Large numbers of Americans are unhappy with the idea of a Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump rematch, polls show, but both the Democratic and Republican parties appear to be paralyzed, unable to do anything about it.
There’s a reason why.
“Political parties are the infrastructure of modern mass democracy, just as roads and bridges and railways and airports and electricity grids are the infrastructure of a modern economy,” wrote Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America, in a recent study of modern parties.
Drutman wants to break up the two-party system so that American can have three or four major parties, or more. He is proposing reforms to make that more possible.
But Drutman, and many other reformers, also want parties to be stronger. For too long, he argues, Americans have seen political parties as the villains, and individual politicians and voters as the heroes.
That thinking has to change, he argues, if American democracy is going to survive.
Who chooses the choices?
Political parties used to be truly powerful institutions that exercised veto power over nominees for office. During the past 50 years, however, Americans have moved nominations out of party control and into our modern primary process.
Most Americans see this as sensible and just: Primary voters choose the nominee state by state, and that’s more democratic.
Looking at the big picture, however, party primaries have become one of the biggest causes of extremism in American politics. The majority of voters end up with candidates who don’t represent them because a much smaller number of fire-breathing partisans decide the menu for them in the primaries.
So while candidates like Biden and Trump are unpopular with the broader electorate, they could win their respective nominations by attracting a tiny subset of Americans: primary voters in a few states.
“Voters have power, we tell ourselves, because voters ultimately make the choices. But who chooses the choices?” Drutman wrote. “Opening up the process is one thing. The power to shape the alternatives is always more consequential. Individual voters can decide among alternatives, but only organized groups can shape alternatives.”
Very few people want to go back to the smoke-filled rooms wherein party bosses picked candidates with little input from voters. So that creates a challenge for reformers who want stronger parties. They need new, creative ways to create more muscular parties.
Vote for the party, not the person
But first, the way Americans think about parties — and power — has to shift. In Drutman’s view, we are unbalanced: too focused on individuals.
Our dominant mental model as Americans is to hope for individual politicians to swoop in and save the day, and to rely on the wisdom and discernment of individual voters to combine in a hive mind of righteous judgment.
We also tend to “distrust organized power,” Drutman writes in his recent study. He says this is a key mistake.
“Somebody has to have power,” he writes. Drutman documents how the three major political reform periods in American history have all “appeared to put voters ‘first’” but “only made it harder for individual voters to coordinate collectively.”
“Ultimately, small but well-organized interests triumphed because politics always rewards coordination and collective action,” Drutman said. “Decentralizing power does not equalize power. It just moves it elsewhere, where only the most engaged and well-connected can access it.”
If we don’t make parties stronger, in fact, we are making it more likely that American democracy will fracture, he said. “The solution is the hard work of building political parties, which are the essential institutions of modern representative democracy.”
Can the parties act as a unit?
The specific reforms proposed by Drutman and others won’t necessarily do anything to break the Biden vs. Trump logjam this year or next. If either party wants someone else, it will have to figure out a way to unite and act together as a group.
For Republicans, this would mean uniting behind one alternative to Trump before he has sewn up the nomination. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu made a forceful case for this strategy in a New York Times op-ed on Monday.
For Democrats, the moment of truth would come if it became clear that the party needed someone other than Biden to run.
In th long term, reformers agree on what needs to happen: To change American politics, you have to change the system, not just vote in a new person or a new party.
Ranked-choice voting has been one popular option for reformers, and Alaska and Maine have implemented it with some success. This is a system where voters rank candidates in order of preference until one cobbles together a majority of the vote, which in theory dilutes the power of the most radical voters and empowers more moderate ones.
Drutman thinks that ranked-choice voting is more candidate-focused than it is on parties. He is pushing for something called fusion voting, and also for multimember congressional districts, in which smaller districts would be combined into larger ones to give the minority party in each state better representation in Congress.
For example, a state like Connecticut is roughly 60% Democratic and 40% Republican, but all five of its members of Congress are Democrats. And in Oklahoma, it’s 70% Republican and 30% Democratic, but all five of its members of Congress are Republican.
Multimember districts would theoretically push those states closer to an accurate representation in Congress. Drutman believes these changes would also make more political parties more likely.
Whatever the particular reforms, Drutman argues, stronger political parties are the key.
“Parties are the institutions that organize democracy in a way that's most transparent, most engaging to citizens, and most broadly representative,” he said. “And if you make it harder for political parties to do those things, then other actors are gonna do those things with less transparency and much less political equality.”