"The fundamental problem is that politicians can rule with a minority, often giving them little incentive to respond to the majority’s demands."Jason Leung

Something has gone wrong with American politics. Party polarization has left issues from child poverty to inefficient healthcare untouched. Disillusion is the only constant across the political spectrum. And that is nothing to the storming of the capitol and raging debates over the most basic question: who won the 2020 election?

Many have pointed to growing inequalities, rising living costs, or social media “echo chambers” as causes of this dysfunction. However, its greatest cause is more fundamental: the political system of the United States, through a handful of quirks, has become unresponsive to the demands of the majority.

Most Americans know which “quirks” I’m talking about: the “filibuster” (which requires a near-impossible 60% Senate vote to pass most laws), the electoral college (which gives disproportionate power to some states in presidential elections) and gerrymandering (which allows incumbent politicians to redraw electoral districts and gain more seats). The latter points to a deeper problem: both the House of Representatives and most state legislatures assign seats according to districts, which concentrate left-leaning cities and spread out more heavily-contested rural areas. This creates a rural bias compounded by the Senate, which equally represents states with very different populations.

“As most Americans can intuit, some votes count more than others.”

The incentives these create are perverse, and their effects are two-fold. Firstly, they delegitimize the government by disconnecting political power from the number of votes, making the system oversensitive to a minority. As most Americans can intuit, some votes count more than others. Voters in cities and big states are least represented in the House and Senate, whereas those in overwhelmingly left- or right-leaning states are least represented in the Presidency. Over the last decades, these features have severed the link between the number of votes a candidate gets and their political power. The prime example is the 2016 election, when Republicans won the presidency and both chambers of Congress with 42% of the Senate vote (vs 53%) and 46% of the presidential vote (vs 48%). This leads both parties to concentrate funding on a handful of “battleground” states, compounding country-wide polarization and delegitimizing both parties in different parts of the country. However, the fundamental problem is that politicians can rule with a minority, often giving them little incentive to respond to the majority’s demands.

Although many Republicans believe this bias is good for them, what’s happened since they lost the election suggests otherwise. These distortions make it easier for them to win, but also give them an incentive to appeal to a minority, radicalizing the party and keeping it from engaging with voters it could persuade. And although some believe Republicans could never win a majoritarian election, this seems unconvincing. In most major democracies, similar conservative coalitions remain popular. Still, many party members no longer believe they can win a fair contest, leaving them cynically dependent on “gaming the system.” Hence the politicization of election administration, laws to lower turnout, disproportionate gerrymandering, and claims of a rigged election.

“Many party members no longer believe they can win a fair contest, leaving them cynically dependent on “gaming the system.””

The second problem with America’s political “quirks” is that they unduly favour the status quo. Here the main culprit is the filibuster, which gives minorities in the Senate the power to block almost all legislation. For example, on May 28 the Senate rejected a “January 6 commission” with 54 votes in favour and 35 against, as it didn’t get the necessary 60 votes. This has rendered the government impotent, incentivizing obstruction and leaving old problems untouched while shifting political competition away from policymaking and towards increasingly confrontational rhetoric. Americans are thus left frustrated by a government incapable of tackling their deepest problems. Many of the disillusioned stop voting, allowing more radical figures to gain power.


Mountain View

Joe Biden has steadied the ship, but choppy waters lie ahead

So how can America get out of this mess? Though the path forward is uncertain, there are a few possibilities.

Removing the electoral college is a lost cause, as it would require a constitutional amendment or a Republican state to effectively forfeit an election to a Democrat.

In the case of gerrymandering, two recently-discussed bills — Senator Manchin’s voting reform and HR 1 — would tackle it by handing redistricting to independent commissions. However, both include more controversial provisions. Moreover, both seem doomed to fail, as they’re subject to the filibuster and Senators Sinema and Manchin do not wish to even suspend it. Still, some voting reforms are relatively uncontroversial, and both Senators might conceivably compromise to end gerrymandering.

Likewise, to remove the filibuster the Democratic Party must either win more seats in the 2022 Senate or convince Senators Sinema and Manchin. Both alternatives look far-fetched. However, removing the filibuster is now a Democratic priority, and it seems unlikely to last much longer in its current form: it so absurdly handicaps the government that it is becoming intolerable in an era of great-power competition.

Finally, these reforms could be complemented to make the system more representative. Party primaries can boost radical candidates by splitting the opposition and not requiring a majority to win. This could be improved with ranked-choice voting, which tends to select more moderate candidates. Proportional representation, which apportions seats according to vote share as opposed to electoral districts, could also be adopted.

Regardless of what happens, Americans have got their work cut out. Still, the country has a long tradition of rising dramatically from the ashes after times of crisis. And, ultimately, the solution lies in its DNA: make the government more responsive to the people.