Our politics fails us, so here’s what to do

We can re-engineer the system to create a new political centre, says Charles Wheelan of Dartmouth College and a former candidate for Congress

Strikingly, data from Beyond Conflict, an NGO that promotes reconciliation in conflict areas, show that Americans feel “dehumanised” by the opposing party—a sentiment often associated with political violence—at roughly the same level as Israelis and Palestinians viewed each other during the Gaza War in 2014.

Moreover democracy is being asked to deal with policy challenges that have longer time horizons and more complexity than in the past. So the urgency to fix problems can seem less apparent: it is more like termites in the basement than a collapsing roof. Complexity also opens up a space for demagoguery. Beating back Hitler was no easy feat—but the need to do so was easier to explain than why universal health care requires a health insurance mandate.

Many voters are convinced that politicians are selling them out. They have a point. When I ran for Congress in 2009 as a Democratic candidate in Illinois, I went hat-in-hand to rich donors, as all candidates must. After one meeting with a group of private-equity types, one of them pulled me aside and asked how I felt about the “taxation of carried interest”—an arcane policy that lets major investors pay less tax on their earnings.

I told the fellow that income was income, and that “carried interest” ought to be taxed the same way as everyone else’s paycheck, and not as capital gains.

“That’s too bad,” he said, and walked away. He did not write me a cheque. I lost the race.

.. It did not matter that I was taught by economists at the University of Chicago and took classes from three Nobel Prize winners. Political issues devolve into protecting one’s niche perks. In this case, some of the wealthiest people in the country cared about one issue: whether they could pay a lower tax rate than the people who make their lattes and mow their lawns. More cunning candidates tolerate this to get into office.

The constant need for fundraising also drives partisanship. Emails with subject-lines like “Help me strike a compromise to bring down the deficit” are certain to remain unopened. But drop into an inbox “The Republicans will end Medicare” or “The Democrats are killing babies” and the contributions will flow, helping to make the partisanship ever more toxic.

In this environment, the biggest threat to a candidate is not from an opposition party with a different set of policies but from the extremist end of his or her own party. Hence the rise of the word “primary” as a verb, as in “The Democrats may primary him.” The optimal strategy is ideological purity, even if it means getting nothing done as a legislator.

Now for the really dangerous part: changing demographics have made the electoral college and the Senate increasingly out of sync, as population grows in blue states and wanes in red ones. By 2040 it is possible that roughly 70% of Senate seats will be controlled by 30% of the population. If we are looking for something that can ignite the current partisan tinder, this is it: a prolonged period in which the political will of the majority is thwarted by a minority opposition.

There are lots of ways to do this but the two boldest ideas are to create an independent group of centrist legislators to act as the “king makers” to pass legislation, and to implement something called “ranked-choice” voting that would make it harder for candidates on the political extremes to win election. Consider both in turn.

First, the legislators. It is easy to imagine that a bipartisan group of prominent politicians could step aside from their parties, band together, and create a new movement of the centre. I called this the “fulcrum strategy” in my book “The Centrist Manifesto” in 2013, and it is similar to the recent moves by Labour MPs in Britain, now joined by a few Conservatives.

Just a small handful of defections would go a long way to changing America’s political dynamic. It could provide a pragmatic center of gravity, restore a shared political narrative, rebuild the connective tissue between the parties, and place a healthy check on the Trump administration and whoever comes after, in a way that is less partisan than the Democrats today.

Could it happen? Absolutely. Here is what Jeff Flake, a former Republican senator from Arizona said at a conference this month at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “With three or four Rs and three or four Dems, if they come together now, or just about any time—the Senate rarely has more than a three-, four-, five- or six-person majority on either side—you could really change that place. You could create a completely different power structure. And that would be very healthy right now.”

Joel Searby, a political consultant working to rebuild the centre ground of American politics, says there is “high interest” in doing something like this. Mr Searby has met with chiefs of staff for a handful of senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to pitch the fulcrum idea. “They’re taking meetings with me in their Senate offices, and they know exactly what I’m there to talk about,” he says.

Moreover the Senate just got a new member who is less beholden to the political establishment than most: Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 who is also a former governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country. He has been a critic of the president from his own party. Will Mr Romney be the guy to change American politics forever? Or could it be the senator for Maine, Susan Collins? Or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat in a red state? It will only take a few.

The same fulcrum strategy could work at the state level. For all the talk of “red” and “blue” states, the fact is that many state legislatures are as narrowly divided as the Senate, meaning that a mere handful of centrists could band together to restore sanity.

In fact, in Alaska this just happened. After the mid-term election in 2018, a single Republican lawmaker refused to be the 21st vote that would give his party control of the 40-person legislature. Instead, he negotiated a governing coalition of eight Republicans, 15 Democrats and two independents. Committee chairs will be shared across parties and there is an independent speaker of the house.

The public seems receptive to this. After all, the two most popular governors are Republicans in blue states: Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. This suggests that there are politicians able to cross the partisan divide and that voters will embrace them.

Politics needs to evolve with the times like everything else. The Republican Party emerged to deal with the thorny issue of slavery. Emmanuel Macron built a new party in France and captured a parliamentary majority. If economists can count almost 5,000 breakfast cereals in America, why should its citizens settle for just two political parties?

Precedents exist, such as Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party that emerged in 2012. There are also examples of tiny factions that exert outsized influence, such as small, religious parties in Israel and Japan. A centrist faction can play the same role in America.

Then there is the issue of voting. There is a powerful change that would be a force for moderation: replace the primary system with a “top four, ranked choice” voting system. Yes, it needs a better name. But it’s the best way to hold elections with multiple candidates.

It works like this: In the first round of voting, the four top vote-getters advance. In the second round, voters rank those four candidates.

If no candidate wins an outright majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Those who voted for that candidate get their second choice instead. And this process of counting the next-best-candidate continues until one person gets a majority.

This system has three huge advantages. First, it minimises partisanship. Candidates would no longer compete to attract support from the most ideological members of their party but from all voters, which would have a moderating influence.

Second, this would create space for new political competition since independents and third parties would no longer present a “spoiler problem”. For example, Ralph Nader would have been eliminated in 2000 after the first round; most of his votes would probably have gone to Al Gore, who then would have become president.

Third, ranked-choice voting also creates an incentive for candidates to behave more civilly because it is important to be many voters’ “second choice”. Maligning other candidates—and all the other nasty tactics of modern elections—would carry a higher price.

.. The political landscape could change quickly. Reforms like the “fulcrum strategy” and “ranked voting” will make it easier for independents and members of new parties to get elected. Public support for both parties is in secular decline. And much of the partisanship is negative partisanship, meaning that party identification is driven mostly by loathing for the other side. A solid majority of Americans say that the country needs a third major political party.

.. Indeed, the data from Beyond Conflict found that voters believe that members of the other party think worse of them than they actually do. It turns out that we have not dehumanised each other to the same degree as the Palestinians and the Israelis; it only feels that way.

.. There are four faces on America’s Mount Rushmore monument: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. With democracy under siege, it is worth thinking about each of them.

George Washington was an independent and warned about political “factions” in his farewell address. Thomas Jefferson said the greatest evil was “a Division of the Republic into two great Parties.” Abraham Lincoln was part of the new Republican Party that arose when the two extant parties could not manage the issue of slavery. Teddy Roosevelt made a third run for president with his own “Bull Moose Party.”

What the four leaders carved in stone share is an unease with partisanship, a willingness to challenge political orthodoxy, and an unwavering belief in democracy. Those are the right principles to bear in mind as we look to strengthen the foundations of our system.

The Struggle to Stay Human Amid the Fight

World War I and the adversarial mentality.

It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.

Dax’s struggle is not to change the war or to save lives. That’s impossible. The war has won. The struggle is simply to remain a human being, to maintain some contact with goodness in circumstances that are inhumane.

Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.

As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.

The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.

.. European culture suffered a massive disillusion during the conflict — no God, no beauty, no coherence, no meaning, just the cruel ironic joke of life. Cynicism breeds a kind of nihilism, a disbelief in all values, an assumption that others’ motives are bad.

Fussell wrote that the war spread an adversarial mentality. The men in the trenches were obsessed with the enemy — those anonymous creatures across no man’s land who rained down death. “Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama,” he wrote.

The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons.

George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.

.. Some of the disillusioned drop out of public life, since it’s all meaningless. But others want to burn it all down because it’s all rotten. Moderation is taken for cowardice. Aggression is regarded as courage. No conciliatory word is permitted when a fighting word will do.

Today we face no horrors equal to the Great War, but there is the same loss of faith in progress, the reality of endless political trench warfare, the paranoid melodrama, the specter that we are all being dehumanized amid the fight.

The Full-Spectrum Corruption of Donald Trump

It is a stunning turnabout. A party that once spoke with urgency and apparent conviction about the importance of ethical leadership — fidelity, honesty, honor, decency, good manners, setting a good example — has hitched its wagon to the most thoroughly and comprehensively corrupt individual who has ever been elected president. Some of the men who have been elected president have been unscrupulous in certain areas — infidelity, lying, dirty tricks, financial misdeeds — but we’ve never before had the full-spectrum corruption we see in the life of Donald Trump.

.. And the moral indictment against Mr. Trump is obvious and overwhelming. Corruption has been evident in Mr. Trump’s private and public life,

  • in how he has treated his wives,
  • in his business dealings and scams,
  • in his pathological lying and cruelty,
  • in his bullying and shamelessness,
  • in his conspiracy-mongering and appeals to the darkest impulses of Americans. (Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, refers to the president’s race-based comments as a “base stimulator.”)

Mr. Trump’s corruptions are ingrained, the result of a lifetime of habits. It was delusional to think he would change for the better once he became president.

.. Some of us who have been lifelong Republicans and previously served in Republican administrations held out a faint hope that our party would at some point say “Enough!”; that there would be some line Mr. Trump would cross, some boundary he would transgress, some norm he would shatter, some civic guardrail he would uproot, some action he would take, some scheme or scandal he would be involved in that would cause large numbers of Republicans to break with the president. No such luck. Mr. Trump’s corruptions have therefore become theirs. So far there’s been no bottom, and there may never be.

.. the Republican Party’s as-yet unbreakable attachment to Mr. Trump is coming at quite a cost. There is the rank hypocrisy, the squandered ability to venerate public character or criticize Democrats who lack it, and the damage to the white Evangelical movement, which has for the most part enthusiastically rallied to Mr. Trump and as a result has been largely discredited.

.. Mr. Trump and the Republican Party are right now the chief emblem of corruption and cynicism in American political life, of an ethic of might makes right. Dehumanizing others is fashionable and truth is relative. (“Truth isn’t truth,” in the infamous words of Mr. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.) They are stripping politics of its high purpose and nobility.

.. A warning to my Republican friends: The worst is yet to come. Thanks to the work of Robert Mueller — a distinguished public servant, not the leader of a “group of Angry Democrat Thugs” — we are going to discover deeper and deeper layers to Mr. Trump’s corruption. When we do, I expect Mr. Trump will unravel further as he feels more cornered, more desperate, more enraged; his behavior will become ever more erratic, disordered and crazed.

Most Republicans, having thrown their MAGA hats over the Trump wall, will stay with him until the end. Was a tax cut, deregulation and court appointments really worth all this?

A Better Way to Ban Alex Jones

“Hate speech” is extraordinarily vague and subjective. Libel and slander are not.

.. Most appallingly, he has insisted that these grieving families were faking their pain: “I’ve looked at it and undoubtedly there’s a cover-up, there’s actors, they’re manipulating, they’ve been caught lying and they were preplanning before it and rolled out with it.”
.. Rather than applying objective standards that resonate with American law and American traditions of respect for free speech and the marketplace of ideas, the companies applied subjective standards that are subject to considerable abuse. Apple said it “does not tolerate hate speech.” Facebook accused Mr. Jones of violating policies against “glorifying violence” or using “dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants.” YouTube accused Mr. Jones of violating policies against “hate speech and harassment.”
.. In the name of stopping hate speech, university mobs have turned their ire not just against alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, but also against the most mainstream of conservative voices, like Ben Shapiro and Heather Mac Donald.
Dissenting progressives aren’t spared, either. Just ask Evergreen State College’s Bret Weinstein, who was hounded out of a job after refusing to participate in a “day of absence” protest in which white students and faculty members were supposed to leave campus for the day to give students and faculty members of color exclusive access to the college.
.. The far better option would be to prohibit libel or slander on their platforms.

.. Unlike “hate speech,” libel and slander have legal meanings. There is a long history of using libel and slander laws to protect especially private figures from false claims. It’s properly more difficult to use those laws to punish allegations directed at public figures, but even then there are limits on intentionally false factual claims.