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Democracy’s ‘derangement’: The people, not the politicians, need to change the system

joe biden philadelphia
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall on Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia.

In his recent speech in Philadelphia, President Biden warned that American democracy is not guaranteed. “We have to defend it, protect it, and stand up for it,” he declared, challenging the nation once again to “come together, unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy, regardless of your ideology.” The mission is spot on, but he provided no evidence of a strategy to do the job. And his diagnosis of the problem to be solved — in stride with today’s political culture of blame — is principally ad hominem, pointing exclusively to “the other side” for what ails our political culture.  

No matter how irresponsible the actions of those who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and those who egged them on, and how troubling the calls for political violence, we err gravely in mistaking the symptoms of our degrading civic life for the cause. The defense of democracy requires far more than condemning the manifestations of hyper-partisanship. It demands reforming the structures and practices established by both parties to create and exploit it. Contrary to rhetoric, the threat to democracy isn’t one another or the other party, per se.  Borrowing from an old campaign trope: “It’s the system, stupid!”  

The fact is that Republican and Democratic politicians, aided by their partners in the thriving campaign industry, have distorted the political system to serve themselves. All aspects of the political process are geared to maintain the parties’ duopolistic hold on power and prosecute their mutually beneficial warfare — no matter how it harms the country. Thriving on a blame-, fear- and conflict-based revenue model to generate campaign dollars and followers, the political industry has pitted Americans against one another, destroyed our sense of shared purpose, and marginalized the political center, the construction zone of functional democracy.  

Defending democracy, therefore, begins with modernizing it. That requires breaking the stale party duopoly to build political processes that are better at elevating good ideas than strengthening animosities. The national unity that Biden invoked is indeed needed behind reforms that can ensure the system better reflects the views and hopes of the broader electorate over the narrow agendas and fears peddled by the electioneers and party extremists. 

Consider that ours is an age of sublime innovation, broad choice and constructive competition enriching American life in many ways — except, of course, at the ballot box. Today, there are more independents in America than either Republicans or Democrats. Despite their persistent failures, the major parties reign supreme in national and state politics, and in every aspect of the electoral and political process. 

Bipartisan cooperation on critical national issues is rare. However, it can be counted upon in spades to put down competition from independents and third parties through restrictive ballot access rules and “sore loser laws” (that prohibit runners-up in party primary contests from otherwise qualifying to appear on the general election ballot). The parties’ mutual interests seal the fate against fusion voting (allowing different parties to nominate the same candidate) and ranked-choice voting (a process for ensuring that winners prevail by a majority, rather than plurality, vote). Wide adoption of these reforms, employed currently in just a few jurisdictions, would make the system more representative, promote greater voter choice and better candidates, and make for more substantive campaigns.  

As currently operated, the system elevates unrepresentative politicians and influencers from the ideological and rhetorical fringes of the political spectrum. Party primary elections are dominated by firebrands who hand the country bipolar choices in general elections. Centrists, though likelier to represent the ideals of more Americans, need hardly apply. The dynamic worsens as once every 10 years the majority party in state legislatures designs congressional district boundaries to give themselves an advantage. This practice, known as gerrymandering, creates growing disparities in the ratio of Republicans and Democrats across congressional districts. 

The system tends to reward candidates who inflame their base. This crams the U.S. House, for example, with officials more interested in fighting and campaigning than in forging the principled compromises that are essential for workable government. Why else would there be only 58 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, who (surprise, surprise) tend to come from more evenly divided districts? Of course, a highly ideological and correspondingly dysfunctional Congress provides more grist for partisan propaganda. 

Such disparities torment the nation’s presidential election system as well. All but two small states award winner-take-all Electoral College votes. That means no Republican candidate needs to campaign in deep blue California, nor any Democratic candidate in ruby red Texas. It would be fairer to voters and have a moderating effect on candidates if the rules encouraged electioneers to hustle for support in every state and region. Such an objective is possible if electoral votes were apportioned according to the state’s popular vote results. But it behooves the dominant party in each state to maintain the sweepstakes status quo. 

Electoral College overhaul and other election reforms such as open primaries, nonpartisan districting commissions, and the appointment of nonpartisan state election heads could make for a healthier democracy and more positive example to the world. But, by and large, Republicans and Democrats will support the reforms most likely to advance their respective prospects and the duopoly’s interests, so the dysfunction continues. 

Powering this degradation of the nation’s political culture is a wildly out-of-control campaign finance system. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter faced off, the combined campaign expenditures neared $200 million (in 2020 dollars). The 2020 presidential campaign cost $5 billion. The 2024 presidential and congressional elections will continue the trend of breaking fundraising and expenditure records, with cascading harm to the nation’s politics and governance. The non-stop electioneering and massive fundraising required to keep pace is why electioneering is a 24/7/365 enterprise and why congressional proceedings look more like a campaign circus than official business.  

By some estimates, House members must spend 40 percent of their working hours fundraising, including from interests they oversee. Many incumbents and challengers rake in more campaign cash from donors who don’t live in their congressional districts than from those they represent. Does anyone believe that the problem with American politics could be cured if we just had more money to spend on elections?

Trends show that the growing mountains of campaign cash, including the massive amounts raked in by superPACs and “dark money” groups will be used predominantly for negative attack ads, optimized for effect by microtargeting and social media tailor-made for spreading misinformation, reinforcing bias, and amplifying the lunatic fringe. Fatter bankrolls to finance interparty distrust will convert greater levels of partisan division and hatred into still more money and dysfunction. This will further marginalize and frustrate good people in politics. Many of the best and brightest Americans will be even more discouraged from offering themselves for elective service. Meanwhile, the country’s silent majority — who polls show hunger for better choices at the ballot box, inter-party cooperation, cleaner campaigns, and better government — will stand blinking at a political process that is out of step with national interests.  

The alt-right coined the term “Trump Derangement Syndrome” for what they perceive as his opponents’ obsession to demonize Donald Trump’s words and deeds. Across the aisle, anti-Trumpers see derangement in how Trump Republicans embrace someone who appears to lack personal virtues and the character demanded of a good leader. 

Objectively, something more fundamental than folly can be found in how many Democrats overlook the extremes in their own party and dismiss millions of Americans who voted for Trump in 2020 without introspection about what motivates so many to pull the lever for him. Conversely, it’s more than head-scratching how Republicans have yielded their party to a politician so contrary to longstanding GOP and American values.  

In the run-up to the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential contest, the parties and their media mouthpieces will heatedly prosecute which side is more deranged (even as they derange and exploit their audiences with misinformation, overheated rhetoric, and exaggerated conflict). It will keep partisans, political psychologists, and social scientists busy telling us what it all means.  

Above all, it will further prove that defending democracy is a job for the public — not the politicians. Given the entrenched powers and formidable forces stacked in favor of the status quo, the fundamental reform needed to refresh American democracy rides on a united and committed citizenry demanding it. The long and difficult road begins with marshaling a clear understanding about the underpinnings of national derangement syndrome. It’s the system, stupid! 

John Raidt is a former senior staffer to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and author of “Politics Inc.: America’s Troubled Democracy and How to Fix It.”

Tags Biden Democracy electoral reform political parties Trump Derangement Syndrome

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