A Modest Proposal for Fixing a Failing Democracy

More than half of Trump voters want red states to secede. Biden voters aren’t far behind.

In a survey taken this summer by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, 83% of Trump voters agreed with this statement: “There are many radical, immoral people trying to ruin things; our society ought to stop them.”

More than four in five Trump voters also believed that “Our country needs a powerful leader in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in our society today” (i.e., a strongman), while 44% agreed that the country would be “better off if whoever is President could take needed actions without being constrained by Congress or the courts,” and 52% voiced support for red states leaving the union.  

Scary, right?

Before liberals jump on their high horse, consider this: 65% of Biden voters think “radical, immoral people” are trying to ruin the country; 62% agreed with the strongman statement; 46% said the president shouldn’t be constrained by the co-equal branches of government; and 41% favored secession.

I’m not a both-sides kind of guy. The Republican Party has been heading in a radical, anti-democratic direction since the Gingrich revolution, its trajectory hastened by conservative racial anxiety during the Obama presidency, which segued into the nativist populism of Donald Trump. As leading political scientists recognized, the GOP has morphed from a center-right coalition into an “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional, and politically strategic” party better suited to parliamentary systems than presidential ones.

But in politics as in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The more norms Republicans break, the less apt Democrats are to play by the old rules.

It’s long been obvious that ours isn’t a representative democracy. Republican presidential candidates won the popular vote once since 1992 but held the White House for 12 of those 29 years. Joe Biden won 7 million more votes than Trump, but because of the Electoral College, Trump came within 50,000 well-placed votes of maintaining his office.

Democratic senators represent about 56% of the U.S. population, but because Wyoming and North Dakota have the same representation as California and New York, the fate of the Democratic agenda rests on the—choose your own adventure—legitimate concerns about the debt/taxes/inflation and/or mercurial whims of moderates from West Virginia and Arizona.

Because those moderates have given their Republican colleagues a veto over non-budgetary legislation. Because Republicans have wielded that veto—the filibuster—mercilessly, Senate rules forced Democrats to cram most of their initiatives into one massive package.

The more moving parts, the greater the chance something goes wrong. As I write this, progressives are holding up the bipartisan infrastructure deal to give themselves leverage to prevent moderates from watering down the reconciliation package’s social and climate provisions.

This standoff exists because of the filibuster. The filibuster’s existence, in turn, feeds the sense that “Washington” is broken, which diminishes trust in institutions, which gives rise to authoritarian movements.  

Add to that an extremist Supreme Court likely to demolish abortion rights and red-state legislatures talking openly of rigging the next presidential election—this after Trump urged Vice President Pence to simply declare him the victor on Jan. 6, which would have sparked the biggest constitutional crisis since the Civil War—and it’s no wonder Democrats are taking an antidemocratic turn. Democracy is failing.

The funny thing is, the Center for Politics survey found bipartisan support for major elements of Biden’s agenda: More than 80% of Trump voters support improving the electric grid, upgrading water and sewer systems, and investing in roads and bridges; majorities of Trump voters back paid family leave, universal pre-K, increased rural broadband internet, and raising taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year.

More than 40% of Trump voters even support free community college and legislation to ban right-to-work laws.

What divides us isn’t political but cultural—a sense that the other side is destroying the country and our side has to stop them. Every fight becomes existential. That sentiment erodes rationality, nurtures conspiratorial beliefs, and creates space for demagogues.

In the Washington Post, the conservative Henry Olsen writes, “We have resolved such moments before. We have done this peacefully, aside from the Civil War, because shrewd leaders such as Thomas Jefferson defused conflicts by persuading large numbers of the other side’s partisans to defect to new coalitions.”

It would be nice if we didn’t have to look back 220 years for a peaceful resolution. For that matter, it would be nice if the Republican Party weren’t so reminiscent of the 1850s Southern Democrats.

Indeed, that’s where Olsen’s analysis falls short: Persuasion fails when differences are bound up in identity, not policies. Since the Civil Rights Act, American politics has become less about what we believe and more about team allegiance.

But Republicans also reveal the solution to the crisis they caused. The GOP has eroded democratic guardrails by gaming the system to its advantage—in other words, by functioning like a parliamentary party in a presidential system that relies on norms and good faith to operate. If it were one of several parties in a parliamentary system—alongside Greens, Socialists, traditional Democrats, traditional conservatives, Libertarians, etc.—that had to form a coalition to govern, however, that wouldn’t be the case.

Multiparty democracies foster compromise and inclusivity. And ruling coalitions have few constraints on their ability to govern, which makes them more responsive and accountable to voters.

There’s a way to move in that direction. The Fair Representation Act, a bill introduced each session by Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, would establish multimember congressional districts drawn by independent redistricting commission, with members elected by ranked-choice voting. Long story short, it would lead to more proportional representation in the House.

That, along with ranked-choice voting in presidential and Senate elections—you can’t do away with the Constitution’s two-senators-per-state edict—the elimination of the filibuster, and the obviation of the Electoral College through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, would go a long way toward making our democracy more (small d) democratic.

It would also upend the prevailing power structure, so it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Maybe we’ll consider it when 75% of the country wants to secede.