas it could handle the previous cultural conditions.
We aren’t going to be able to change the cultural conditions. The electorate cannot be forced to depolarize its partisan tribalism. For that to occur, it will have to happen organically, as a result of other changes. And, given the First Amendment, it’s impossible to legislate away media fragmentation. Technological innovation made the old media environment obsolete, and that technology can’t be undone.
So, the only choice is to change electoral procedures in order bring the overall political system back into some form of functional equilibrium.
Whenever I argue for the need to replace the existing electoral system with one based on Condorcet’s consensus-seeking principles, I often get the response: we’ve had the same system for decades and it’s worked fine up till now, so the problem is something else, and that must mean we need to fix something else.
But this response misses the key point about the equilibrium destabilization nature of the current crisis. Yet, the longstanding electoral procedures worked before when conditions were different. What changed were those conditions. But those conditions can’t be changed back in order to recreate a workable equilibrium. Instead, restoring equilibrium requires changing an element of the system that worked just fine before but is incapable of working now.
As a nation, are we capable of understanding this crucial point?