A leaked memo stating that the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to rule that women do not have a constitutional right to abortion has inflamedpolitical divisions which are deeper and more dangerous than those faced by any other wealthy democracy. Like a recent study Put it, the United States is suffering from a particularly high level ‘pernicious bias‘ — the division of society into political camps, the characteristic feature of which is mutual hatred and fear. Such intense polarization is associated with a wide range of negative resultsincluding the political deadlock, democratic erosionand even violence.
Given that polarization threatens many European democracies, reflecting on the American case can help those trying to avoid similar developments domestically. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the most polarized country may show others the picture of its own future.
The limits of representation
Perhaps the most obvious cause of damaging polarization in the United States is the translation of the country’s deep economic and social divides into political ones. Economically, over the past generation, the United States has been characterized by greater income and wealth inequality, combined with lower social mobility, than any other advanced industrial democracy. The “losers” of these trends – the disproportionately low-income, poorly educated and non-urban whites – have been integrated into the Republican Party, while the “winners” of global capitalism – the highly educated and highly skilled urban dwellers – have increasingly more vote democrat.
Socially, divisions over race have long been the main challenge against American democracy. But, again, over the past generation, these ethnic divides have increasingly aligned with political divides, especially for the Republican party that receives about 80% of his votes white citizens. As we know in contemporary developing countries such as Kenya, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as in many cases of Europe’s past, when ethnic and political divides coincide, the results are often deadly. (This orient oneself did heel a bit in the last election cycle, with the Republican party regaining the upper hand Support more conservative Hispanic voters and even some black voters.)
60% of American voters to believe both “parties do a poor job of representing the American people”.
To be sure, not all Americans are strong supporters: 40% of American voters identify as independent. Moreover, even on a variety of “hot” issues, such as Abortion Where gun controlvoters express significant agreement, although the Republican and Democratic parties offer radically different approaches. Perhaps as a result, 60% of American voters to believe both “parties do a poor job of representing the American people”.
Election without a majority
Yet here lies another crucial part of the polarization puzzle. Although the treatments of democratic backsliding often focus on hazards without restraint majoritarianism, the pernicious polarization that threatens democracy in America is not a tyranny of the majority but rather a tyranny of minorities. The polarizing and destructive influence that unrepresentative and even extreme minorities exert on American political parties—and through those parties on American democracy more generally—is tied to important but not innate institutional features of the political system.
Partisan gerrymandering, for example, has created an increasing number of congressional seats reliably won by one party. Such safe seats provide little incentive for politicians to appeal to wavering voters, let alone those outside their party. Indeed, according to a recent reportextreme gerrymandering has contributed to a situation where 83% of the seats “lean so much Democratic or so much Republican…that the only important election is the primary election.”
The primaries are another key driver of minority bias among US parties. Only one minority of voters – neither demographically nor ideologically representative of their own party’s voters or the electorate at large – vote in party primaries, giving these dedicated supporters disproportionate influence over who stands for election. To make matters worse, primaries are often won by candidates who obtain only a plurality rather than a majority of the votes cast and “low plurality members score about a third more ideologically intense…than majority-backed members, controlling the partisan stance of member constituencies.”
The primary and electoral system “deprives voters of their rights, distorts representation and fuels extremism –– both on the left and, especially (at present), on the right”.
All of this, of course, is compounded by the role money plays in American politics. For example, in the decade since the United Citizens Supreme Court ruling – that freedom of speech meant corporations had the same rights as individuals to fund campaigns – more money directly to candidates, rather than through an organized national party, facilitating the election of extremists who otherwise would not have been nominated. “Social media” likely also helped, allowing candidates to bypass parties and get their message straight to voters.
The cumulative result of these factors is, as one study concluded, a system where “a small minority of Americans decide the vast majority of our elections”. The primary and electoral system “deprives voters of their rights, distorts representation and fuels extremism –– both on the left and, especially (at present), on the right”. This probably explains, another observer note, “the astonishing incongruity between the average Congress 20% approval rate and it’s more than 90% re-election rate‘.
Easy and difficult solutions
What can be done? Majority control over American parties must be restored. That unrepresentative and often extremist candidates who appeal to even a minority of their own party’s voters are often chosen to run for office and then, by virtue of uncompetitive precincts or dependable Democratic or Republican states, win elections, fuels the polarization and discontent that threaten US democracy today.
Some factors favoring minority power in the United States are difficult to correct, such as the Senate, which is probably the most ‘undemocratic‘ legislative body in the democratic world, ‘giving small states, like Wyoming, exactly as many senators as large states, like California, even though California has over 68 times the population of Wyoming’.
Various factors have contributed to a situation in which extreme unrepresentative minorities exert disproportionate influence on Republicans, in particular, but also on Democratic Party.
Others, however, could be more easily modified. Candidates should not be able to win elections without majority support (in the case of presidential elections, think of the recent French contest). Rank Choice Voting, which guarantees majority winners and strongly incentivizes candidates to appeal to more than a narrow slice of the electorate, should be instituted. The primaries should be reformed to reduce the chances that extreme (and minority) candidates will be chosen (‘the first four primaries‘ are a suggested solution).
Be that as it may, the lesson of the American case is clear. Various factors have contributed to a situation in which extreme unrepresentative minorities exert disproportionate influence on Republicans, in particular, but also on Democratic Party, fueling a pernicious polarization and growing frustration among the electorate. Citizens of other countries seeking to avoid such a downward spiral should take note: while unconstrained majorities are certainly dangerous, overly powerful minorities also present a clear and present danger to democracy.
This is a joint publication of Social Europe and IPS-Journal.