What exactly is broken about U.S. politics?

Ariel Stulberg
The Opposite of Post-truth
8 min readApr 12, 2017

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Donald Trump said the American political system was broken and only he could fix it. The problem in his view was bad, stupid, self-dealing leaders who didn’t care enough about American interests. He, in contrast, promised to be smart, and to care.

Now, Trump’s president, and things still seem broken. Has he not had enough time? Are some of the same bad leaders still in place? Perhaps Trump himself is a bad leader?

Maybe. But, historians and political scientists have a more interesting answer: the U.S. system was designed to depend on cross-party compromise, and vast changes in where people choose to live have undermined the incentives that once compelled politicians to compromise.

Is the U.S. political system actually broken?

Yes, it is. And, it’s gotten much worse over the last few years.

The president gets a lot of attention in U.S. politics. But, the real work of setting long-term policy is mostly done in Congress. Measured in the number of laws passed, Congress has been doing less and less of that work ever since the 1950s.

The last two data points mark the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010, following the summer of “death panels” and the rise of the Tea Party. (Graphic by Steve Benen for Maddow Blog)

A small-government conservative or libertarian might object to this metric. Who ever said passing more laws was a good thing? This is only partly valid. Repealing big government also requires passing laws. Anyway, more on this later.

Making laws is hard to do

Passing a bill in the United States is relatively tricky. There are, by design, lots of stages at which a prospective law can be held up or killed. Consider a simpler system, by way of explanation.

In the U.K., all the important decisions are made by the House of Commons. The Prime Minister (currently Theresa May) is a legislator herself, the leader of the party with the most seats (currently the Tories)

The Tories are a majority, 330 of 650 members. That means if they agree on an idea, they can easily vote on it and make it law.

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, currently led by Labor, have absolutely no power. Their only role is to criticize and suggest what they’d be doing instead.

Not so in the U.S..

America’s history of divided government. (Graphic by some person on the internet)

The House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidency are all elected separately, and all three are required to pass a law.

Divided government — with the two parties splitting control of those power centers — is the norm in U.S. history.

At the moment, Republicans hold all three. Does that mean they’re in the same position as the Tories, able to pass whatever law they want?

No. (Even if they were, it might not help them, because they seem not to be able to agree internally. But, they’re not, anyway.)

They face another major institutional hurdle: the Senate filibuster. All one hundred Senators, according to convention, have the power hold up any bill indefinitely. They’re not even required to talk non-stop for hours as in the movies. It’s kind of an insane rule.

The Senate can override a filibuster. But, that requires a “supermajority” of 60 votes. Even a party holding only 41 of 59 seats — deep in the minority — can still exercise an effective veto on all lawmaking.

All of which is to say, the Tories’ situation is very, very rare in U.S. politics. Most of the time, neither party can rule without some support from the other.

Why we compromise

The decline of cross-party agreement in the U.S.. The two curves represent the likelihood that pairs of congresspeople across parties will agree against the likelihood that pairs from the same party will. Watch them diverge over time, becoming extreme in our era. (Graphic by Clio Andris , David Lee, Marcus J. Hamilton, Mauro Martino, Christian E. Gunning, John Armistead Selden)

People talk about compromise in politics as if it were similar to compromise in personal relationships. It’s about human qualities, the line goes: good faith, openness, humility, rationality.

But, it’s not like that at all. Politics is about power. Politicians, if they want to stay politicians, need votes, allies, money, fame, jobs for their friends, etc.. A “good” politician, in the moral sense, either leaves, or operates within that framework, bending it to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Politicians compromise, in most cases, because they decide it’s in their interest to compromise. That isn’t postmodern cynicism; it’s how the American founders saw things. The “checks and balances” described above are meant to ensure that politicians’ personal interests aligned with the the preferences of large, diverse groups of people as much of the time as possible.

For most of U.S. history, that more or less worked (pay no attention to the civil war behind the curtain). It worked, at least, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and only a bit less well in the following two decades.

The Big Sort

These maps show the vast increase of non-competitive electoral districts in the U.S. since the 1970s. (Graphics by Bill Bishop and Robert Kushing)

So, what changed? Why did politicians cross party lines before? And why did they stop?

It’s complicated. There are books written on it, including It’s Even Worse than it Looks, by veteran think tankers Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, which I’m broadly ripping off to make this argument.

But, one major cause everyone agrees on is the so-called Big Sort.

Over the past four decades, American communities have gradually become more politically homogeneous. Liberal people (including liberal black people) left rural areas for cities, making those cities more liberal in the process. Conservatives stayed put. Or, they moved to cities in more conservative states, or congregated in exurbs

These days, most people live places where everyone shares their political views.

“Safe” seats and hyper-partisanship

This chart from the Cook Political Report shows the steady decline in competitive seats. Note that there are no clear inflection points in post-Census years (2002, 2012) suggesting partisan districting, “gerrymandering,” isn’t primary force at work. (Graphic by the Cook Political report)

Far fewer elections today are truly competitive. That, in turn, has a huge impact on the incentives facing politicians.

A candidate running for a “safe” only needs to worry about his or her party’s committed base of supporters, not “swing” voters or the general public (who, surveys show, are almost always more moderate in their views than people who actually vote).

At the extremes, a small number of seats end up so “safe” that the opposite party becomes irrelevant. In those cases, elections are settled in the party primaries, in races between relatively “moderate” incumbents and more radical challengers. Even if the insurgents lose, they often succeed in pressuring the incumbent to take a harder line.

Partisan redistricting — ”gerrymandering” — made the same problem worse.

The collapse of campaign finance regulations and the consequent flood of highly interested outside money did the same. So did the figurative kerosene of hyper-partisan media, right wing talk radio, Fox News, and, now, social media-filtered web news world.

This is what broken democracy looks like

This chart measures ideological orientation based on voting patterns (Graphic by voteviewblog)

All of that is why Republicans were able to stonewall Obama for six and a half years and pay no price. It’s also why the GOP are having such a hard time passing their agenda despite holding the House, the Senate, and the presidency.

Negotiations over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act broke down when a group of “safe” Republicans, the self-styled “Freedom Caucus,” demanded a position so radical it not only ruled out support from Democrats, but also from un-“safe,” “moderates” in their own party.

The situation exposes a fundamental flaw in the design of the U.S. system.

Granting the minority party a lot of power is a good way to force politicians to compromise, but only if the parties are geographically and ideologically diverse.

When Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill were making deals in the mid-1980s, Congress had large numbers of conservative Democrats from the South and liberal Republicans from New England and the Upper Mid-West.

By the time Barack Obama and John Boehner tried the same trick in the early 2010s, nearly all of them were gone. Unlike Tip O’Neal’s Democrats, the GOP , with no moderates to please, gambled that consistent, hardline opposition to Obama would benefit them politically, which, of course, it did.

What is to be done?

There’s no way to bring the old demographics back, short of urban liberals moving to the South and Great Plains in huge numbers. These changes in residential trends seem likely to shape politics for the next several decades.

But, lawmakers aren’t powerless.

They can end gerrymandering and create fairer, more competitive electoral districts. They could reinstate campaign finance rules to reduce the influence of the wealthy, both self-interested and ideological. They could work to expand voter turnout, for example by introducing mobile-phone voting or at least scheduling elections on weekends.

All these steps would empower moderates and weaken radicals, political scientists argue.

Congress could also reinstate some of the petty corruption — ”earmarks,” spending on pet projects attached to unrelated bills — that used to play a larger part in the legislative process. Earmarks were a way for party leaders to reward members who towed the party line on tough votes. The prospect of such bribes probably isn’t the ideal motivation for a politician, but at least it’s non-ideological.

Still, all of that would merely mitigate the problem. The only way to solve it — to recreate a system that actually passes laws — would be to dial back some of the checks on the majority party’s power.

U.S. parties already act like their British equivalents; lawmakers could alter the system to match, or at least go part of the way.

(Graphic by Jon Turbush for The Week)

The simplest change would be to end the Senate filibuster, restoring majority rule there and lowering the electoral threshold for British-style, unobstructed government.

It’s entirely possible this’ll happen. Leaders have eliminated the filibuster for judicial and Supreme Court nominees over the last few years.

Beyond that, pretty much all the options — such as rethinking the three-stage legislative process or creating a multi-party rather than a two-party system — are extremely radical. They require not only constitutional amendments, but fundamental breaks with the traditional American way of government.

The most likely response is inertia, which means a long, painful slog. Eventually today’s teenagers will grow up and today’s retirees will die, and the map will look somewhat different. I wish I had better news for you!

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