Fixing the Broken American Political System: A Post-2016 Election Fantasy

Thomas Friedman got me thinking today. If the GOP fractures as he hopes it will, is there a middle ground political party that emerges from the rubble of the GOP and starts working with Democrats to create rational policy? How would that look? I’m going to spin out an idea but would love to hear what those more knowledgable than I think. (Although this is obviously a complete long-shot so don’t bother only telling me it won’t work.)

As it stands now, the United States will likely start 2017 by inaugurating President Hillary Clinton and swearing in an almost evenly split Senate. The House, on the other hand, seems most likely to stay majority Republican in nominal terms but largely ungovernable based on the increased power of the Freedom Caucus in a smaller overall GOP majority. Let’s make lemonade out of that lemon.

With a formal split in the GOP, even one that only saw a small caucus of around 20 center-right, non-conspiracy minded Republicans joining a Grand New Party (GNP?), the House theoretically becomes plurality Democratic. Why would a relatively small group of current GOPers decide to do this? Because a plurality cannot elect a Speaker and the GNP caucus would hold outsized influence in choosing the Speaker, possibly from within their own ranks, and have a strong hand in picking Committee Chairs. I think it’s obvious that neither Nancy Pelosi nor Paul Ryan could serve as Speaker under these conditions but a change in the leadership of the House is what’s needed so that is not a bad thing. A centrist, hemmed in by the fact that she has to work with the Democratic plurality and keep her own small caucus happy, could actually wield the Speaker’s gavel in a reasonable way.

The particular issue on which the plan would come together and first order of business in this theoretical new House would have to be Grand Bargain on fiscal issues along the lines of one of the earlier fiscal commissions. The two that spring most readily to mind are the reports of the Debt Reduction Task Force led by Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici and President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Both of these plans would have to be updated for modern realities: The first recommendation of both Commissions, a reduction in discretionary security and non-security spending, was recognized even four years ago by the 2.0 version of the Rivlin-Domenici-led group as implemented through the Budget Control Act and the sequester that followed. The reduction in health care inflation over the last 7 years also makes the lift facing a group of legislators trying to accomplish such a compromise a little lighter. Implementing the elements of these plans would involve making everyone across the political spectrum a little bit unhappy. That is what happens when reasonable people agree to compromise and recognize that no one group has a monopoly on the truth.

On other issues, the new version of the House might return to more coalition building around shared needs and perspectives based on the constituencies of different Congressional Districts rather than legislating based on pure ideology. That approach used to exist when the existing Parties were less ideologically pure following World War 2 up through the early 1990s. Some heterogeneity in intra-Party ideology is a good thing in terms of getting the House to work.

What about Party infrastructure? As soon as this realignment occurs, the next campaign for the midterm elections would begin. The GNP would have to start raising money, getting on the ballots, transferring money within its own caucus from those with safe seats to those threatened, and making sure the organization for grassroots election day activity is in place. District-by-district, those things are too daunting for any Member of Congress (MC) to risk moving first. Without a first mover, however, this movement might fail before it even got started. What the GNP would need would be a Party infrastructure that could match, in some form, the existing structures of the Democratic Party and the GOP in the Districts from which these MCs come.

The key here could be a movement like No Labels, which has always seemed to be a mildly center-right, rational political movement dedicated to the art of compromise. I am not really a fan of No Labels as some kind of reasonable centrist movement between the two existing Parties. Their platform has always seemed like a way to hold the Democratic Party hostage to the dramatic fiscal austerity orthodoxy that has been a hallmark of the GOP for three decades. As the infrastructure for an emerging center-right GNP, however, the fit is better. Pair this new architecture with a big funder and reasonably big name as party leader — Michael Bloomberg comes immediately to mind — and you begin to have something that provides the assurance necessary to get a group of wavering MCs on board.

Over in the Senate, the key change is filibuster reform. Not elimination of the filibuster but rather a rewrite of filibuster rules to require that the minority “puts everything on the line to prevent action.” (Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Orenstein, It’s Even Worse than It Looks, 2016 paperback edition, p. 169) Rather than requiring 60 votes for cloture, the Senate should require 41 votes to continue debate. This would retain a minority mechanism to stop controversial policies that a less-than-overwhelming majority supported. The personal cost in terms of a willingness to actually stand in support of the position you maintain would mean that it would only happen where a large minority had strong objections. (If you haven’t read It’s Even Worse than It Looks, you really should. There are a number of other common sense recommendations for improving the way Congress operates.)

One thing that this set of proposals does not address is what to do about the remaining GOP and, more importantly, the disaffected base that has largely turned into the party of Trump. There has been a lot of coverage that wrongly suggests that this group consists of those left behind in the U.S. economy by globalization and modernization within the U.S. economy. Were that true, addressing the concerns of this base of voters would be an important element of this conversation.

But it’s not true. Some fairly persuasive reporting over the last few weeks has argued that the Donald Trump base is actually not supported disproportionately by working-class, unemployed voters, or economically disadvantaged voters. We know from earlier in the cycle that the one characteristic that best predicted whether a voter in the GOP primaries would be a Trump supporter was whether they were “authoritarian” in attitude. We have also seen the adoption of Trump by the alt-right, which makes sense given that his campaign has trafficked in racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and fear-mongering. So, while it is always the right thing to support those the economy has left behind, that is not who the Trump supporters are.

In fact, Trump’s base mostly closely resembles the far right parties found in Western Europe, which blame immigration and Islam for troubles in their societies. A much stronger social safety net and more generous welfare programs simply have not stopped the rise of a right-wing, anti-immigrant movement in multiple countries as otherwise diverse in outlook as Sweden, Holland, France, and Austria. Anti-immigrant and isolationist policies that also object to an increasingly diverse America seem to be what the not-insubstantial number of diehard Trump supporters want to pursue.

This leads to a couple of conclusions. First, the correct response to those alt-right demands on our political system is to argue against them and refuse to allow that fringe to dictate terms to the rest of us, most of whom recognize the strength our country derives from its diversity. Second, pursuing a robust set of proposals to improve the lives of the working poor and reducing income inequality and systemic structural injustices as in criminal justice reform is an imperative…but it will not eliminate the siren song of the alt-right on some portion of American society. Solving that problem will require a lot of open-minded interaction and civil discourse with people who subscribe to those views.

One additional question that will inevitably come up is why would the Democratic Party not split as the GOP might. I think those who have diagnosed the problems in the Democratic Party to be similar to those in the Republican Party have entirely misunderstood the progressive movement within the Democratic Party. Still, rather than make an ideological argument, the stronger argument is a functional one. The Republican Party has become more and more captured by its fringe and those who would prefer to influence policy with a center-right approach are prevented from doing so in the current version of the GOP. Rather than working from within the GOP, this analysis presumes that some of them have reached a point of diminished returns and no-win positions. (Being forced to either stand by the outrageous statements of their Party’s standard-bearer or to disavow their own Party’s base is about as no-win as politics can get.)

On the Democratic side, the progressive wing of the Party can wield considerable influence within the Party and get some of what it wants. Compared with what it would be able to accomplish as a left-wing splinter Party, members of the progressive wing of the party still have an avenue to influence the platform of the Democratic Party from within. By seeking to get its leaders in key positions of responsibility in the House, Senate, and Clinton Administration, it will have even more opportunity for influence.

For purely functional reasons, then, it makes no sense for progressives to flee the Democratic Party. This is the case no matter how much they think the Party’s leadership is captured by Wall Street and how little they would like giving the Speaker’s gavel to a centrist who had only just departed the GOP. Because there would have to be a critical mass of legislators to make this split and form a new Party, it seems unlikely that a cohesive group of those MCs actually exists; since you can be Bernie Sanders or Angus King and caucus with Democrats while nominally remaining an Independent, I feel confident that the larger number of progressives necessary to form an additional Party and caucus separately from Democrats will not form.

If a realignment like what I describe happened, I suspect it would foreshadow an eventual return to a two-party system in the American tradition. The American political system could function for a short period with the resulting strange three-party constellation but the fringe part of the former GOP would not be able to get its way in any significant sense and would either remain a fringe or fade away in national politics. This would be a start toward a healthier federal government but only the first step on a long road to a meaningful realignment in the American political system.