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Hyperpartisanship as a Product of a Zero-Sum System

by Paul Fidalgo // Published July 28, 2009
Gail Collins and David Brooks of the New York Times engage in an online conversation over the pros and cons of "partisanship." Brooks laments that he feels alienated from the GOP (his "team" as it is called in the exchange) and feels that he has no other choice but to throw up his hands and consider himself a "conservative independent."

Collins disagrees, and importunes Brooks to work to change his party from within, that being an aggrieved outsider only serves to give power to each party's extremes.

A point I think that goes unmade, but is crucial to any hand-wringing over partisanship, is that Brooks and others like him who do not feel fully at home in one of the two major parties are victims of the zero-sum duopoly that exists in the American political system, particularly in our winner-take-all, single member district system for electing Members of Congress. This is not to say that the parties themselves are the problem--far from it! But particularly in a legislative body like the House or Senate, you have one team trying to win almost exclusively at the expense of the other. There are no in-betweens.

Collins writes:

I like partisanship. What I don't like, and what nobody likes, is the brain-dead variety we see in Congress where the minority party would rather make a bill worse in the hopes that it would fail than make it better in case it passes.
Again, this is because when one party fails, the other reaps the benefits. They have every incentive to behave in this way (assuming, of course, that their better patriotic angels are not in the driver's seat).

If a legislature elects its members through a proportional system, however, we have a different story. Now the game is no longer played exclusively between two "teams" vying only against each other for power, but played among several groupings, each representing different coalitions and ideologies depending on the issue at hand. No longer does it make sense to destroy everything that is not of your own party's making--there is more to gain by influencing what does wind up becoming law.

Collins, however, doesn't like the idea any splintering of parties in Congress:

. . . you can't run a big, complicated country without parties. And if you want to run it with any degree of efficiency, those parties have to have enough cohesion to be able to force people to vote with the group even when they aren't happy about it. Otherwise, you have little tiny clumps going this way and that, holding the whole process for ransom.
That's not entirely correct. She's not talking specifically about proportional systems (though she does mention Italy as a problematic example), but the point is clear: You need the institutional power of the two established parties to get things done. Well, I think that's belied by the Congress's perennial and laughably predictable inability to do just that. In a situation where several different points of view are represented--in proportion to those held by the electorate--there is a better chance for a constructive versus destructive mindset to legislating. More legislators will have a stake in seeing something positive emerge from the debate.

This is not to say that if the House, for example, were elected by a method such as choice voting that the Republicans and Democrats would find themselves awash in a sea of Greens, Libertarians and LaRouchies. The Republican and Democratic parties have deep, institutional roots in our society and legions of loyal party members and supporters. The only difference would be that their numbers would reflect their support among the voting public as it actually exists. But if millions of David Brookses decide that they are looking for something the other parties aren't offering, they'd be able to build a coalition around candidates that reflect their inclinations, find themselves proportionally represented in Congress, and perhaps--just perhaps--find that more positive work can be done as a result.