We know politics and political parties are broken. But how do we figure out what to do to fix it? That’s what we’re talking about with the experts on this episode of Thinking Is Cool.
All it takes is a positive attitude and a little elbow grease, right? Well, that...plus an enormous rethinking of the ways we incentivize political action and voting in the world’s most storied democracy. Nothing we can’t handle in a podcast episode.
This week on Thinking Is Cool, I’m exploring the future of political parties as we work to evolve past where we are today—at a point of extreme and even dangerous fracturing along party lines. Because this—hyperpartisanship and the gridlock and vitriol it breeds—is a problem that urgently needs solving, and talking about it is how we start.
This episode is about recognizing the horrors of our shared reality, but also finding the ways to move forward toward something better. It’s about the means by which we’ve become so shockingly extreme in our political views on both sides of the aisle...but also what we might be able to pull off to again find commonality in legislating.
It’s about building something better. Learning from mistakes. Disagreeing politely. And above all else, thinking a little harder.
Listen and let me know what you think. I can’t wait to hear it.
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*Roll pull quote* JAKE: “This is as bad as it's been. I mean, I've been covering politics since 2009. I've been covering Congress since 2009. That was probably the beginning of it being really bad. But instead of like an insurrection on the Capitol, there were just like like modestly peaceful protests outside of the Capitol when Democrats were passing Obamacare.”
*Roll intro music*
Welcome everyone, even people who think being fiscally conservative and socially liberal means something—I’m your host Kinsey Grant and this is Thinking Is Cool. If you’re new here, I’m both a journalist and someone who has never missed the chance to vote and this show is meant to make your next conversation better than your last.
So far this season, we’ve talked about generation-defining issues like porn, cryptocurrency, climate change, and a whole lot more. We’re a few weeks out from our season finale, and today, we’re going to tackle an idea that kind of eclipses all the ideas I’ve brought to the Thinking Is Cool table. Because having a position and taking a stand means nothing if we don’t have public servants we can rely on to carry out our best wishes for the future.
That’s right—today, we’re talking about polarization and hyperpartisanship in government and what they mean for the future of this very storied democracy. I’ve talked to democrats, republicans, and reporters...so you know I’ve covered the bases. Join me as we figure out we got here and where we go next...in an effort to preserve the world’s most famous representative government.
As always...thank you to our friends at HMBradley for making this episode possible. Nothing is off limits. Everything is on the table. Take it anywhere. And remember—thinking is cool, and so are you.
*Fade out intro music*
INSERT CLIPS FROM TRUMP, MTG, ANTIFA HERE
Hard to imagine that the United States of America, home to the world’s biggest economy, a reputation of excellence in diplomacy, and hot dogs...could be capable of producing politicians and political activists who sound like that.
It’s a far cry from the Americana glory we were sold as children reading history books. Surely our forebears wouldn’t approve, and yet...we become more and more rabid with each passing year and each passing election.
We look to professional politicians as beacons of morality or the lack thereof—Ted Cruz is bad; Barack Obama is good; their policy ideas don’t matter. We view anyone who doesn’t agree with our politics as the enemy, consciously or not. Many of us even refuse to even date outside of our political party. And all the while, we’re becoming less and less likely to change our minds. Eventually, we become so fed up that we give up.
I won’t mince words: Polarization and partisanship in this country threaten to tear it apart at the seams.
I want you to take a moment to really consider what we’re dealing with. We have completely bypassed civility in this country, on both sides of the aisle. And sometimes, so much is happening at once that we forget just how truly bananas all of this is.
It’s not normal that we experienced a literal insurrection following a brief period of time during which the president of the United States refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power for the next administration.
It’s not normal that something as pedestrian as protecting public health or granting people autonomy over their bodies become political issues that divide us into left and right.
It’s not normal that 147 Republican lawmakers publicly challenged the results of the most recent US presidential election.
There’s so much happening that isn’t normal...so much, in fact, that I forgot President Trump was impeached. It’s too much, too fast, too all of the time.
Here’s Jake Sherman, respected political reporter, founder of Punchbowl News, and author of “The Hill To Die On.”
JAKE: “This is as bad as it's been. I mean, I've been covering politics since 2009. I've been covering Congress since 2009. That was probably the beginning of it being really bad. But instead of like an insurrection on the Capitol, there were just like like modestly peaceful protests outside of the Capitol when Democrats were passing Obamacare.”
So right now, take a moment. Allow yourself to become painfully aware of just how fractured our democracy has become, regardless of where you fall politically. Just stop and think.
This episode is coming out a few days before Independence Day here in the US, a date on which we’ll mark 245 years of the pursuit of democracy in this country. 245 years. These days, many of us have concerns whether we can last another 20, let alone another 245, and fairly so. We have failed to find common ground on anything but vitriol over this last decade, and that failure has the potential to be our democracy’s demise.
Unless we do something. We’ve survived a lot in this country, and no matter how often she might disappoint me, this country is still worth fighting for. Now is the time to fight and in doing so lay down our arms. It’s not just turning down the volume on the political theater we’re talking about. It’s fighting for the potential we know we can reach as the world’s most famous democracy.
So that’s what we’re thinking about today: The ways we’ve found ourselves in this desolate land of divisiveness. The solutions to hyperpartisanship and the ways political parties as we recognize them today might need to change. The future of this country.
Sounds like heavy stuff I know, but this episode is for all of us, even if you’ve never voted before (but remember, hot people always cast a ballot). That’s because this democracy affects us all, and we’re all part of the partisanship problem.
I’ve been there—I’ve gotten to a point of such tremendous disillusionment that I’m ready to book a one-way ticket to Canada. I’ve yelled and I’ve protested and I’ve cried trying to explain what feels so broken about this country to my conservative parents. I went into a catatonic state watching election returns in 2016. I’ve done it, and I know you have too.
It’s time to talk about it. I want to understand how we got here and what’s at stake if we don’t make a change. I think I know, but I want certainty. And so today, that’s what we’re searching for.
Now, I have to admit—I’m really nervous about making this episode. I’m a card-carrying democrat and I’m proud of it. But I’m also a journalist. And I want to represent as many points of view as possible as objectively as possible.
I think that’s how we remove political discourse from the list of third-rail issues. We recognize that we can hear dissenting views without being personally attacked. And more importantly, we recognize that taking time to step back and think before we speak...might do us all good.
So today, let’s put aside our preconceived notions in the pursuit of something far more noble than whose Instagram infographics or memes are better: protecting democracy and the social tapestry of this country from their biggest threat yet...us.
*Roll transition music*
Democracy is supposed to go like this: People and the parties that support them try to win elections. Sometimes, they do. Sometimes, they don’t. All candidates are given the freedom and right to maintain different stances and justly criticize their opposition. They agree to disagree, and more importantly, buy into the idea that fair and just elections and legislative processes will help us shrink differences, not grow them. That’s self-governance—winners and losers alike accept outcomes and move on, armed with the knowledge that there will be another election in due time.
Today, that sounds like a utopia. And that’s because hyperpartisanship has caused such a schism between our two major political parties that the mere idea of the one to which you’re not a member holding control? It’s unthinkable. They’re dangerous. They’re irresponsible. They’ll send this country to an early grave.
At least, that’s what we’ve grown to think, and think more dramatically every election. Here’s an excerpt from a piece in Vox by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop:
Party division and national politics themselves have become less about one-off quarrels over budgets and more about deeply moral and often insurmountable differences in beliefs of what this country should become, culturally and ethically.
I’m describing it as best I can, but I think you probably know what I mean: I don’t know that I would date someone with “conservative” in their Hinge profile. I know that’s wrong, but hear me out...I’m the product of a generation that’s come to assign morality to political parties. Before, being a conservative meant maybe being a fan of small government, right?
Today, at least according to people like me and my friends, it means standing for archaic abortion laws, failing to recognize the rights of the LGBTQ community, villifying and separating famillies for wanting a better life in our country.
That’s so messed up. How can I claim to be a member of the party home to equality and fairness and progressiveness when I can hardly extend compassion across the aisle?
That’s why I’m making this episode—partially to challenge all of us to stop yelling at each other so much and partially to figure out what got us here. I’m going to start with that second portion—how we got here.
Here’s the part where I cop to being a congressman’s daughter. My dad served Florida’s second congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 1991. He was elected as a Democrat and switched parties in office.
My dad has often regaled my sister and me with fantastic stories of the good old days, and that’s exactly what they were—good days that feel long gone. Days when public servants could disagree and still find common ground. My favorite stories my Dad tells are about the now-famous legislators he came to love, despite their political differences. The marker of a true friend in Congress, at least in my understanding of those days, is when my Dad calls a former colleague “a truly skilled legislator.”
Not a mossybacked republican. Not a bleeding heart liberal. Not the enemy. A legislator. Someone who recognized the responsibility of being elected to office—to legislate. To pass laws and protect constituents. Not to make headlines or filibuster your way into gridlocked nothingness.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in my Dad’s freshman class in Congress. Surely she remembers what it was like before your political party became the only thing worth knowing, right?
My guess is that she does—we’re not too far gone to fix this shit. So today, we’re gonna try. Let’s start with a little context as to why this two-party system of ours is so fucked up.
*Roll transition music*
I’ve done it before, and I’m doing it again. Imagine me now wearing an argyle cardigan, horn-rimmed glasses, and my hair held into a bun with a No. 2 pencil. Today, I am now your civics professor.
And the only lesson today is this: The hyper-partisan party system we know today was never the intention of the Framers of the US Constitution. In fact, they were famously against a binary two-party system like the one we function under today.
Here’s why: Fresh off the W from the Revolutionary War, the framers became concerned that, in such a binary two-party system, one would come to be the majority. That majority would likely in turn abuse the power of the minority party. And such competition, often close competition, would destabilize the country and the electorate, eroding what’s often called the “fragile consent of the governed,” and leading to authoritarianism at best and violence at worst.
The framers weren’t right about everything, but they were spot on with that.
Take the idea that a two-party system might create competition that’s too close for comfort. I present you with the following evidence from FiveThirtyEight:
That kind of turnover is a bigger red flag than being rude to waiters. That’s because it suggests parties are unwilling to work together to find compromise.
In recent memory, there’s never been a time that feels quite so destabilized as this one. Do I need to roll those clips from the beginning again? I mean, according to some experts, the last time we saw so much institutional volatility was from 1876 to 1896. Yes, the post-Reconstruction Era years. Right after the Civil War ended.
It’s tough to point to exactly what got us here, though many a political theorist and podcast host have tried. From what I can tell after spending the better part of the last month researching hyperpartisanship, there are three main factors that most experts blame for the widening of the schism between our two parties:
I’m going to examine each of them briefly here, but before I do that, an important point made by Harvard University political scientist Nancy Rosenblum to the BBC recently:
There is urgency to get to the root of the problem, whatever that root may be. Not only are we up against the clock to defend the legacy of this democracy, we’re missing out on crucial legislation by allowing partisanship to take precedence over lawmaking. Here’s Jake Sherman again.
JAKE: “I get in trouble when I say this, but I'll say it anyway. So if if. Congress followed the will of the American people, a lot of things would be done that haven't gotten done right. We would have a we would have some some additional gun laws. I'm not saying take people's guns away, but when a madman goes into a school and kills a bunch of kids, like people think that there should the government should find some way to make sure that that doesn't happen again. That hasn't happened so that people understand there's people want that to happen. It hasn't happened and it hasn't happened because of partizanship. I would say immigration laws have not been rewritten. Everyone understands what the solution is to that problem, to the immigration crisis that we have in America, not the crisis at the border, but the fact that there's a there's a border problem. B, there's people in this country who need to be documented, who need to be made whole in the sense that they need to be part of America, part of our society. And it hasn't gotten done because of partizanship. Those are two really easy examples. There's a million examples. I mean, if you go back to the mid 2010s, Barack Obama and John Boehner were very close to a transformational deal to cut down on the country's debt and deficits. And because of partizanship, because of partizan sniping and all that stuff, I would say that's one of the reasons it didn't get done. So, I mean, there are real world impacts here. This is not an abstraction. And I'm not sure there's a way to solve it. Given I mean, given I'm just not I'm not sure. I don't know. That's not necessarily my job to figure out how to solve it. But but but I could tell you that there are there are impacts here and and we see them all the time.”
Why do we see them? That’s a question we’re about to answer right now.
*Roll transition music*
Theory 1 for the political destabilization wrought by hyperpartisanship in the United States: Mark Zuckerberg. Well, put more fairly and accurately, the advent of social media and the monetization of news media. It’s a common retort when faced with the question of what’s degraded our democracy most over the last couple of decades. Social media of course.
In All the News That’s Fit to Sell, economist James Hamilton writes, “News emerges not from individuals seeking to improve the functioning of democracy but from readers seeking diversion, reporters forging careers, and owners searching for profits.”
The titles of some of Ben Shapiro’s most recent episodes suggest as much:
Simply put, we’ve gone about production and consumption in entirely the wrong way. Those tasked with creating and disseminating media know that extreme views and piping hot takes are the moneymakers, so that’s what they amplify. And those of us who scroll and read often only do so in echo chambers of our own design, either engineered to distract us or to reinforce our previously conceived notions.
But that’s not the whole story.
Think about your own social media feeds. Mine is almost 100% liberal blue...and then I go home to Florida and see Trump signs everywhere, even today, and recognize that what’s on my screen isn’t reality.
See, we’ve always disagreed...tech is just accelerating those disagreements and putting them on display. That’s why it seems this first theory of ours...doesn’t entirely hold up.
Here’s what Christopher Mims wrote in the WSJ last fall:
We’ve been quick to point fingers at the Facebooks of the world, especially lately. And I’m not giving Mark Zuckeberg an out—seriously, listen to the episode coming out in two weeks and you’ll know how serious I am.
But I am saying this: Social media is one of many factors contributing to our increasing polarization. We hate each other, but we don’t disagree any more than we typically have. Here’s Jake again:
JAKE: “The question is, which way do you hold the mirror up right in social media reflective of a divided country, or is a divided country reflective on social media?”
I think Jake makes an incredible point. We are the monsters of a Frankenstein we raised ourselves. We decry social media for tearing us apart, but we were already fraying when Zuck decided to rank girls on hotness. This goes beyond social media.
Here’s Saagar Enjeti, Co-Host of Breaking Points with Krystal and Saagar and The Realignment Podcast. And, worth noting, a conservative.
SAAGAR: “We can decry the Instagram activism all we want, but like the boomers are the most set in the way people in this country. I mean, they're addicted to cable news. They have very, very denigrating views towards people who aren't necessarily like their age cohort and are very set in their ways. They have a lot of wealth. And I think that the media that they created and the culture they created is largely responsible for kind of where we are right now. And I'm really talking about cable. I mean, I think cable is an absolute cancer on this country. And unfortunately, millions and millions of people continue to watch it. And those millions are actually the most politically activated. So the most important thing to remember is a two party system is you're basically being ruled by the GOP base and the Democratic base. So we're talking there about CNN and MSNBC viewers and Fox viewers. And if you're a normal person and you don't like any of those, include myself among them. I think 80 percent of the country agrees with me. Most of these people just don't vote, especially in a primary. And when you don't do that in the primary system, you're leaving yourself at the whims of a lot of, frankly, old people who have. I get all of their information from a cable news department. And I think that that is a huge, huge problem that we have in this country.”
I don’t buy that social media alone is making us more polarized. I don’t think it’s done much to help us in political coalition building or any other arena, for that matter, but I don’t think we can point to Facebook and say that’s why we’re at each other’s throats 24/7. I mean, do you? It’s not just Zuck. It’s Laura Ingraham and Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, too.
All in, I take Saagar’s point to mean this: Infographic activism is not political activism. Voting is. But...it’s not always enough. And that brings us to Theory 2...after a short break to hear from our partner HMBradley.
*Roll ad unit*
Thank you as always, HMB.
It’s time. Theory 2 for the political destabilization wrought by hyperpartisanship in the United States: Partisan redistricting, the artist formerly known as gerrymandering.
In its simplest form, partisan redistricting is when district lines are deliberately drawn \ to favor one specific party.
Passing the mic to Jake again.
JAKE: “Every 10 years, obviously, the house is redistricted. And most of those districts or a good number of those districts, those states are are done in a partizan way, meaning a legislature draws a partizan legislature, draws the districts to try to boost their numbers. Right. So they're trying to get more seats. And so most members of Congress go home every weekend, physically leave Washington every weekend and go home to districts that are decidedly more conservative or more liberal than they are. Meaning like there's very few districts where members of the House go home and they're competitive districts where they're incentivized to be in the middle. Right. They're incentivized to be either far right or far left or risk a primary challenge. So the way to think of it best is like most members of Congress, their principal political hurdle, their biggest danger is a primary challenge that is to the right or to the left of them. So that is more extreme using the kind of term that would make sense than they are. So so that drives them to come back to the Capitol and be more extreme to out extreme the extreme person that's trying to beat them.”
Call them power hungry, call them maniacs, call them whatever you want. But elected officials are hired to do a job. They don’t want to lose that job. And so to keep it, they have to morph into extreme versions, caricatures even, of their political selves.
If they don’t, they face the biggest threat: a primary challenger. Because their districts are often drawn to benefit the party in power, winning a general election is no thing. But a primary, where democrat faces democrat and republican faces republican? That’s when losing your job becomes a real threat. That’s where winners are decided.
I found this from Lee Drutman in the Atlantic to be particularly useful:
And here’s what Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro told the BBC: “Just 17 primaries were held in 1968 – today every state has a primary or caucus. This switch to universal primaries has shifted influence from party veterans to more extreme activists, who are more likely than average voters to vote in primaries.”
It’s a phenomenon. And it’s part of why we have such extreme ends of the political spectrum so heavily represented in Congress today. Take Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. She was elected in 2018 as a 28-year-old democratic socialist who had never before held elected office. She beat a tried and true establishment Democrat in her primary...for which less than 12% of voters turned out. 12%.
Surely, AOC or any other legislator considered whatever the opposite of moderate is isn't entirely representative of their constituents. Granted I don’t go to AOC’s district in the Bronx and Queens all that often...but any time I’ve gone, I’ve never once encountered anyone publicly advocating for socialism.
But extremity is what pays the bills for lawmakers like AOC and even Marjorie Taylor Green. Here’s Jake:
JAKE: “Let's take Marjorie Taylor Green. I'm not going to assign any motive to her. But she goes and says something that most people would consider to be crazy. And then she raises three million dollars off of it. So what are you incentivized to do? Again, you're incentivized, incentivized to say something. Like extreme again, so all of the arrows point to extreme.”
And let me add: Marjorie Taylor Greene is not just a whack job, she’s dangerous. She has repeatedly antagonized fellow lawmakers. She is openly transphobic. She has said that Black and Hispanic men are controlled by gangs and suggested that Muslims shouldn’t serve in government. And she’s kept her job in doing so.
That is patently bad. But put yourself in the shoes of a freshman congressman. You’re new to D.C. You probably think you can change the world. And you know that if you don’t say something that’ll grab attention, you will lose to someone more willing to do just that.
We non-legislators do it all the time, albeit at lower stakes. I don’t post a picture of my breakfast of toast and coffee. I post a picture of myself looking kind of slutty in front of my skinny mirror. Shock is a form of social currency.
Winning a primary is like posting a thirst trap. The element of surprise is vital. In the case of our democracy, though, surprise means extremity and extremity means more than just getting a text from your dad asking why you’re not wearing clothes on the internet. It means directly contributing to the erosion of bipartisanship in American democracy.
But much like its predecessor in this episode, social media, gerrymandering isn’t the singular reason we are the way we are.
*Roll transition music*
Which brings me to Theory 3 for the political destabilization wrought by hyperpartisanship in the United States: insurmountable differences in socioeconomic class.
I’m going to immediately hand it over to Saagar again.
SAAGAR: “I think it is ultimately a story of class. And there is a guy who he who shall not be named Charles Murray, who, when he's got writing about race, like you actually wrote a book called Coming Apart, which coincidentally is one of Joe Biden's favorite books, which just to give myself some cover. And what it really is about is, look, we live in a country increasingly stratified along a single line education, which is that you attended a four year college degrees to situation. You, on average, are going to be somebody who holds views on race, gender, I mean, all sorts of different things, as opposed to if you didn't go to a four year degree institution, you're going to have values around things that you value in your life economically and in terms of the way that you live, that people who don't go to a four year college degree. Look, I'm talking in terms of the law of averages. So, of course, there are people who fall out of this. But in general, if you attended a four year college degree institution, and especially if you live in a large city like you're a Democrat and you hold elite liberal views on most of the cultural issues in the. America today and in general, if you don't, then you probably voted for Trump or on average that you voted for Trump or you hold views which would be sympathetic to a Trump typhoon. So the problem that we have polarization is not only do we not watch the same stuff, we don't live in the same area. And increasingly, we now have multiple generations that have been produced who have zero connection.”
That single line he referenced—education—is pushing us to move to districts populated by people like us which in turn enforces extremes in primaries like we just talked about...and it’s pushing us to fail to see alternate points of view.
SAAGAR: “And in general, this consumes how you get your media, what type of movies you watch, the type of television type of vacations that you take. So we basically just live in two completely different countries culturally and in terms of our economic life, which has downstream effects in politics.”
And politicians, by the way, don’t represent us. They’re actually often nothing like us, culturally and economically speaking. In 2019, 140 of the 535 people serving in Congress had a net worth over $2 million. 78% were male, 83% were white, and more than 50% were previously lawyers or businesspeople.
That’s not representative, which means it’s a failure of representative democracy. And that has consequences. Here’s Saagar again...
SAAGAR: “I'm basically of the view that outside of the vote and I mean like the literal vote, but most people who are working class in this country basically have zero cultural or economic support. So if you live in a situation like that, that's how you get Trump. I mean, Trump with seventy five million people who voted to basically hold a middle finger and say, look, we're here, we live here, too. And I think that's probably the most powerful, potent political force in the United States today.”
And that’s not to say that the average voter in Mississippi felt a business tycoon from New York was really his kinda guy...it’s just that people wanted something different. In some ways, it feels Donald Trump’s election was both a symptom and cause of this fracturing. He introduced a dangerous kind of politics to the masses, one that’s resulted in horrific realities once only imaginable in fiction. But he’s also what the people wanted, at least a little? We had in many ways become tired of gridlock that kept any meaningful progress from being made in this country, and we welcome an outsider. Catastrophically so, I would argue, but still.
People just wanted something that felt like...anything. Saagar?
SAAGAR: “I would say the biggest problem with political polarization is that it makes it so that nothing can happen, which in my opinion, is an entire donation to the people who are in charge, the oligarch class, like in terms of the people who are in charge of our media, of our culture, the boomers like if you want something to actually change, then people in Congress would actually have to respond to the correct incentives. And right now, not stupid people. They get elected and they stay elected by delivering on culture war for Democrats, mostly Russia and some like race and identity issues. For Republicans, it's like January six commission, you know, blocking that or whatever, as well as talking about Dr. Seuss masks and lockdown's that you share sharing my Foushee names if they do anything for you. And if I don't do anything for me, it's definitely I can't do anything. Anybody out there who is suffering, I can't get a job or can't buy a house, you know, in the crazy housing market in MA history or can't get a job, can't get married or, you know, it doesn't have it's too much debt. Get a credit card or student. This is the problem, which is that the incentives that we have in our politics make it so that we don't actually want to solve any problems which want to hate each other. And the more that we have that going on and unfortunately, I think it's going to be the case then the more problems that we're going to have.”
I talked at length about the ways that failure to see ourselves in our elected officials has led to both partisanship and political apathy with Kate Glavan, who has become famous for making TikToks all about political activism, among other things like being a fellow tall girl who loves pickles.
KATE: “There's so much gridlock and just so much like infighting or everything is in this, like, you know, like the whole health care debate was all about with deductibles. And voters are like, I don't even know if I have health care. I think that becomes an issue where, like, our elites are really not helping out the average person when it comes to voting. And so I worry about that, that that does dissuade political participation, that people only really vote when it's like we're always going to be overturned. If Trump wins again, you know, it's all of the flashy stuff or Hillary Clinton pizza gate. People aren't really voting on policy and tangible outcomes that are going to affect their life.”
So when we see potential legislation—hyper-partisan as it may be—that could actually affect change or at least shake things up in DC? We jump. And so do our elected officials.
*Roll transition music*
It almost feels in some ways like a feedback loop among these three theories I’ve just posited. Representatives are products of the gerrymandering that got them the job in the first place. Districts are drawn along party lines that are reinforced by our own disillusionment with what we consider to be the “other,” either politically or socioeconomically. Social media amplifies it all such that only the loudest voices are heard, not the smartest.
We know something’s gotta give. We can’t keep going like this—building literal and figurative walls, becoming empathetically bankrupt, refusing to expand beyond our shrinking social circles all marked by sameness...and rendering ourselves incapable of coexistence. We’re all getting tired, and the country is constantly teetering on the edge of disaster.
As I see it, we have two options: Either we burn down the entire system and start again...or we figure out how to adapt to changing circumstances.
On the first, I’ll say just this: My devil-may-care assertion that, perhaps this democratic experiment has actually gone too far, has been the source of many, many fights for me in recent years, with everyone from my dad to a tagteam of my old roommate and my ex-boyfriend. I say it kind of in jest—I don’t think vaporizing democracy as we know it is the right move. But it’s an idea that has gained traction, for better or worse, especially on TikTok, which is by far the most socially aware of today’s platforms.
Now on that second option—figure out how to adapt to changing circumstances—I’ll say this: It starts and ends with voting and the processes that govern our elections, from what I can tell.
In the US, that voting process is based on a plurality—that means that the winner is whoever gets the most votes in the field even if they don’t get a majority of the votes. Vox put it like this:
Plurality-based voting typically renders any third party candidate useless, a ballot villain who directs all their momentum into one of the two leading parties. That has sustained the binary two-party system for years now.
But two options isn’t enough. Imagine if you only had two options for where to go to college. Or what city to live in. Or who you’ll choose as a partner. The outcomes of our electoral process are as big as all of those decisions—we’re talking potentially life-altering outcomes—and we only have two choices.
Can you look me in the ears and tell me that’s a system that works?
I propose instead a multiparty system. In a proportional, multiparty democracy—which, by the way, is completely normal among other advanced democracies like Austria, Denmark, and New Zealand—elections could look like this:
There are struggles in multiparty democracies, though, yes—namely, forming coalitions. But we’re always seeking coalitions, even in a two-party system. Nothing in government is unilateral, at least it’s not supposed to be. Coalition building could bolster compromise...two things that a multiparty system requires to run effectively.
If historical precedent is what you want, you got it: James Madison’s “Federalist No. 10” was a love song for fluid and flexible coalitions...it was in essence a blueprint for multiparty democracy.
Experts also suggest that multiparty democracies increase voter turnout, which God knows we need. US voter turnout has long been ranked at the very bottom of developed countries, and efforts to increase participation have thus far flopped. The reasoning goes like this, again from Lee Drutman: “Our two-party single-winner elections generate lots of lopsided districts where residents’ votes are irrelevant. When your vote is irrelevant, why bother?”
In a multiparty system, your vote becomes more relevant because all of them count, not just those that go to the person with the most votes. That’s how we fight apathy. That’s how we get people—moderate people—to care.
Our votes would matter more in a multiparty system. And within that system, change can creep upward through the ranks to the top of the totem pole.
Because, let’s be honest, I’ve done a bangup job of biting my tongue in this episode. The last five years have shown us how dangerously perverted democracy can become when there’s a crisis of leadership.
I’ve often said that the President of the United States has little power, perhaps as a mechanism for self-soothing. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. The President and his executive branch are supposed to be kept in check by Congress and the judiciary. The President is supposed to be, in a lot of ways, rather impotent.
But I have to take back my assertion that our commander in chief is incapable of wielding absolute power. Logistically speaking, we’ve become a democracy formed by executive actions...which is not supposed to happen. But it does, because Congress has allowed division along party lines to hamstring it into the next dimension.
More figuratively speaking, the President in this hyperpartisan country has come to represent more than just one of three branches of government. He has come to represent his entire party. And sidenote, I’m painfully aware of how accurate it is to use just the male pronouns here.
See, we as voters view the president’s success and popularity in tandem with that of his party. Biden won? Democrats won. Trump won? Republicans won.
Handing it to Kate one last time:
KATE: “Political parties are hierarchical and there's a seniority system that dictates most things and there's no incentive for anyone to vote against Nancy Pelosi. Right. Like, that's something I think the right wing has coalesced around really well, that they are just pure partizans. Ted Cruz is a perfect example. I mean, Trump said to his face, like your dad killed JFK and called his wife just like horrible names, votes for everything Trump wanted wanted. And so I think that's a power issue that the Democrats really are not. They don't they come to the fight with Republicans without any sort of weapons. And the Republicans have like a knife or a gun. You know, we're coming barehanded to the fight.”
If we pull out the weed at its root, something stronger gets the chance to grow. In the case of our democracy, we need to rethink the ways we vote—and in doing so, set ourselves up for more options from city council to the White House, increased voter turnout, less extreme political figures, and better legislating.
*Roll transition music*
It sounds a bit fantastical, I know. I try really hard to be a realist, and these things I’m espousing feel so out of reach. But they’re really not. Change can happen—nothing in the Constitution requires this system of plurality voting. Congress could pass a bill next week changing how we vote. And innovation is part of the American DNA!
It’s unlikely that they will, because the damage that’s been done feels irreparable at times. The forces behind this seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of derision and polarization are too far gone to be stopped. There is no revoking Facebook. There are no take-backs on generations of wealth and education inequality. There is only what we—the next generation of power—can do to face these circumstances.
Fire them. Fire them all with the ruthless precision of your most fearsome manager. Because Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell and everyone else tasked with legislating in this country? They work for us. We, the constituents, are their bosses, and the elections we have every second fall are their performance reviews.
They’ve skated by, shielded either by nepotism or staying power, for far too long. If they, our lawmakers, were truly committed to promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity? They would accept that today’s version of American democracy isn’t working.
And that’s not to say democracy itself is broken—it’s flawed, sure, but it remains the best possible governance system around. The thing about American democracy, though, is that it can evolve. When this country’s Framers sat down to set forth the blueprint for the world’s most famous democracy, they willingly disenfranchised me. Women, Black people—no one but the white men, already flush with power, could get a say.
We laud them for their vision, as we should. To engineer this system of governance in the face of such power was truly a remarkable moment of incomparable innovation and bravery. At the time, theirs was an unbelievable success in political theory. It seemed that separation of powers into competing branches would be enough. They didn’t know about Facebook. Or Tucker Carlson.
But the beauty in our democracy is that it’s not static. We know that making small changes to that original vision set forth some 245 years ago has been necessary.
The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
The 19th Amendment extending the right to vote to women.
The 24th Amendment eliminating poll taxes.
During those times of constitutional change, we recognized a shift in circumstances that drove our country to require some degree of rethinking. I argue here today that another rethinking would be wise.
It’s hard to fully describe the ways this country has been drawn apart at the center to the left and to the right, and I think that’s because we have become so used to it. We’re nose blind to the stench of incredible division in our own country because, well, that’s just how it is.
It wasn’t always this way. Which leads me to believe that it doesn’t always have to be this way.
This isn’t about one party or the other changing. This is about all of us demanding something better from the people we trust to govern our country. Politics and the political process are so incredibly important—doesn’t mean you have to be able to rattle off Joe Manchin’s personal history at the drop of a hat to participate.
All you have to do is demand better. Stand for something instead of retreating in apathy. Fight the urge to disengage and instead engage further.
It starts with talking...so here’s a list of the questions I’m taking to every dinner table I sit at this week:
The circumstances have changed, and with them, our American democracy must too. It’s either evolve or perish—and I know which option I’d prefer.
I’m Kinsey Grant, journalist, host, and voter. Remember, thinking is cool and so are you. See you next time.