Thinking about things The Political Industrial Complex: a Positive Path Forward
August 18, 2020
By John DeQ. Briggs
We live in a perilous political
time. Everywhere we look, most especially in the media, we are confronted with
conflict between and among identity groups, political groups, and especially
these days ambiguous groups defined by words that obscure their purpose or
intent. Words have lost much of their obvious or clear meaning. Social justice
combines two words each of which has a clear meaning to create a phrase that
with each passing year has become increasingly Orwellian. Nobody really knows
what the words now mean and what they mean depends on who is saying them in
what context and in what circumstances.
The seeming breakdown of civil society and the growing dysfunction of our political system are all amplified by a pandemic that has no end in sight. Yet in the midst of this most depressing set of circumstances in the middle of this most depressing year, I have just read a book that spends its first half presenting the darkest imaginable picture of our country and our political system, and yet which ends with a sense of powerful optimism that we can put ourselves back together again with some relatively simple and achievable solutions that could re-create the political system to which our founders aspired. This article is a cross between a review of the book and a Hymarx Outline.
The book is The PoliticsIndustry by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E Porter. It is of very special interest to me because for nearly five decades I have been an antitrust lawyer focused on antitrust law and competition policy. This is a field that examines industries and markets, usually in a framework involving mergers, consolidations, other potentially anticompetitive corporate combinations (such as cartels), price discrimination and still other forms of anticompetitive conduct such as monopolies, attempts to monopolize, or monopsonies (which are buying side monopolies), and the problems of market structure, duopolies and the failure of market performance. There are thousands of antitrust lawyers and economists who study markets and their structures trying to understand their strengths and weaknesses or seeking to attack (or defend) their participants in governmental or private litigation.
The received wisdom regarding markets is that monopolies are bad for many reasons (lack of customer choice, innovation, price constraints and so on). Duopolies (meaning two rivals in a business or market) can also be dangerously anticompetitive (by fostering collusion, facilitating oligopolistic interdependency, stifling innovation, dampening price competition and so on). Consumer choice is the source of considerable innovation in markets and is generally thought to fuel market efficiency. Markets blockaded to new entry by high entry barriers may tend to be anticompetitive, especially to the extent that there are a limited and small number of rivals operating in the blockaded market (higher than competitive prices and lower than competitive innovation more likely). Markets that are “concentrated” (meaning a small number of rivals account for a very large percentage of the entire market) can foster oligopolistic/anticompetitive outcomes.
Michael Porter, one of the two authors of the book, is a competition economist. He has spent his life studying companies, industries, and even nations from the perspective of competition, competitive advantages, and so forth. His co-author, Katherine M. Gehl, was president and CEO of Gehl Foods, a high tech food manufacturer. She hired Michael Porter as a consultant some years ago, thus beginning the relationship and subsequent collaboration that produced this extraordinary book, The Politics Industry.
The authors examine the “politics industry” as if it were a commercial market. Viewing what they come to call “the political industrial complex” as a market with its own ecosystem, incentives, rewards, and structure is brilliantly original. They start by analyzing this industry as they would analyze any commercial market, beginning with the participants and the structure. First, there is the rivalry between existing competitors: Democrats and Republicans. This is the dominant duopoly. The only real substitute is Independents. A third party is a theoretical new entrant, but the barriers to new entry are formidable and virtually impossible to overcome. This industry has suppliers: candidates, campaign talent, think tanks, lobbyists and so on. The industry also has buyers. These buyers are customers (voters) and include donors, primary voters, special interests, and average citizens. These voter buyers are served through various distribution channels, including paid advertising, direct voter engagement, social media, and other media.
Looking at this entire ecosystem
through that prism, the authors uncover blinding (and, once recognized,
obvious) insights and come up with surprisingly simple solutions. It is, in
short, perhaps, the most important book on American politics of the past
century and one which every voter in every state who cares about political
dysfunction would do well to read. And happily, not only is it a short book
(fewer than 200 pages), one can read a 2017 Harvard Business School paper that
laid out many of the main points in the book. And for non-readers, one can link
to two or three separate YouTube videos where the authors discuss most of their
main points. Links to all these are provided in the sidebar under JDQB Worth
So here are some of the basics.
First of all, politics is a private industry dominated by two competitors, the Republicans and the Democrats. It is a duopoly. It is a private industry with nearly impossibly high barriers to entry. The ecosystem surrounding this industry is a $20 billion/year industry comprised of elected officials, their staffs, lobbyists, advertising agencies , PACs, consultants, and so on. This is just at the federal level. This number would balloon if comparable elements of the ecosystem from the state level were added. And if we include the revenues of all these political organizations, the politics industry inflates to over $100 billion per election cycle.
Secondly, it is the conventional wisdom that our system is broken
and needs to be fixed. But to put it more accurately, the system is not broken
at all. It functions to achieve exactly those goals for which it is carefully
designed by the duopolists. The primary goal for which the system is designed
is the reelection of individual candidates and the preservation of the duopoly.
Unlike commercial markets that
operate under governmental rules and regulations, and enforcement mechanisms
such as the antitrust laws, the politics industry makes its own rules and
enforces them when it pleases, primarily to exclude potential rivals. This is
why third-party candidates almost never can get on a debate stage — the rules
require candidates to achieve impossibly high approval ratings before they can
get on stage, but they cannot get those ratings without being on stage. This is
obviously a form of Catch-22. You get the idea.
In a competitive commercial market,
rivals compete to serve customers, which is to say consumers. In the political
industrial complex, customers are not served by the duopoly. Customers, which
is to say voters, can be divided into five segments depending on how they
engage with the duopoly. Thus, there are partisan primary voters; special
interest voters; donors; average voters; and non-voters. The parties prioritize
their attention to the voters who can most advance their interest through the
two currencies of politics: votes and money (or both). The most powerful
customers are therefore partisan primary voters, special interests, and donors.
These groups represent a fraction of the fewer than 20% of registered voters
who vote in primaries. Princeton and Northwestern University studies from 2014
examining congressional action on nearly 2000 policy issues find that “when the
preferences of economic elites and the strands of organized interest groups are
controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a
minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Third, the single most important proposition demonstrated by the authors is probably this: there is virtually, and more often than not literally, no overlap between the legislator’s incentive to be elected and his or her incentive to achieve goals desired by a majority of the voters or goals that are in the national interest. Stated slightly differently, there is simply no intersection between acting in the public interest and the likelihood of getting re-elected. Indeed, if acting in the public interest means acting against the interests of your party’s “base,” then acting in the public interest runs a high risk of being “primaried.” For politicians, this is a relatively new and terrifying verb.
Duopolies are not inherently good or bad, but as politics is currently structured, the same two rivals are guaranteed to remain empowered no matter how poorly they serve the public interest. This would be a catastrophic problem for customers in any commercial industry. The authors describe it as a “nightmare” for a democracy.
Fourth, it is important to grasp the “rules” and their impact. How do we decide who gets placed on the ballot? How do we decide who wins? The rules that govern these questions are the industry’s elections machinery. And once a candidate is sent to Washington as an elected official, how is the legislator permitted, or constrained, to draft legislation and turn bills into laws? What rules and practices determine how Congress works? These rules are the industry’s legislative machinery. These are like software humming in the background of a operating system. One is barely aware of their presence, yet they have a powerful impact on everything.
Elections Machinery.Two key features of today’s
elections machinery cement unhealthy competition: party primaries and plurality
voting. Party primaries are to a large extent a rigged game. This is partly
because of gerrymandering and partly because of the committed voters and donors
who vote in party primaries, largely to the exclusion of others. This is also
partly because of ballot access rules and “sore loser” rules prevalent in many
states by which the parties prevent: (a) ballot access to those who have not
yet demonstrated strong electoral support and (b) primary losers from competing
in the general election under any label at all. The Delaware sore loser law
gave Senator Coons a seat in Delaware over the loser of the Republican primary,
who, according to polls, would have defeated Senator Coons by more than 20
points. Forty four states have “sore loser” rules that prevent a primary loser
from running in the general election. There is of course nothing in the
Constitution about gerrymandering, sore loser rules, or any of the other
features that permit the parties to control the primary system. These rules are
written and enforced by the parties themselves to limit new entry and to
maintain their duopoly. And they function exactly as intended.
It is not an overstatement to
observe that party primaries are the centerpiece of elections machinery. They
ensure, almost as if by design, that the public interest and a person’s
electability do not intersect.
Plurality voting is the other
feature that tends to corrupt the system. Many might be surprised to learn that
our elections are not designed to ensure the election of the candidate with the
broadest appeal to the most voters. In a three-way race, a candidate can win
with as little as 34% of the vote — indicating that two thirds of voters
preferred someone else. This is precisely what happened in Maine in 2010 when
Paul LePage won his party’s gubernatorial primary with only 37.4% of the vote
and then won the governorship with only 37.6%. So, nearly two thirds of voters
– Democrats and Republicans – did not select the candidate who would now be
their Governor. This plurality system of voting incentivizes candidates not to
speak to a broad cross-section of the electorate, but rather to target a just
big enough base of partisans who can push them slightly ahead of their
Plurality voting also creates “the
spoiler effect.” How did Mr. LePage secure the governorship of Maine (despite
substantial unpopularity)? An independent entered the race and won more than 8%
of the vote. Had the Independent not run, most of those votes would have gone
to LePage’s rival, who then would have won the election. Both parties do
everything in their power to avoid allowing potential spoilers into the race,
and for the most part they are successful. In commercially competitive markets,
it is a bedrock article of faith that more choice is better for the consumer
for many reasons. Politics may be the only industry where we are regularly told
(by the rivals) that less competition is better for the customer.
An in-depth discussion of the arcane Legislative Machinery rules is beyond the scope of this modest description of this fascinating book. But a couple of examples will suffice. First, there is something known as “The Hastert Rule.” This is something that is relatively recent, and probably not very well understood outside of Congress. It is also not a written rule. The Hastert Rule dictates that the Speaker of the House will not allow a floor vote on a bill unless a majority of the majority party — the Speaker’s party — supports the bill even if a majority of the full House would vote to pass it. This is a particularly egregious example of today’s partisan legislative machinery in action, now the standard practice of Speakers of both parties. This made up rule, not found in the Constitution, not codified, not written down anywhere, cements hyper-partisan control over the legislature. In the case of the 2013 shut down, it cost the country $24 billion for 16 days of shut down that 90% of Americans did not want.
It is important to appreciate how normal — how very “water to the fish” — this type of partisan machinery has become to most of us, including journalists and editorial boards. Little or nothing was written at the time of the 2013 shut down that illuminated the lunacy of a single person’s ability (a single person elected by a small number of one party’s primary voters in one district in one state) to stop a democratically elected legislature from solving a problem practically every one in the country wanted solved. As the authors put it: it is partisan oligarchy.
From the end of World War II until
the mid-to-late 1970s, congressional committees were the heart and lungs of
Congress. And they were in a great many ways nonpartisan. Bills did not go to
committees to die as they do now, they went to committees to be hammered out by
legislators (and professional staffs) seeking to serve both constituents and
country. As the book explains, ground zero for the partisan takeover of
Congress was the House of Representatives during the 1970s, when the Democratic
majority (which had been in place for more than forty years) became fed up with
conservatives using committees to hold up liberal bills. The takeover of the legislative
machinery (the committees) by the parties started small, first by reviving
the Democratic Caucus. While most legislators previously had little contact
with party leaders once in office, this changed in 1969, when Democrats began
holding monthly meetings in which they set agendas, devised legislative
strategies, and coordinated so that all members spoke in one unified voice.
The second front was an attack on
committees. The Democrats mitigated the power of committee chairs, limiting the
leaders’ control over the committee agenda, and transferring to party
leadership the authority to appoint subcommittee heads. To have a chance at
securing a committee chair, members would need to demonstrate loyalty to the
party leaders responsible for putting them in their positions. Going forward,
any chair who ignored party directives did so at her own risk.
After co-opting the committee chairs, the leadership then turned to its rank-and-file members. In 1975, the job of making committee assignments was transferred from the Ways and Means Committee to a newly formed Steering and Policy Committee, chaired by the Speaker and dominated by party leadership. Career trajectories for members now hinged on preserving good standing with party leaders.
Then, even with control over
committee members, the Democrats were unhappy that bipartisan committees could
still make key decisions. So, beginning in the 1970s, the Democrats started
bypassing committees altogether, employing partisan task forces to manage
policies of high importance. These task forces were staffed with Democrats
selected by the Speaker to carry out the party’s agenda.
Finally, to complete the creation of
fully partisan legislative machinery, the party commandeered the Rules
Committee, which had traditionally prided itself as a neutral referee, making
impartial decisions on which bills would move to the floor, in what order, and
under which rules of debate. Under the new regime, nothing could come to the
floor without the Speaker’s approval. When writing legislation, committees no
longer had to think about what the best policy would be or what would be
favored by a majority in the House. Instead, a critical step was to put forward
policies that could get by a cadre of partisans appointed by a party leader and
in complete control of the congressional calendar.
In 1994, when the Republicans took
over the House of Representatives for the first time in more than a generation,
there was no deconstruction of this partisan legislative machinery. Instead, it
was embraced, expanded and amplified. Speaker Gingrich put freshmen acolytes on
some of the most prestigious committees based on loyalty not seniority. He also
worked to dismantle the nonpartisan structures that had supported the
day-to-day legislative work of Congress. This meant cutting by one third the professional
staff — most especially the economists, lawyers, and investigators who worked
for committees, not for individual members.
No single one of these events drew much attention. The media did not seem to think anything was particularly amiss. The long, slow, but steady slide into hyper-partisanship happened almost completely out of sight. Today, most bills die in committee and Conference Committee negotiations, once common, are nearly extinct. In the 114th Congress, there were just eight conference reports, down from 67 in the 104th Congress a decade earlier. Now, when one party controls both chambers, majority leadership meets behind closed doors and then simply announces the outcome of its internal negotiation to the other side.
As the book puts it: “The
consequences of a political-industrial complex overrun by unhealthy competition
are horrifying — and, even scarier, utterly normalized.”
It is accepted as normal when the Mitch McConnell’s and Nancy Pelosi’s of America — currently our most powerful members of Congress — announce publicly and proudly that their top priorities are either resisting the current President or electing more members of their own party. It is normal that bipartisan bills are killed despite majority support. It is normal that a “lobbying index” of companies that derive big earnings from lobbying outperformed the S&P 500 over the last decade. And it is normal that the richest country in the world … has its credit downgraded as a result of partisan political gamesmanship. What could be more irresponsible?
The book posits that unhealthy
competition in the politics industry has resulted in five horrifying consequences
for our democracy.
1. Lack of Problem Solving.
In our current political system, the legislator doing his job as an elected official the way the public needs actually increases the chance that he will lose his job. Keeping a problem or a divisive issue alive and festering is a proven method to attract and motivate partisan voters, special interest, and committed donors to each side, delivering both key currencies (votes and money) in return. Landmark legislation used to pass with strong bipartisan support. This century, important legislation is passed only along partisan lines (see for example: the Affordable Care Act; Dodd-Frank; the Tax Cut and Jobs Act ). This is a stupendously wrongheaded design flaw.
2. No Action Without a Time-Sensitive Crisis and National Debt
When a national security crisis
occurs, a natural disasters hits, or a government shutdown or debt downgrade
looms, Congress does take action, sometimes even strict action. But the
trade-off is that the action is virtually never paid for with current funding. Instead,
Congress uses deficit financing, which passes the cost of the bill on to future
generations by adding the spending to the national debt. There is no party
standing strongly for fiscal responsibility anymore; both Republicans and
Democrats have realized that in the absence of a serious competitor raising the
issue (as Ross Perot did in 1992), there is no political benefit to fiscal
3. A Country and Society More Divided.
Competition is personal. It involves
not only politicians, but also citizens. While party rivalry is intense, it is
nonetheless constrained because head-to-head competition for the middle is
mutually destructive. Instead, the rivals increasingly seek to compete in ways
that reinforce their differentiation and separation from one another. The
political industrial complex increasingly plays the identity-politics game,
painting fellow citizens on the other side as “enemies.” One sees this clearly
on social and other media, within communities, and even in families.
4. Political Disillusionment
The American public has never been
more dissatisfied with the political system. Public trust in the federal
government is hovering at a near 60 year low. In 1958, three out of four
Americans trusted the government. By 2017, just one in five did. The percentage
of self-identifying Independents is as a near all-time high — 41% v. 30% for
Democrats and 28% for Republicans.
Worryingly, millions of Americans
have begun to lose faith in democracy as a system of government. Only one third
of those born between 1980 and 1996 (millennials) believe it is essential to
live in a country that is governed democratically. Support for authoritarianism
is on the rise.
5. Lack of Accountability
In any other large (and thriving)
industry with this much dissatisfaction with the only two players, some
entrepreneur would see it as a phenomenal business opportunity and create a new
competitor responding to what the customers want. This will not happen in the
political industrial complex because the duopoly works extremely well together
in one particular way — to rig the rules of the game to protect themselves
from new competition
Immigration. As a nation, we have chosen to make immigration a partisan
issue rather than solving the problem. The problem has been on the edge of a
solution many times, but the solution was strangled for partisan political
reasons, frequently by distinguished elements of both parties, including then
junior Senator Obama, who felt obliged to torpedo the McCain-Kennedy bill for
fear it would provide a tactical victory for his upcoming presidential
Economic competitiveness. Competitiveness is central to the welfare of every nation. The nation is competitive if it creates the conditions for two things to occur simultaneously: businesses operating in the nation which (1) compete successfully in global markets while (2) lifting the wages and living conditions of the average citizen. Today, the United States is fulfilling one half of the definition of competitiveness. Large and midsize companies here are thriving and creating prosperity for those who found, run, and invest in them. But middle and working-class Americans are struggling, as are many small businesses.
Since the beginning of the new
century, productivity growth has fallen, leading to a significant drop-off in
economic output and a smaller pie to divide among the population. Established
firms are investing less, and our economy is becoming less dynamic as the rate
of new business formation has slowed. The American Dream is under threat. What
used to be a guarantee that American children would earn more than their
parents did is now just a coin toss. The era of shared prosperity has ended. Regions
surrounding cities like San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Washington are
booming with vibrant, knowledge-based clusters. But within these oceans of
affluence sit islands of hardship, and outside these oceans of affluence sit
other oceans of economic decline and inequity.
Signs of competitive decline are
plentiful and most of them can trace the roots of decline to government action
or inaction, but in either case partisanship. Indeed, our strengths are concentrated
in areas driven by the private sector, while our weaknesses tend to be in areas
driven by state and federal policy. Thus,
We face in astronomically expensive and inequitable health care system; onerous and costly regulatory and legal systems; a convoluted, loophole-filled tax code; a public education system that fails to equip children with the skills needed in the new economy; crumbling highways, railroads, and airports that are a national embarrassment. And things are only getting worse.
The authors observe that it is not
that we do not know which areas we need to address to unlock American
competitiveness. Nearly everyone inside and outside of Washington agrees that
we must improve our infrastructure, streamline regulations, address abuses in
the international trading system, and balance the federal budget. There is a
surprising amount of consensus. The problem is that consensus does not produce
solutions. We do not have a policy problem. We have a politics problem.
A Quality of Life Recession.
Some worldwide statistics tell a
chilling story. The United States has fallen into 26th place overall
in social progress compared to other OECD countries, far behind countries such
as Portugal and Slovenia. The United States ranks near the bottom among the 36
countries of the OECD on a specific group of indicators, including education,
environment, health, personal safety, inclusiveness, rights and freedoms
(including particularly freedom of expression, access to justice, and freedom
of religion), and property rights. The United States is 35th in
maternal mortality and 33rd and child mortality. Beyond the OECD,
overall health outcomes are comparable to Jordan or Panama. In secondary school
enrollment, a springboard for citizen opportunity, we are 22nd out
of 36 in the OECD. Beyond the OECD we are on a par with Serbia. Our homicide
rate is 35th out of 36 within the OECD. We rank 31st on
access to basic drinking water. With respect to personal safety, we have fallen
behind countries like Indonesia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.
Our society is fracturing; quality
of life is declining for many, Our government used to be able to solve
problems; now we cannot. We are no longer the country we like to think we are.
Meanwhile, the political industrial
complex continues to grow and prosper.
A Way Forward to Solutions
The Gilded Age. We have been here before. The book spends 35 pages or so talking about The Gilded Age and the political dysfunction that plagued the country during the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. The parallels between then and now are striking. The solutions to the problem of the political dysfunction during the Gilded Age involved the success of the Progressives of the time (who bear no ideological relationship or resemblance to the Progressives of today). But the reaction to that political dysfunction did involve ballot reform; direct primaries; the introduction in many states of “direct democracy” (ballot initiatives); the direct election of Senators; changes in the legislative machinery that resulted in stripping away the power of the Speaker (the then-powerful Joe Cannon) over the Rules Committee and the decentralized control of committees made independent by the then new seniority system; and the regulation of money in politics.
The solutions to the political
dysfunction problems of the Gilded Age worked for many decades. The country
came to global and political maturity in the wake of World War I; depended on a
strong and largely respected government during the Great Depression;
contributed to the annihilation of Hitler’s Germany and the Emperor’s Japan in
World War II, and emerged as the strongest economy in the world, and as a world
leader in manufacturing, medicine, the building of postwar Europe, the building
of the modern American infrastructure, and the building of world’s first large
and relatively affluent middle-class. But slowly, and in hindsight inexorably,
the political industrial complex duopoly returned to the form of the Gilded
Age. But today there is no effective “muckraking” journalism; no Theodore
Roosevelt, and no credible movement to bring about the needed systemic change. Other,
that is, than a motivated citizenry. The Politics Industry should be
seen as the first credible blueprint for systemic reform. The systemic reform
outlined is beguilingly simple, requires no Constitutional Amendment, and can
be implemented state-by-state relatively quickly. Indeed, some states are
already moving in that suggested direction.
New Rules for the Electoral
The Final Five Voting System. This is simple. It consists of two parts: (1) open, single-ballot,
nonpartisan primaries in which the top five candidates qualify for the general
elections and (2) ranked-choice voting (RCV) in general elections. Successful
change requires the adoption of both of these elements, not just one of them.
Top-Five Primaries. One would no longer vote in a Democratic primary or a
Republican primary. Every candidate from any party, as well as Independents, would
appear on a single ballot (with a partisan affiliation next to their name if
they desire). All voters would be eligible to vote in the primary. There would
be no gatekeepers as to who goes on the ballot. The top five finishers would
all go on to the general election. They could all be Republicans; they could
all be Democrats; they could all be Independents; or some combination of these
or something else. While the top five proposal has not yet been implemented,
some single ballot, nonpartisan primary pioneers are paving the way, including
California, Washington, Maine, and soon Massachusetts and maybe our own
Uncompetitive general elections preceded by highly partisan primaries had serious adverse effects on California politics. The introduction of top-two primaries changed the calculus significantly in the number of competitive races across the state doubled immediately. Landslide victories decreased, and the number of incumbents who lost in the general election increased greatly. To win a general election, candidates have to appeal to a broader cross-section of the electorate. And when elections change, governing changes. California’s notorious gridlock began to loosen as voters began electing more politicians committed to solving problems. By 2016, the approval rating for California’s legislature hit 50%, up from 10% in 2010.
The push back came from California’s partisan political leaders — the duopoly’s gatekeepers. Leading up to California’s primary elections in 2018, U.S. House of Representatives majority leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said, “I hate the top-two.” The then House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said California’s top to system “ … is not a reform. It is terrible.” The fact that the leaders of the duo making up the duopoly hated the change speaks volumes as to its wisdom.
But the book urges that top-two open
primaries does not go far enough fully to inject healthy competition into our
elections. Recognizing that there is no perfect number, the authors believe
top-five is optimal for three reasons. First, the additional slots in
the general election make it highly unlikely that a single party will capture
all five spots. Second, top five ensures that more voters are likely to
have a choice they support come November. And third, more choice means
more competition for candidates and ideas, and more competition means more
elected officials who are more accountable to citizens — and more
accountability in an industry means better results. The authors are persuasive
that a top-five primary could yield optimal results.
Ranked-Choice Voting General
Elections. This is also simple. Whereas
plurality voting can elect candidates without majority support, RCV does the
opposite. For candidates to win, they must pass the 50% threshold. Here
is how it would work. When you arrive at the polling station on Election Day,
you receive a ballot with the names of the five nonpartisan primary winners. The
ballot would invite you to pick your first choice, your second choice, your
third choice, your fourth choice, and your fifth choice. The book assumes that
the candidates in the hypothetical are Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton,
George Washington, John Adams, and Abigail Adams.
After the polls close, the
first-place votes are counted. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the
first-place votes (a true majority), then the election is over. But if no
candidate gets a true majority, the candidate in the last place is eliminated.
In this case, let us say that Hamilton, Abigail Adams, George Washington came
in first, second, and third. Thomas Jefferson came in fifth. But votes cast for
Jefferson would not be wasted because voters who selected him as their first
choice have their ballots automatically transferred to their second choices.
Let us say now that most of Jefferson’s supporters have George Washington as
their second choice. When the ballots for Jefferson are re-distributed to his
voters’ second choices, George Washington is pushed over the 50% threshold and
he wins the election.
While most Americans may not have heard of RCV, it is far from a new idea. In 2002, Senator John McCain recorded a robocall urging voters to support a ballot measure to adopt RCV, stating that it would “lead to good government because voters will elect leaders who have the support of the majority.” That same year, McCain’s future opponent, Illinois State Senator Barrack Obama, sponsored Illinois Senate Bill 17894 to establish RCV in-state and Congressional primaries. Both proposals were ahead of their time; neither of them passed. But in 2018 Maine became the first state to adopt RCV, and Massachusetts will vote on RCV in November 2020.
The benefits of this approach are
not just theoretical. It has been utilized in several municipalities to elect
various city officials. In these places, voters report that candidates focused
on the issues of the campaign rather than denigrating their opponents. If
candidates need to win second place (or even third place) votes to make it over
the 50% threshold, campaigning by simply attacking opponents will have limited
utility. RCV ensures that the winner will always have support from the broadest
possible portion of the electorate. And importantly, RCV eliminates the
enormous barrier to entry that plurality voting creates. Combined with
nonpartisan top-five primaries to create final-five voting, the authors are
convinced that it would be transformational.
Reengineering Legislative Machinery
To some extent, most of the energy
of the book is expended in describing the problems, and in prescribing
solutions to the electoral machinery. One suspects that the authors
believe that the legislative machinery would tend to repair itself
through the influence of those selected by the new electoral machinery.
Nonetheless, their first prescription is to use a proven management practice to re-imagine the legislative machinery from scratch: zero-based budgeting. With this method of budgeting, used by many organizations across the private sector, all expenses must be justified and approved according to anticipated value, not history. They suggest putting aside most of the rules of the House and the Senate, the rules of the Committee on Rules, the volumes of rules upon rules optimized and weaponized over the decades. They suggest putting aside the informal rules and practices as well as customs that create separate podiums, separate cloak rooms, and separate dining rooms for Democrats and Republicans, and that seat the chamber according to party. They suggest putting it all aside and then reimagining zero-based budgeting from a clear, white space. Some of the old customs or rules, like old furniture, might prove useful, but most of it, they suggest, can be left aside.
Obviously, if the electoral machinery is not changed in a way that eliminates hyper-partisanship, there is no hope at all that the legislative machinery could be motivated into useful action. This is not a chicken/egg problem. The electoral machinery must be changed first. Procedural and substantive legislative reform can, and surely would, follow.
Our circumstances in the United
States are bad and getting worse. The ideas put forth in this book are
original, well thought out, and indeed brilliant. This is precisely the sort of
change that people deeply concerned about political dysfunction and national
decline should applaud and seek to bring about as soon as possible.