Our governance problem in a nutshell

Will Wilkinson writes:

But “my way or the highway” cannot be the basis of any form of genuinely liberal politics. All durable liberal societies have evolved complex democratic institutions because it’s impossible to manage foundational disagreement in a liberal way — with peaceful toleration and mutual forbearance — without them. If a minority faction manages to arrogate to itself authority over the majority on grounds that it can justify only to itself — i.e., on grounds that the majority rejects — much if not most of the population will regard this authority as illegitimate. The confidence of the minority in its righteousness is irrelevant. If the minority gets high on its own supply and chooses to exercise its power in a way that tramples on our basic rights and interests, as the majority understands them, the system can rapidly destabilize.

This is right as far as it goes, but it would be more persuasive if every time Wilkinson wrote majority, he could write supermajority instead. It’s clearly right that if we have two factions with divergent interests and worldviews, but only one faction will govern, imposition of will by a small minority faction will be more corrosive of legitimacy than rule by the large majority. That’s true by arithmetic, regardless of how deeply either faction embraces or eschews a norm of “majority rules”. A much larger group will consider the rule illegitimate.

But it’s not clear how much force this argument has when the factions are roughly equally divided. In this case, one faction will still impose its will in ways that bind the other, but the losing faction is apt to consider the imposition unjust, and will be roughly as large as the faction endowed with formal authority. Democracy is most legitimate, and works best, when governance is by clear supermajorities. That’s why “bipartisanship” is — still! — coded in the American collective psyche as a virtue to be sought. Governance in the United States has never been remotely unanimous. There have always been seriously embittered losers in our many political conflicts. But when governance was bipartisan, outcomes often reflected consent of supermajorities rather than bare majorities.

However, under the United States’ competitive first-past-the-post electoral system, a 50:50 split in electoral power between parties is the attractor. As American politics have nationalized and the parties have come to represent distinct and divergent factions, neither faction can command a sizable electoral majority, so neither party can govern with much legitimacy. Both parties work the institutions as best they can and accuse the other of violating norms. Legitimacy of outcomes is fully conceded by neither. One party — let’s be clear, it’s the Republican Party — is electorally minoritarian. But the two are not so far from numerical parity that functional or naturalistic arguments (“the system can rapidly destabilize”) create a mutual interest in accepting the legitimacy of electoral outcomes. When there is a supermajority, even losing factions have an interest in conceding elections, because the alternative to legitimate governance is negative-sum civil conflict that they would likely lose. When there is not a clear supermajority — so they might win — civil unrest or worse becomes a tenable strategy.

The only way to durably restore legitimate government is to restructure our political system so that it ceases to do at least one of two bad things:

  1. Sort us into legible, divergent, cohesive factions (which we now aptly describe as “tribes”).
  2. Divide the country roughly 50:50.

The overlapping, heterogeneous political coalitions of America’s past, its two “big-tent” parties, did not survive — it seems unlikely that they ever would survive — modern telecommunications and the nationalization of just about everything. If this is right, if our political factions will necessarily be strongly sorted, our only hope to restore legitimate governance is to adopt an electoral system supportive of multiparty competition, which eliminates the 50:50 contested-legitimacy equilibrium and enables more fluid, potentially supermajority, coalitions to form.

It really is kind of QED. To remain a functional state, the United States requires legitimate government. In the current sociotechnical environment, we cannot sustain the supermajority support required for legitimate government under a competitive two-party system.

All it would take is an act of Congress to make the United States a multiparty democracy. I like to recommend Lee Drutman’s book.

Note: I’ve been doing Zoom “office hours” Friday afternoons 3pm EDT / 12pm PDT. It’s drop-in, informal, talk about whatever time. If you’d like the Zoom coordinates, let me know in the comments or DM me on Twitter.


5 Responses to “Our governance problem in a nutshell”

  1. Stone writes:

    I’m UK based and I want us to have electoral reform here and I suspect that much of what is done better in say Nordic countries might be attributable to their electoral system. However, I was interested by the counter argument for First-Past-the-Post given by David Deutsch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdtssXITXuE

  2. Detroit Dan writes:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post and book recommendation. I am definitely interested in pursuing constructive ideas such as this.

    My tribe is definitely Democratic and I deeply love many spokespersons and advocates for this community. However, I’m looking for a leader who is willing to test the waters of structural change with proposals such as this for the common good.

    This reminds me of last night’s DarkHorse video/podcast from Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein where they brought up the concept of a Rawlsian Veil of Ingnorance.

    The Fairness Principle: How the Veil of Ignorance Helps Test Fairness: If you could redesign society from scratch, what would it look like? How would you distribute wealth and power? Would you make everyone equal or not? How would you define fairness and equality? And — here’s the kicker — what if you had to make those decisions without knowing who you would be in this new society?

  3. Detroit Dan writes:

    I’m listening to the Deutsch video recommended by Stone. The argument against multi-party seems to be that there is little accountability for the individual parties. Government by coalition allows each member of the coalition to argue, perhaps correctly, that they didn’t have an opportunity to implement their party’s policies since much had to be comprised to satisfy the coalition. On the other hand, in the US style, a party has more power to enact its policies with only a slim minority and thus to prove whether or not its policies work.

  4. Detroit Dan writes:

    Looking at reviews of Drutman’s book, I see that he advocates ranked choice voting and multi-member districts to support multiparty democracy and deal with problems such as those noted by Deutsch.

  5. Unanimous writes:

    Society isn’t made of two separate groups. Everyone who voted for the winning party knows and likes people who voted for the loosing party. That’s the only reason representative democracy works. It is also the reason we have rule of law, human rights and the freedoms that we have – any representative democracy that is reasonably well connected won’t treat even 20% of its population too badly. It is much more governance for a supermajority than it is dictatorship by a slim majority.

    Multi party systems don’t function better than two party systems. There is no evidence of that, and they are still in the end majority systems not supermajority systems.

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