Design Defect?

In the short time it has existed, Vox has proved to be one of the smartest sources on the internet; its “explains the news” feature, credible reporting and excellent writing have made it a “must go to” for many of us.

Recently, the site had a political science meditation by Lee Drutman, titled “Yes, the Republican Party has become pathological. But why?”

The article began by quoting an often-cited paragraph from Mann and Ornstein:

In Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s now-classic and still-true description of the party, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Drutman doesn’t quarrel with this observation, but says that the pressing question is why did the GOP go insane? And unlike those who pin the problem on flawed leadership, or the Christian Right, or even the racism that has become embarrassingly obvious, he argues that the opportunities and incentives that are built into the system are “design defects,” that have caused the astonishing dysfunction we now see.

My argument is that the modern Republican Party is a direct result of the design flaws of the American political system — our winner-take-all single-member electoral districts, our reliance on private money to finance elections, and our increasingly presidentialist system of government. You simply can’t understand the GOP’s pathologies without understanding the larger political system in which it operates.

Drutman’s argument begins with America’s  two-party system. When voters are given only two choices, the key to victory is being less unappealing than those other guys. “Such is the twisted logic of negative partisanship.”

Drutman dismisses the widespread belief that American politics are ideological; that may be true for the so-called “elites” who are perhaps 10-15% of the voting public, but it doesn’t hold true for the average voter. Instead, voters look to their political parties to decide what policies they embrace, and they choose their party affiliation by deciding which “tribe,” is composed of people “most like me.”

At heart, when we vote, we ask the question: “Who represents people like me?” We support candidates who we think share our values. And here, party is a very strong cue…

Certainly we shouldn’t overstate the level of blind partisanship. But one of the most remarkable and consistent political science findings is how little voters really think for themselves. This is why many previously moderate Republicans didn’t leave the party as it moved rightward — they just became less moderate. Their ideology was far more flexible than their partisanship, because it was less deeply rooted.

All well and good–but if it is the system that has produced today’s cult-like GOP, why haven’t the Democrats similarly gone off the rails? Drutman quotes Jonathan Chait:

The] Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike.

… There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites.

But what about Drutman’s assertion that America’s political design has incentivized the GOP’s troubling behaviors?

One factor is that the past three decades have been a very unusual period in American politics, in which national elections have all been quite competitive, with the balance of partisan control of institutions hanging in the balance. Because American institutions are majoritarian, and because the president has considerable power, a small number of votes can mean the balance between two very different outcomes. When the stakes are this high, the political incentives push hard on gaining every little advantage.

Drutman points to gerrymandering and the single-member plurality-winner district  design feature that makes gerrymandering possible. And at the end of his essay, he comes back to the (considerable) drawbacks of a two-party system.

It’s long, but the entire thing is well worth reading.


  1. First; I am going to ask all of you to PLEASE read the comments I added this morning under “The Public Good” blog. This is a life-and-death local issue back in the news which needs our attention; CHILDREN ARE DYING.

    As for “Why?” the changes in the Republican party; it is simply greed, avarice and mendacity. I have reported my first-hand dealing with this under the Goldsmith administration here in Indianapolis which was a microcosm of the Nixon administration and a forerunner of Trump. Sheila has stated repeatedly that she did NOT leave the Republican party; the Republican party left her- and millions of others. Those who steadfastly hold onto their belief in the party are either releasing their Trump inspired racism and bigotry through violence and believe it will resolve all their problems or some actually believe that humanitarianism, once part of the GOP, will miraculously return. It will not; we must vote it out.

    As for blaming the two-party system for all of the ills; try to imagine what a mass of confusion a three-party system would have wrought in 2016…or in future elections. Would – could – it lead to ending the senseless Electorial College? Is the system a “majority rule” or “51% rule”? If only barely above 1/3rd of the nation elects a president – or any elected official on any level – who is the winner among American citizens?

    As an aside; think the NRA is proud this morning watching the tragedy in Las Vegas? Making it easier and easier for anyone and everyone to buy sub-machine guns and open carry is an action supported by this new GOP and paid for by the NRA. What next; send in cereal box tops and get a great deal on an AK-47? Maybe street stands on every corner?

  2. The problem I have with this analysis, is that no matter the design, the unscrupulous among us will always take advantage of flaws in any human system. I have repeated this quote so many times, even I’m getting tired of it: “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.”
    DeToqueville was right. In spite of the flaws in our two party system, we don’t have to have what we have now. People need to vote. Until Americans take this duty seriously we are doomed to the dysfunction caused by the right.

  3. Amen, Peggy, Amen!

    There are still those Bernie Sanders “supporters” who still do not understand why he threw his support behind Hillary; they ignored his pleas. They either didn’t vote at all, wrote in his name or voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson and thereby elected Trump. They are still trying to run Bernie for president without his support; they also obviously never understood why Bernie, an Independent, ran on the Democratic ticket…with their approval. It was to maintain the primarily two-party system; he saw the support Trump was getting and tried to keep it from happening.

  4. The controlling faction of the Republican Party has come up with only two alternatives in their long “War Against America,” either a Religious Fascism or a Racial /Civil War. At this point in time, it looks like the latter is the route they will be forced to take.

  5. JoAnn,

    “It was to maintain the primarily two-party system; he [ Bernie Sanders] saw the support Trump was getting and tried to keep it from happening.”

    Very important point.

  6. Maybe the more simple solution to tamping down on the power of Gerrymandering and voter apathy is pushing to remove first past the post elections? Perhaps if people felt their votes mattered more they would be more likely to vote and Gerrymandering would lose some of its influence?

  7. This isn’t Nazi Germany, we’re not going to have Fascism in America without first having a Civil War.

    I doubt if Donald Trump and his supporters understand that simple fact.

  8. I still have so much difficulty understanding how Bernie got so much support when it seemed so clear to me that he was splitting the (Democratic) party! I thought his ego ran away with him and I partially blame Trumps victory on him. If he had thrown his support sincerely behind HRC earlier on, we’d be living in an entirely different world fight now.

  9. Historically, many wars have been started on grave miscalculations. I’m afraid we might be experiencing another one. Those NFL football players are kneeling about MORE than just police brutality. They see the writing on the wall, even if they don’t have enough information to prove it.

  10. The Republicans have been good about finding wedge issues, such as birth control, little to no regulations on firearms, nationalistic flag waving and fear.

    Bernie Sanders tried to move the Democrats from triangulation politics into looking at the class issues that unite the 99%.

    “If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist,” “fraud is the business of Wall Street.” “Wells Fargo’s abuse of its customers is not an aberration. In April, the bank reached a $1.2 billion settlement with the Department of Justice for ‘reckless’ and ‘shoddy’ underwriting on thousands of home loans from 2001 to 2008. In 2012, Wells Fargo was fined $175 million to settle claims of discriminatory and predatory subprime lending in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.” Well Fargo and now Equifax, bear this fraud out to be true.

    Medicare for all would solve the Health Care Crisis. However, the Corporate Democrats that still have control of the party apparatus will not let go. H.R.676 – Expanded & Improved Medicare For All Act now has 120 co-sponsors.

    Bernie Sanders has once again championed S.1804 – Medicare for All Act of 2017, with 16 co-sponsors. Joe Donnelly as expected is not one of the 16.

    The DNC is still clinging to the Super Delegates to stop any insurgency.

    Just as side bar concerning the Las Vegas shooting – The shooter was named by police as Stephen Paddock, 64. Police found at least 10 guns in Paddock’s room on the 32nd floor. I suppose you could break the weapons down and hide them in bags and then re-assemble them in your room.

    As another note maybe the shooter did not have to break the weapons down – In Nevada – No permit is required to openly carry a firearm. Anyone 18 and older who can legally possess a firearm may openly carry virtually anywhere in the state. Open carry is legal in every municipality of Nevada. The state legislature has prohibited cities and counties from passing their own regulations on firearms. Interestingly, this web site I found this information says: CRIMINALS DON’T OPENLY CARRY FIREARMS

    So how will the NRA and FOX News spin this???

  11. @ Monotonous Languor – While I cannot be sure if you are new to this blog or not – I do like the name that you have chosen.

  12. To all :

    If you would like to get just an inkling of the corruption in DC that harms us all you can learn about what has been going on at the NSA for a couple decades by watching the movie “A Good American” on Netflix.

    The corruption just keeps getting worse over time since corporations were allowed to spend money on elections. The members of Congress need that dirty money to keep their jobs and keep the power that they get used to having.

  13. I especially like the very first comment from JoAnn Green–that the problems with the current Republican Party are simply GREED, AVARICE, AND MENDACITY– best shown currently in the proposed tax cuts by Republicans and Trump: The GREED/AVARICE in the imbalance of the big cuts for the rich and little to none for the rest; and the MENDACITY from Trump in claiming no tax benefits for the wealthy and all the benefits for middle and low classes. That greed-mendacity model works for almost every area of Republican policy; environment, health, science, immigration, education, voting, etc. –all harm the lower-income and marginalized people the most. But is it not the underlying revelation that is the most chilling? Is there not a purpose or direction, intentional or merely an “unavoidable” malicious side effect –TO IGNORE, GET RID OF, AND/OR VICIOUSLY EXPLOIT “USELESS” PEOPLE? Have not alarming U.S. prison data revealed this intent against “useless” people for many years? Is Puerto Rico perhaps the most recent example of ignoring “useless” people? Will the combination of a greedy/narcissistic president and a donor-bought Republican congress not morph into the irreversible jaws of greed and evil that devour all compassion, caring, decency, and freedom?

  14. I first note that after last night in Vegas I am on the edge of becoming a “gun grabber” as defined by the loathsome NRA, and as for the situation Drutman so masterfully describes in Sheila’s piece today, parliamentary government, anyone?

  15. Marv Kramer – “This isn’t Nazi Germany, we’re not going to have Fascism in America without first having a Civil War. ”

    Just my opinion – we already have dangerous widespread kristofascism.

    Rumors of civil war have been constant but are now temporary until Trump and his most threatening coven are ousted by Providence in 2020 or sooner.

    But let’s give the Senate a working over in 2018. We’ll have Gorsuch for the rest of our lives, curses to the GOP. Long live the surviving SCOTUS members.

  16. “I still have so much difficulty understanding how Bernie got so much support when it seemed so clear to me that he was splitting the (Democratic) party! I thought his ego ran away with him and I partially blame Trumps victory on him. If he had thrown his support sincerely behind HRC earlier on, we’d be living in an entirely different world fight now.”

    Sorry, but Bernie did throw his support behind HRC, and it pissed off a lot of his supporters. Similarly, though, the DNC could have followed the momentum… and if it had, how much different our country would be right now.

  17. OMG,

    “Just my opinion – we already have dangerous widespread kristofascism”

    If we already have fascism as you say, then we wouldn’t be having this interplay, nor would there be this blog.

  18. It’s a shame we can’t simply fire Trump, since that seems to be his answer to getting rid of people he doesn’t like. Although I admire Rachel Maddow tremendously and congratulate her heartily on presenting aspects of the news that no one else has done the research she and her team have, the primary reason I watch most news now is to be among the first to learn that Trump has been removed from office. And once he has been, it will be interesting to learn just how much in dollars as well as in our relationships with other world leaders his tenure in office has cost all of us…and will our democracy still be functioning?

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