Partisanship is our Problem

The 2016 Election Sucked

If there’s one thing we can all agree on about the 2016 Presidential election, is that it sucked. Nasty arguments invaded spaces that had previously been politics-free. Suddenly our Facebook feeds and sporting events and family holidays were full of contention — and it didn’t help that the two major candidates everyone was arguing about were the most disliked candidates in history.

How is it possible that two people so generally disliked became competitors for the top office in the country? Answer: Partisanship.

Partisanship, as I will discuss in this article, is when people value supporting their group over evaluating policy proposals on their merits.

The Ideal Electoral Process

When we first learn about the democratic process in school, we imagine candidates of high moral character and intellectual curiosity earning the respect of their fellow citizens. They work their way up the party ranks, gaining leadership experience and exposure to the particular needs of people living in different parts of the country, different socioeconomic status, etc. The candidates run for the nomination and, in the primary election, they work to show primary voters that they are best-suited to implement the policy goals of the party. Once the candidate is nominated to compete in the general election, he or she communicates to the general election voters why the party’s policy goals would best serve the country as a whole.

It Doesn’t Work That Way

Primary voters, however, do not choose candidates based on their leadership qualities or the soundness of their policy goals. Primary voters are encouraged to vote for the person who can win — as if the winner was predetermined. Ideological debates get shut down, because if you disagree with the nominee, you empower “the enemy.” This problem has been exacerbated by partisanship.

Ideas should be debated within the party so that the best ideas ‘win’. In practice, that’s not what happens. That’s how a candidate with zero conservative credentials became the nominee for the conservative party.

“During the 2016 election, conservatives turned on the principles that had once animated them. Somehow a movement based on real ideas — such as economic freedom and limited government — had devolved into a tribe that valued neither principle nor truth,” Charles Sykes, Newsweek, Sept 21, 2017

Instead, only the most aggressive ideas win. Moderates who would temper the party stance are pressured into voting for the extreme, because “the other guy is worse,” and winning is everything.

“In private, conservatives who knew better justified their return to the dark fringes on the grounds that it fired up the base and antagonized liberals.” Charles Sykes, Newsweek, Sept 21, 2017

Instead of publicly disagreeing with candidate Trump, the Republican party leadership rejected their conservative principles for the sake of winning the election.

Of course, human beings like to win. It’s part of human nature. How can we avoid the same thing happening regardless of the type of electoral system? We probably can’t avoid it completely, but a number of election laws make it harder for outside voices to have an impact.

Marketplace of Ideas

Ideally, public discourse is how we, as a community, solve the problems affecting members of our community. In the marketplace of ideas, each member of the community is free to identify problems and propose solutions. For that to work, community members must be open to having their peers criticize and amend their proposed solutions. It means we must be OK with disagreement.

“Disagreement is dear to me, too, because it is the most vital ingredient of any decent society,” Bret Stephens, NYT op-ed Sept. 24, 2017

Many people who advocate for working for change within political parties argue that the party meetings are where these kinds of discussions can occur. Anyone who supported Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders knows that new ideas are not welcome in the major political parties.

For a group to effectively come to a solution, each member of the group must be open to new ideas.

“For free societies to function, the idea of open-mindedness can’t simply be a catchphrase or a dogma. It needs to be a personal habit, most of all when it comes to preserving an open mind toward those with whom we disagree.” Bret Stephens, NYT op-ed Sept. 24, 2017

But partisanship does not give us room to disagree, instead you must prove your loyalty to the party. In Texas, we have seen the primary elections become the only “important” election. How else could Texas Monthly publish a cover with Greg Abbott presented as “The Gov” in October of 2013, five full months before the primary and 13 months before the actual election?

Greg Abbott presented as The Gov… 13 months before the election.

Because of certain laws, voters aren’t able to take those conversations outside of the political parties either. If a Republican voter is unhappy with the nominees his party selected, he is prohibited from signing the nomination petition for a candidate running as an independent or a minor party.

Factions, Tribes, Parties

We divide into factions, tribes, parties. We don’t allow the possibility that another tribe could have the right answers, so we stick to our views. Facts don’t change our minds.

“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2014.

Trends over the past few decades have created the environment in which the most active voters in this country felt compelled to vote for someone they didn’t like, often because “the other guy was worse.” Years of voting for the “lesser of two evils” created a system that propped up candidates with no underlying principles.

Instead of discussing the nuances of a policy proposal and debating that policy on its merits, successful politicians only need to demonize the other party.

“One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on. You pick up signals from everyone around you, you slowly winnow your acquaintances to those who will reinforce your worldview, a tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.” Andrew Sullivan, Sept. 19 2017

Once you declare party loyalty, you no longer must understand the other party’s solutions, it becomes a battle of “If you’re not for us, you’re against us.”

“Partisans on both sides are so angry they can barely speak with the other.”

Instead of arguing the merits of any given policy, we argue about the moral character of the other party.

“Partisans on both sides are so angry they can barely speak with the other, much less work together. The most extreme are convinced that members of the other party are treasonous and purposefully harming the nation.” Michael Coblenz, Jan. 28, 2016

So how do we, as members of this society who want to end the gridlock and partisan bickering?

Reclaim the Open Legislative Process

Once elected, legislators and other elected officials should work together to find solutions, and be open to new ideas. The Texas Legislature is designed to facilitate open conversation. Legislators must hold hearings and listen to public input. They must vote on each piece of legislation multiple times on different days so that everyone has a chance to review amendments and research the effects of each bill.

Unfortunately, when one party controls leadership, they can easily manipulate the process to benefit their own party — and only voters and activists who devote a majority of their time and attention to the legislature will understand how good ideas are shut down secretly while a public image of accountability fools voters into thinking it’s the other party’s fault that their policy goals go nowhere.

Rep. Dan Huberty, who was Education Committee Chairman during the 85th Legislative Session, said in an interview that his job as Chairman is to protect the membership, (TribLive event, Feb. 28, 2017, 41 minute mark). He was responding to a question about the fact that he was categorically against school choice, though the other Republican leaders, Republican grassroots, and the national and state party platforms support school choice. He openly stated that state representatives needed protection from taking votes on controversial topics — the opposite of a marketplace of ideas. People in power will do anything to keep that power. One way to break up a concentration of power is to level the playing field: remove the rules that prohibit newcomers from being heard.

Entrenched 2-party System

“Don’t waste your vote.”
“If you vote for [minor party] then [evil major party] will win!”

These comments are familiar to anyone who has supported a minor party candidate, as if any vote could be “wasted.” How does expressing your preference for a certain candidate “waste” your vote? But these comments indicate how entrenched the two-party system is in Americans’ minds — which creates another hurdle for minor party and independent candidates to overcome.

Our two-party system has become entrenched.

“As an industry, the two parties have been so effective in creating the framework for political competition that our country is referred to as a “two-party” system from the third grade classroom to the Third Circuit courtroom,” Chad Pearce, IVN Sept 20, 2017.

Yet the concept of a wasted vote is anti-democratic, because it sets a lower value on voters who choose minor party or independent candidates, essentially treating them as second-class citizens.

Why does it matter if the United States has only two parties?

“What you end up with is zero-sum politics, which drags the country either toward alternating administrations bent primarily on undoing everything their predecessors accomplished, or the kind of gridlock that has dominated national politics for the past seven years — or both.” Andrew Sullivan, Sept. 19 2017

When there are only two parties, politicians act to further the party’s interest, instead of supporting good government for all. Being politically active is synonymous with joining a party. And joining a party is synonymous with choosing a moral stance on a number of issues. Now every voter and politician must pass a purity test to prove their loyalty to the party.

Jonathan Haidt says the purification of the parties makes it much easier to hate the other side, because the other party truly is made up of people who are different,

“the two parties are really different sorts of people with different personalities and different values — it’s not just collections of interest groups, it’s really much more of a clear moral split than it ever was before.” How Science Can Heal a Divided Electorate, Nov 7, 2012, Greater Good Magazine.

A person’s party affiliation has become part of his or her moral identity. Sociologist Robb Willer has studied the rising polarization in the United States,

“The fact that political polarization is associated with moral polarization is particularly concerning for the future. People’s moral values are their most deeply held beliefs. Folks really struggle to understand the perspective of someone with a fundamentally different sense of right and wrong. People are willing to fight and die for their values.” Can Empathy Bridge Political Divides, Jan. 23, 2017, Greater Good Magazine.

When political parties have ownership of moral stances, our government becomes deadlocked. We need more parties, so that people can support candidates from different parties without compromising their morals.

Our nation’s founders worried about this scenario. In Federalist 10, James Madison addresses the threat of factions,

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Federalist №10

Madison believed the size of the country would prevent factions from gaining too much power, “communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.” He couldn’t predict how news media and technology would allow us to form groups across the whole geography of these United States. With the prominence of mass media in the 20th century, Americans became comfortable belonging to amorphous groups of people, even if they rarely met in person.

James Madison looks cranky because he warned us about this.

Partisan Gerrymandering

Once in power, politicians write laws to benefit their own parties.

When legislators manipulate the drawing of legislative districts to benefit the candidates of their own political party, that’s partisan gerrymandering. Partisan gerrymandering became a hot topic this past fall because the Supreme Court heard arguments for a case on partisan gerrymandering in October.

“The politically explosive high court fight over so-called partisan gerrymandering has the potential to radically reshape the political scene by thrusting courts across the country into the role of vetting district maps for excessive partisan bias.
“Critics of that idea say judges are ill-suited to that complex task, while proponents say the practice of legislators essentially picking their voters has gotten out of control and is contributing to extreme political polarization by virtually eliminating competitive or toss-up districts.” Josh Gerstein, Supreme Court eyes partisan gerrymandering, Oct. 3, 2017

TVC’s coalition partner, Independent TX Redistricting is a statewide, nonpartisan activist group dedicated to eliminating partisan and racial gerrymandering and establishing independent nonpartisan redistricting in Texas. Their Executive Director, Josh Hebert, sat down with us to talk about the issue:

“The problem, the fundamental problem with redistricting is that we have legislators who are empowered to draw their own maps, which is a ridiculous conflict of interest. It’s a problem all over the country. So what ends up happening is that parties and politicians serve their own interests instead of the interests of people. And you end up with districts that don’t represent the communities that are in them. Instead they’re just representative of partisan power. So you have a system of districts that enables politicians and parties to simply serve the core interests of their base constituency, their primary voters and ignore the needs of voters on a wider level.”

As Hebert said, the problem is that parties and politicians serve their own interest instead of interest of the people. This means that people who don’t fit within the two major parties, even if they have passion and energy, get shut out. They lose motivation to stay engaged because their efforts don’t change anything. Politicians only care about their primary voters and everybody knows the “real election” in Texas happens during the primary.

Solution: Independent Redistricting

Hebert recommends a system of independent, nonpartisan redistricting, and there are many ways to arrange this type of system. One common solution is to create an independent commission to draw district lines. The problem with many independent commissions is that their members are appointed by elected officials who belong to parties. Or, there’s a quorum for having a certain number of representatives from each of the parties. Activists should be wary of systems that will further entrench the two-party system, like the “I-Cut-You-Choose” Cake-Cutting Protocol studied by Carnegie Mellon University. The cake-cutting protocol only incorporates two parties, leaving no room for minor parties, new parties, or independents to participate in drawing district lines.

Ballot Access

Often people complaining about their representatives are told to vote the bums out. That only works when you have someone else to vote for. In our report, OUTDATED, OVER REGULATED AND JUST PLAIN COMPLICATED: How Ballot Access Laws Deny Texas Voters a Free Choice at the Polls, Texans for Voter Choice detailed how Texas’s complicated and burdensome ballot access laws make it nearly impossible for newcomers to provide meaningful choices for voters.

One egregious ballot access regulation forces voters to commit to a party if they vote in the primary. If primary voters want to support a major party candidate for Governor and a minor party candidate for State Rep, they are prohibited from doing so. Texas is the only state with this restriction. This restriction locks a voter into supporting only one party — to the point where many voters believe that if they vote in the primary, they are required to support that party in the general election.

Solution: Texas Voter Choice Act

What would a new system look like? We must dismantle the structures built by the Republican and Democratic parties created to block competition. There are specific laws that once changed can have a huge impact. That’s why we support the Texas Voter Choice Act, and are working to build support for the next legislative session. You can learn more about the TVCA and how to support it on our website.

By easing the burdens for minor party and independent candidates, we will create an environment open to new discussions about policy. Nearly half of state legislative races have only one candidate. Republican candidates in statewide races have no incentive to engage with voters after the Primary. When we introduce true competition, all the candidates will need to earn voters’ support, learning about their diverse constituents in the process.

Reverse Trends of Partisanship

Let’s turn it around.

We can reverse the trends of partisanship. The first step is to remove institutionalized barriers and open the field to minor party and independent candidates. We can create an environment for people to collaborate and communicate.

“We have choices in everything we do, but only a false and divisive choice in politics. I believe that we need to kill the two party system, but I’m not suggesting we get rid of the Democrats or Republicans. I’m suggesting we change the system to bring in new voices and new ideas. For this we need new political parties.” Michael Coblenz, The Hill, Jan. 28, 2016

When voters have more choices, a range of conservative, progressive, and libertarian parties, then each party will need to justify why their specific policy proposal will best solve the problems that we face as a community.

Introducing viable alternatives to the two major parties would diffuse the winner-take-all dynamic. There is room in our state and our country for multiple points of view. We are used to many options peacefully coexisting in our marketplace, it’s time to expect it in our political landscape.

“Winner-take-all in politics is as damaging to society as its economic counterpart, yet over the last generation we’ve lost the ability to use the techniques of democracy: civility, negotiation, compromise, transparency, respect for minority views and accountability. These are not just values — they’re tools that bring representative democracy to life. They ensure that diverse voices are included in policy-making, give legislation broad legitimacy, and help citizens understand and feel a stake in governance.” Lee Hamilton, Jul. 24, 2017, USA Today

By reforming our ballot access laws and allowing for more meaningful choices on Election Day, we set the stage for more civility, respect, and transparency in our public discourse and in our government.

Get involved: subscribe to our email newsletter and become a member at TexasVoterChoice.org.