Voters understand that political polarization threatens our country. This is what we can do about it.
In a poll recently published on FiveThirtyEight, 29% percent of Americans said the most important issue facing the country was political polarization, placing it second only to inflation. One key factor in reducing polarization is changing the way we vote, which affects not only how we think about political competition, but also how politicians actually behave.
Political polarization is the extent to which Americans have political values and beliefs that are highly divergent from each other. Deep and vigorous disagreement is not new to American politics, of course. But think, for a moment, about this story: in 1787 the United States was governed by a constitution written to address the problems of a bygone era but was effectively impossible to alter or amend. That summer, as the story goes, an unrepresentative group of white men gathered and decided to illegally set aside that constitution. They drafted a new one, complete with a new standard for ratification. Within a year of finalizing the document, the new Constitution had gained approval from enough states to become the law of the land, supplanting the Articles of Confederation in a way not recognized by that older document. Aside from a few street brawls, no major violence was reported throughout the process. No violent mob stormed the Pennsylvania State House.
Does this story sound improbable, almost fanciful today?
That is because American politics today is nearly as polarized as ever, save for the Civil War itself (which was fought to resolve the horror of slavery that the white men of 1787 allowed to fester). As introspection would reveal, the problem with polarization is not theoretical: polarization can limit what voters and politicians can agree on, and ultimately limit what the government can do and can respond to, even in a crisis. As inaction often preserves the status quo, political deadlock can benefit the privileged and is most damaging to already marginalized and excluded communities. Polarization is also dangerous to democracy itself; as scholar Yascha Mounk recently wrote, “The fundamental premise of democracy is that citizens agree to be ruled by whoever wins an election. But if many citizens come to believe that letting the other side rule poses a threat to their well-being, even their lives, they may no longer be willing to accept the outcome of an election they lose.” Still in the wake of the January 6th, 2021 attempted insurrection, these words poke at an open national wound.
One might assume that, over the course of 235 years, our current system has seen it all, and that electoral reform is an overreaction to a momentary problem. But national political factions which rely on ideology to unite people across institutions, geography, and level of government in a sustained way have been rare in our history. When reading James Madison’s discussion of factions in Federalist Papers 10 and 51, it is clear that many of Madison’s assumptions about factions no longer fit our political realities: he assumed that factions would remain small as the country grew large, thereby reducing the national influence of any given faction, and that the multiple layers of electorates would divide the populace into enough mini constitutencies (“broken into so many parts”) as to neuter their power. Instead, modern polarization has given us two large factions with little policy or cultural overlap between the two, and which remain relatively consistent from the local level to the national level.
How we vote exacerbates our current landscape, particularly in primary elections. Often, primary elections see crowded fields of candidates, and the use of first-past-the-post voting can crown a winner that a majority of the electorate finds dangerous or unqualified for office. As Ned Foley points out, in this year’s primaries, “In state after state, winners have one-third of the votes or less.” He goes on to list the Republican nominees for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat, and Nebraska’s governor as all garnering less than, or just about, a third of the votes. These primaries have been rewarding polarizing candidates with little base support, and within gerrymandered districts, often propels them to victory in November. Such voters deserve a voice, but not an over-representative one. This feature of primary elections not only undermines the idea that elected officials represent the will of the people, but it also rewards politicians who exhibit partisan purity: in a polarized society, working with the “other side” becomes a tratorious act, not a courageous one.
Using ranked choice voting could shift political incentives and change the behavior of candidates and politicians themselves. As Rob Richie notes, “With ranked choice voting, you have an incentive to engage your opponent’s base and seek their second- and third-choice votes.” Rewarding candidates with broader support in the primaries would create for better options in general elections, where the use of ranked choice voting would also serve to encourage bipartisanship and candidates to seek second-choice votes from communities they would normally ignore.
Ranked choice voting is not a panacea for political polarization, but improving the health of our democracy will be difficult without it or some other voting system reform. Something James Madison got right in the Federalist Papers is that elected officials will always act in their own self interest. Reforms such as ranked choice voting would redirect the self interest of politicians so that they better align with the interests of a healthy democracy.
Short of changing the Constitution itself (which, ironically, is nearly impossible: fewer than 2% of Americans can block an amendment), implementing a proportional or semi-proportional voting systems–such as ranked choice voting–at the state and federal level is perhaps the most important and practical step that Americans can take toward revitalizing, and saving, our democracy.