The Root Of The (Political) Problem

I recently read Persuasion interview with two noted political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, whose most recent book is The Tyranny of the Minority.  In two of their initial observations, they summed up the roots of America’s political dysfunctions.

Those observations began with America’s constitutional structure:

Our Constitution has always favored rural areas, which represent a minority of the population. For most of our history, that really wasn’t a big problem, because both parties had urban and rural wings; but now, demographic changes have really led us to a position in the 21st century where the Republican Party is primarily the party for rural areas, while Democrats are primarily the party of urban areas. And so this means that our constitutional structure over-represents rural areas, and so it’s no longer necessary at the national level for the Republican Party to win majorities in order to gain power. That has unleashed a set of distorting impacts on our politics that are very dangerous.

Adding to that urban/rural divide is the country’s longtime struggle with racism and the religious roots of White Supremacy.

Our central argument regarding why the Republican Party has sort of gone off the rails in the last 15 years or so is that, in the latter third of the 20th century, the United States changed dramatically and the Republican Party did not. It became an overwhelmingly white Christian party in a much more diverse country at around roughly the turn of the 21st century and that brought two problems. One is that it had a hard time competing for a national majority (and lost the national popular vote in seven of the last eight elections) because it was relying so heavily on white and particularly white Christian votes. And, secondly, a segment of its base grew increasingly threatened; the Republican Party actually did an excellent job of appealing to racially conservative whites over the course of the last third of the 20th century, those who were unhappy with government efforts to enforce civil rights in the last part of the 20th century; and recruited these folks into its party, becoming a more racially conservative party. A primary-winning plurality of the Republican base grew pretty resentful over the visible rise of multiracial democracy in the 21st century. And so the party radicalized.

And so here we are. The entire discussion is worth reading (or listening to–I’m working from the transcription of a podcast, which you can also connect to from the link–but the two preceding paragraphs really focus on the roots of America’s current dysfunctions.

The authors concede that America’s constitutional democracy limits majority rule. Our system constrains majorities from invading the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. But as they also note, without majority rule, there is no democracy. And among important things that ought to be within the reach of majorities is the right to form governments and the right to govern with those majorities.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are quick to point out that–while their book offers suggestions for constitutional amendment–those suggestions are hardly radical. They would align our system somewhat more closely to the systems in Denmark, New Zealand and Finland. And they remind us that

Both Hamilton and Madison strongly opposed the current structure of the Senate in which each state gets equal representation. That was designed because small states insisted on it and threatened even to break up the union if they didn’t get it. That was not part of some sort of far-sighted design of our founders. Madison opposed the Electoral College; it was the second-best solution after other alternatives had been voted down in the convention. And both Hamilton and Madison opposed supermajority rules for regular legislation.

Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote–Trump by some three million. Levitsky and Ziblatt say it would be “a great day for America if the Republican Party could win power with majorities fair and square.” That would mean we would have two parties committed to the democratic rules of the game. But as Levitsky notes (rather delicately), “the rural bias of our institutions weakens the incentive of the Republican Party to broaden its appeal.”

Their book–which I intend to purchase– wrestles with the question that frequently animates conversations on this blog: Why, after 150 years, has the mainstream center-right party gone off the rails?

You need a theory for that. Our theory focuses on the perception of existential threat faced by some members of a once-dominant ethnic majority that is losing its dominant status. But secondly and more pertinent here is the electoral institutions that dull the incentive of the party to adapt.