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Against the Partisan Divide

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I recommend listening to a Democracy Works podcast in which Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institute is interviewed by a panel of scholars at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. In the podcast you will hear a thoughtful discussion of the two-party duopoly and the extreme partisanship that the duopoly has inflicted on our democracy. An interesting observation from the discussion is that the founders had not anticipated such a problem so despite all of the checks and balances in the Constitution to guard against domination by one branch of government, they provided no protection against tyranny inflicted by a political party or by a duopoly. Understandably but unfortunately, these observations were not accompanied with a plan for dealing this difficult problem. But there were comments suggesting that this indeed is a serious problem for our democracy and any recovery will likely require a long-term effort.

US Constitution
US Constitution
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Our polarized duopoly is an issue of serious attention in this series of articles. Dealing with the duopoly is our primary motivation for moving towards a voting system like Balanced Approval Voting (BAV), though a collateral motivation has been to enhance the political power of voters. BAV will lower the current very high bar that prevents a small party from challenging a well entrenched duopoly and we can expect this to enable more viable parties to compete. With more candidates to choose from and an improved means for voters to assert their preferences, voter power will naturally increase as the power of the duopoly declines. But if such a change is to happen, it will surely take a long-term effort as each individual state must act to improve on their voting system.

Mouse Trap
Mouse Trap
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Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with the observation that if you build a better mouse trap then the world will beat a path to your door. But it seems Emerson had no actual experience with novel mouse traps or other inventions. And that was in 1889, long before mass media appeared. Today, even if you are able to build a better mouse trap, it seems quite likely that the world will fail to notice. Without intense advertising it would at least take a very long time for the world to learn of the invention much less to beat that path to your door. How many promising inventions have simply gone unnoticed?

We think of Chinese culture taking a particularly long view of history. But our own media-saturated culture lacks such patience. We insist on quick fixes and the results, such as with the development of Covid-19 vaccines, can be very impressive. But with less immediate concerns, such as with the impending climate disaster. The problem was widely predicted by the late 1980's, but our inability to attend even to this medium-term challenge seems sadly (and dangerously) apparent. Such impatience is one barrier to resolving the polarization problem that faces us. People are too ready to dismiss any gradual solution, simply to grasp for some quick fix that does not deliver.

One suggested quick-fix is for public funding of campaigns. No doubt that could be a helpful reform, but it is unlikely to actually end the two-party duopoly. Voters will still believe, quite correctly, that only one of two candidates have any chance of winning. And the history of efforts at government regulation of campaign spending is that the Supreme Court will find them unconstitutional.

Another reform that minor-party candidates propose is to liberalize ballot access. Surely that is a great headache for people who might dream of building a new political party. But the argument for limiting ballot access has always been that, with plurality voting, our elections can only produce reasonable outcomes when there are only two candidates. That is, for plurality voting, an argument that seems very convincing.

The limitation on ballot access should be relaxed of course, but we must first adopt a voting system that can properly handle the consequences. In the end though, some restraint on the number of candidates in an election will be necessary for any election. No matter what votingsystem is used, an election with hundreds of candidates would seem to present a challenge.

Another reform that has a lot of support is to adopt ranked voting. It seems unlikely that ranked voting will be much of an improvement over plurality voting, however, a conclusion that is thoroughly explained elsewhere.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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