The topic of this research is political theory in America. I will explore how America has become too democratic, and how this affects the government. The purpose of this research is to question certain nuances of the American political system, because in the past few years the American system has been a slow and inefficient way to govern. At the root of this problem is that our elected officials are unable to enact existing, largely agreed upon policy solutions to important policy issues. Historically, political systems are constantly reevaluated until they evolve into something better. I contend that even though our political system is the best one so far, we should still be searching for ways to make it better.
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It is no secret that American politics are polarized. Republicans complain about Democrats, Democrats complain about Republicans, and everyone complains that the government never gets anything productive done.
I will admit that I feel this way too. While the federal government does occasionally accomplish its goals through executive action, and while some significant legislation, such as health care reform, has been passed in recent years, generally there are many more issues that are never addressed. We are seventeen trillion dollars in debt (about $55,000 for each American) with no real plan to resolve it. We have many issues that require legislative action, such as climate change, an underachieving education system, housing issues, immigration reform, an overcomplicated tax code, and many others, in which it seems like real proposed solutions never gain traction. We have major social issues that have widespread disagreement, such as abortion, entitlement programs, guns laws, and a whole host of others. Even President Obama, in his State of the Union on January 28, 2014, all but said he has given up hope on Congressional legislation: “America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do” (President Barrack Obama’s State of the Union Address). He goes on to outline the ways in which he hopes Congress will act, but at each point urges state governments, private businesses, and families to take action on their own instead, rather than to wait for Congress. At every point he makes sure to promise the Executive actions he will take while he is waiting for Congress to act.
What is somewhat surprising is that even in the face of these deep-seated problems in the American government, and even though many Americans seem to recognize these problems go beyond just the issues themselves, almost no one has seriously proposed looking at our political system, structurally. Americans blame the politicians who participate in the system as petty, spiteful, or uncompromising, rather than place blame on the system itself. It is not difficult to understand why—in the first place, politicians often are petty, spiteful, and uncompromising. And in the second, American democracy has always served us well. It was American democracy that transitioned us from tyranny to freedom, and it is through American democracy that we became the world's greatest hegemon.
However, in the past 60 years, the introduction of cable television and the internet have radically altered the entire world, including American life and politics. I believe this has caused the American political system to evolve in a troubling way, so that our representatives have a very hard time resolving important issues, even though there are compromises that could be reached on almost all of them that would improve the condition of the country for everyone. I believe the political system we have now may not actually reflect the essence of American democracy, and as such it may be time to, as Americans, consider making minor reforms designed to better enable our government to solve some of our most pressing problems.
The State of Polarization in America
It seems natural to begin this essay by commenting on the actual nature of polarization in America. It is true that American politics have almost always been polarized to some extent, and it is also true that Congress has been very polarized a handful of times in the past (Brownstein 2007). However, polarization in Congress became the worst it has ever been in 2009 (Galston 2010), and since then it has only gotten worse (Hare, Poole, and Rosenthal 2014).
The actual proof that Congress is polarized is well documented (Poole and Rosenthal 2000; Price 2010; Jacobson 2000) and not debated. Some argue this is attributable to the Republican Party moving to the ideological right with no corresponding move from the Democrats (Barber and McCarty 2013; Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin 2011). Others attribute it mainly to Southern Democrats being replaced by conservative Republicans (Theriault 2006). It is also possible polarization is attributable to present-day media coverage (Levendusky 2013; Sunstein 2001; Brownstein 2007), or new social issues that divide the public and are then assimilated into party platforms (Sundquist 1983), such as the civil rights movement in the 1960s (Carmines and Stimson 1989).
While these are all possible causes, the current debate being waged among scholars is whether this polarization is confined to Congress and a political elite, or polarization begins in the American public at large and is then naturally reflected in Congress.
In the case of polarization in the electorate, many argue there has been a shift towards more “pure” ideologies, so that the Democratic Party came to take consistently liberal stances on issues while the Republican Party came to take consistently conservative stances (Layman et al. 2010; Brownstein 2007). Consequently, this has enabled voters to more easily pick a side and has resulted in more people being more strongly aligned with one party over the other (Abramowitz and Saunders 1998). Other, similar studies have found the days of issues cutting across social cleavages as they did in the New Deal era are gone, and ideological positions are increasingly likely to shape partisanship (Levine, Carmines, and Huckfeldt 1997). Additional research has found that “in 1984, 41 percent of voters were located at or near the ideological center, versus only 10 percent at or near the left and right extremes” (Abramowitz 2006). “However, by 2004, only 28 percent remained at or near the center, while the left and right extremes had more than doubled to 23 percent. The percentage of Democratic identified voters voting for Republican candidates and Republican identified voters for Democratic candidates has fallen by about half” (Abramowitz 2006). This would seem to indicate the problem residing in the electorate.
However, there is also much research to suggest it is precisely the opposite—that polarization is mainly confined to Congress, rather than the American public at large. For example, Morris Fiorina argues that, despite these appearances, the American public is actually not as polarized as it first appears to be. The crux of the matter is twofold. First, he says that the media inflates and exaggerates differences between what the two parties think (including the general public), because major conflict is good for headlines (Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2006). Second, he argues it is actually only a small, elite, group of people that are extremely polarized.
Because of this, Fiorina says, most moderate voters either sit-out elections entirely, or vote for someone who would not have been their first choice. He does his own analysis, and finds that it is only about 20% of people who are at the most extremes, and everyone else is somewhere in the middle. Essentially, he says most moderate voters just get caught up in the middle of two extreme sides, and are consequently pushed out of true participation.
Other research agrees it is mainly elites that are becoming more polarized. Part of this research centers around the theory of conflict extension, arguing that conflict extension has supplanted the formerly accepted theory of conflict displacement (Layman and Carsey 2002a). Conflict displacement argued that political parties organized themselves around main issues, while other issues floated in the background (Sundquist 1983). The parties would polarize around the main issues, because these were the ones in the spotlight, and be more centrist on the issues in the background, because these were not in the spotlight. When new issues would come up the parties would reorient themselves, polarizing around the new main issues and relegating old main issues to the background. While this process seemed like it held true for many decades, it does not appear to be true now (Layman and Carsey 2002a). Today these main stream issues are not being relegated to the background (Brewer and Stonecash 2006), and this is increasing the number of issues that political elites are becoming polarized on. Meanwhile, the political parties are packaging together issues within their party’s platform, so that the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who are in tune with the political elite know what the liberal and conservative stances to take on issues are (Layman and Carsey 2002a; Layman and Carsey 2002b; Layman et al. 2010). This causes this part of the conservative electorate to consistently support the Republican Party and this part of the liberal electorate to consistently support the Democratic Party, because each group believes that by supporting their party they will consistently be supporting their proper ideological position (Layman and Carsey 2002a). While the people who are not in tune with the political elites remain distinct in the aggregate, this effect is enough to cause growth in mass party polarization (Layman and Carsey 2002a).
Other research does suggest that politically aware people are generally able to ensure they do not assimilate with beliefs that do not match their value system (Zaller 1992). However, it is likely in this case of conflict extension that the people assimilating into the polarization are ones who have become incredibly attached to their respective political party, as can happen in certain cases (Sunstein 2009; Abelson and Prentice 1989; Conover 1984), and that the cues they pick up from the political elite create an “echo chamber” effect, where they reinforce their own beliefs (Sunstein 2009). Thus, it is possible part of the politically extreme electorate is rejecting the views that do not match with the ideology they identify with, and this is causing them to be more politically extreme.
There seems to be a fairly reasonable explanation for the difference between these two broad theories of polarization—it is possible for the general American public to be relatively moderate while the general American voting public is not. Because only about 40%-60% of Americans actually vote in the General Elections, and only about 20% of Americans vote in the Primary Elections (Primary Voter Turnout), it is possible for a small percentage of politically extreme Americans to cause intense polarization in Congress, even though the general American public is relatively moderate.
Therefore, I think it is likely that none of these proposed causes are mutually exclusive, and all are perhaps correct. What is most likely is that in addition to moderating forces such as Southern Democrats being phased out and highly conservative groups such as the Tea Party pushing the Republican party further to the right (Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin 2011), we have a group of very politically involved people, many of them likely activists (Layman et al. 2010), that both elect politically extreme representatives and give Congress incentives to be politically extreme. These activists are those who are very involved in politics, and because of this high level of involvement have a greater tendency to be more extreme (Prior 2007; Taber and Lodge 2006; Taber, Cann, and Kucsova 2009).
This then likely results in the politically engaged public picking up cues from this polarized political elite, and this then results in greater polarization in the general electorate. The general American public is relatively moderate, the voting American electorate is polarized to some degree, and the hyper involved American voters are extremely polarized. However, it is likely this last group of people that wields the most influence in elections.
This intense polarization is problematic, because compromise is necessary to govern in the American political system, and intense polarization makes compromise very difficult (Barber and McCarty 2013; Brownstein 2007; Gutmann and Thompson 2012). If politicians refuse to compromise, then this leads to inaction in government (Gutmann and Thompson 2012; Price 2010), and thus America’s issues do not get resolved. This is the root of the problem with high polarization.
In any case, trying to resolve this debate empirically once and for all goes beyond the scope of this essay. The purpose of this essay is to examine how the structure of our political system is affecting the ability of the government to act. For this reason, it is sufficient to conclude on this topic that the federal government is currently very polarized and that this has a debilitating effect on their ability to adequately resolve American policy issues. It is also worth noting that these hyper involved Americans are the ones we ought to pay the most attention to, because they are the ones that most directly impact politicians’ behavior.
There are two broad causes that polarization in the American government can be reduced to. These are certainly not the only two, but they are the two that I believe have the greatest impact.
The first cause of polarization is that there is a kind of game mentality that emerges among some members of opposing parties, with each side wanting to "win" (Abelson and Prentice 1989; Conover 1988; Conover 1984; Layman et al. 2010). This very often creates voters who can be referred to as politically extreme.
In the American public at large people generally do not have the necessary information to make an informed decision on policy issues (Zaller 1992). While there are certain issues where the necessary information can easily be reduced to morals, such as abortion, there are other issues that, while arguably still reduce to moral principles, require a much greater degree of knowledge for someone to form an informed opinion. Examples of issues such as these that come to mind are foreign policy and creating the federal budget, two tasks that require quite a lot of knowledge about a lot of different issues, all of which cut across many different areas and interplay with each other in the decision making process.
So, In lieu of learning macroeconomics and the intricate details of foreign policy, what people do is discover that they support gay marriage, generally think the government should pay for welfare programs, and think the wealthier in society should be taxed more. They find the Democratic platform matches up with these discoveries, and so become inclined to support the Democratic Party (Conover 1984; Sunstein 2009; Morris et al. 2003; Lodge and Taber 2005; Levine, Carmines and Huckfeldt 1997).
The problem arises, as it does most of the time, when Americans become too invested in their political party, as many do much of the time. Being involved in politics becomes a partisan battle (Sunstein 2009). I support my party on the issues that are important to me, and try to help them win on those issues. Members in the other party oppose me. They actively fight me, and make it difficult to accomplish what I believe is the right thing to do. So, I rally support with my party, and fight them back. Eventually, the other party has opposed me on enough important issues that I come to believe if their party is in office these important issues will always be decided the wrong way. So I go to the ballot box, or walk in protests, or do any of a number of things that will help my party win and their party to lose. And here is the problem: my values are no longer aligned with the Democratic Party on specific issues, or with certain politicians whose values reflect my own, but with the Democratic Party itself, as a whole, because it is us against them (Abelson and Prentice 1989; Conover 1988; Conover 1984; Miller and Jennings 1986; Rapoport and Stone 1994; Stone 1991). Certainly, not all those involved in politics become politically extreme. However, as already shown, many of those who are highly involved in politics are politically extreme.
This extremism is then reinforced by group solidarity (Layman et al. 2010), because extreme voters are likely to both find and listen to evidence that reinforces their beliefs (Sears and Whitney 1973; Taber and Lodge 2006; Sunstein 2009), and to find evidence that disputes claims that go against their beliefs (Taber, Cann, and Kucsova 2009; Edwards and Smith 1996; Kunda 1990; Taber and Lodge 2006). With modern-day internet and television these proclivities become particularly problematic, because politically extreme people are likely to seek out news outlets that reinforces their existing beliefs (Sunstein 2001). Research suggests that people who have already formed an opinion about a political concept are predisposed to form an opinion about both that topic and other issues that have to do with the previous political concept when put in new situations (Lodge and Taber 2005; Morris et al. 2003). So, upon hearing President Obama’s name people are instantly predisposed to have an opinion about the next part of the message. This effect extends to issues too, such as gun control and the tax code. So, when people watch or read partisan media sites that twist news for their respective ideologies, such as Fox News and MSNBC, this creates an echo chamber effect that makes their politically extreme views even more extreme (Sunstein 2009; Slater 2007; Stroud 2010).
This is the Great Game of American politics: at some point, for many people, we stop thinking in terms of resolving issues and start thinking in terms of winning and losing. The highly involved electorate on both sides of the aisle are predisposed to support and oppose issues on the sheer basis of which party it came from. It stops being about the issues themselves, and starts to just be about winning.
This is usually problematic, because oftentimes these highly engaged voters view winning as not compromising on anything (Layman et al. 2010; Gutmann and Thompson 2012). If a bipartisan deal is proposed on an issue such as immigration, thousands of people immediately take to social media to decry the compromise (Numbers USA). They do not want compromise. They want their representatives to “just say no” (Kurtz 2010; Starr 2010). These messages are further reinforced by political elite, such as Rush Limbaugh (Bai 2009; Jamieson and Capella 2010), so that much of the electorate is opposed to compromising at all. Because politicians want to be elected, they then try to appeal to these highly engaged and politically extreme voters by promising to not compromise (Gutmann and Thompson 2012; Layman et al. 2010). This is how the game-like mentality among politically elite voters leads to polarization in Congress.
The effects of this problem are more noticeable nowhere else than in the Primary Elections. Typically, only about 20% of the American public votes in the Primary Elections, and, typically, this 20% of people is comprised of those who care the most about politics. They are generally made up of people like those described above—people who care so much precisely because they have become extreme. Therefore, to win a contested Primary Election, this is the group of voters politicians must appeal to (Brady, Han, and Pope 2007; Gerber and Morton 1998). The politician must be someone who reflects these people's extreme ideas: someone who promises to never compromise the party's values, the party's principles, or the party's goals. They must be petty, spiteful, and uncompromising, because much of their base wants them to be petty, spiteful, and uncompromising. Actions that are good for rhetoric and fundraising, but terrible for governing (Gutmann and Thompson 2012).
Granted, there are candidates who get through the Primaries that are not extreme (although often times we see a kind of rubber band effect, where politicians will be very far out to the left or right in the Primaries, and then come back closer to the middle for the General Elections). However, much too often, once we get to the General Elections there is no real moderate candidate left.
This problem is further complicated by people simply not understanding the intricacies of everything that is going on in Washington (Zaller 1992). They do not know, for example, when a deal is on the table that they themselves would take, even if it would require them to compromise one of their ideals. They just hear their representative took a deal that goes against their conservative/liberal values and decide they may just vote that representative out of office.
Technology and Hyper-Democracy
In 1995, some Americans began arguing this hyper-democracy phenomenon was a relatively new development (Wright and Cole 1995). They argued that advances in technology allowed voters to communicate instantaneously with their representatives, and that this actually created a disadvantageous hyper-democracy, because it led to too much responsiveness from elected officials.
Through media outlets and the internet the electorate (and more importantly the politically extreme part of the electorate) are exposed to the news very frequently, and this leads to more issues being swept up in the partisan debate (Layman et al. 2010; Layman and Carsey 2002b). This even extends to inherently nonpolarizing issues such as vaccinations against the flu (Baum 2011) and issues that have a technocratic solution such as comparative effective research (Gerber and Patashnik 2010). Even issues that have popular support amongst Americans, such as instituting criminal background checks prior to the purchase of fire arms (Newport 2013) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Krosnik and MacInnis 2013) are not passed. In 2008, Christine O'Malley and Sarah Gibson produced a documentary called "IOUSA Solutions" that investigated what is probably America's most pressing issue: our national debt (which has doubled in the six years since the movie was produced). The documentary explained some contributing causes to the deficit, and goes on to show politicians and policy experts from both sides of the aisle agreeing on solutions that resolve parts of the problem. And yet very few of those solutions have been enacted today (O’Malley and Gibson 2008).
These are specific examples of a more general problem: politicians are generally very reluctant to enact certain policies that would put them in danger of losing votes, even if those policies are clearly in the best interest of the country (Layman et al. 2010; Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2006; Zakaria 2008). There are two broad categories these issues can fall into. The first are issues that greatly affect a specific, not politically extreme group of voters, such as social security does the elderly. The second are issues that the very politically extreme care about greatly, which is really basically everything, but for purposes of an example we can use how much of the federal budget should be allocated to the military. While it is incredibly frustrating that politicians refuse to enact policies that would be good for the American public on the basis that enacting such a policy would cost them votes, it is a little difficult to throw stones—I would certainly be reluctant myself to act in a way that would cost me my job!
While the claim that we could have too much interaction between our representatives may seem weird initially, consider that the Framers of the Constitution actually intended for the general American public to be one step removed from directly affecting policy. This is shown clearly by the way they intended the American government to function. When it was first adopted, the constitution made is so the American public at large would elect the House of Representatives and their State Legislatures, as we do today (The Constitution of the United States 2014). However, the process for electing the United States President and Senators was slightly different from what it is today. In the case of the President, the Framers of the Constitution initially intended each state legislature to select Electors for their state, and for these electors to go on to elect the President by themselves, with no additional vote by the people. In the case of Senatorial Elections, the Framers of the Constitution made it so each state legislature would choose the United States Senators for their state (Schiller and Stewart III 2004).
The American system was initially designed this way because the Framers of the Constitution believed that the general American public would not be, as a whole, knowledgeable enough about politics on the national level to cast informed national votes (Crook and Hibbing 1997). Consequently, they made it so the American people would elect their state legislature and House of Representatives, and then these representatives would elect the Senate and President. This was a compromise between representative bodies being tied directly to the will of the people and representatives being insulated from public opinion.
Eventually, in the case of the President, as the ability to vote was expanded to include formerly disenfranchised people, the state legislatures made it so the voters themselves would choose the Electors, and the electors would then be bound (formally or informally) to vote for the presidential candidate the people want. This is the system we have today.
The election for the United States Senate changed in a similar way. Within a century of the constitution being ratified complaints began to arise from the people about the senate being a millionaires club, dominated by family dynasties and out of touch with public opinion (Crook and Hibbing 1997). So, the constitution was amended in 1913, and we began popularly electing the senators in a similar way we elect Representatives to the House. This was the 17th Amendment.
Analysis of Congress pre-17th Amendment and Congress post-17th Amendment has shown that this change has led to visible effects on legislation (Alford and Hibbing 1987; Crook and Hibbing 1997; and Meinke 2008). Before the 17th Amendment, the Senate was insulated somewhat from public opinion (Crook and Hibbing 1997), and afterward they became incentivized “to make choices orientated towards mass appeals” (Meinke 2008). In this way, the 17th Amendment can be viewed as a resounding success, because that is exactly what was intended.
However, the surveying methods of modern day social sciences provide much support for insulating representatives from mass public opinion, at least to a degree. This research suggests there are two ways through which people will change their views: message elaboration and the peripheral route (Petty and Cacioppo 1986). Message elaboration is when people are convinced to change their views through sound argument, and the peripheral route is when people are convinced to change their views by something other than strong argument, such as a credible source. (Note that “change” in this context does not necessarily mean a change from one positive opinion to a different positive opinion, but could also be change from no opinion to having an opinion). When people are concerned with the issue at hand they are more likely to take the message elaboration route, and when they are not concerned with an issue at hand they are more likely to take the peripheral route. An example of the first is current university students being convinced their university should implement a mandatory senior thesis requirement because the graduates of universities with such a requirement have higher average salaries than the graduates from universities who do not. An example of the second is being convinced a senior thesis requirement is a good idea because a faculty member from Harvard says it is.
There are a few things to consider about how this plays out in regards to politics (Zaller 1992). First, the general public does not generally have a high-involvement with politics. Second, people are not usually choosing between one clearly strong argument and one clearly weak argument, because politicians generally make even a weak argument appear strong. Third, citizens usually respond to information on the basis of existing cues (Price 1989) and take cues from political elites (Layman and Carsey 2002b; Sunstein 2009; Barber and McCarty 2013), rather than objectively evaluating the argument. Unlike the example of the senior thesis debate, people are generally more concerned with finding evidence in politics to confirm their existing beliefs (Sunstein 2009). Fourth, people in general simply have views that cannot be put in an ideological box, like a school teacher who opposes more federal government spending but is in favor of increasing the budget at his/her public school (Zaller 1992). Finally, people generally evaluate a message with superficial cues rather than the intrinsic quality of the message (Petty and Cacioppo 1986). Therefore, it can be concluded that the “information to reach reliable conclusions is beyond the direct experience of even the most attentive persons” (Zaller 1992, 46).
The history of California illustrates the problems that arise when the people themselves directly decide policy issues (Schrag 2011). Years ago, California implemented a direct democracy system were each citizen of the state would vote directly on policy matters. This failed for three main reasons. First, the voters typically did not have the necessary information to cast an informed vote. Second, they were easily manipulated by interest groups. And third, they were unable to think through the long-term consequences of their decisions. This system has consequently led directly to many of California's greatest misfortunes (Schrag 2011).
In summary, today politicians at the federal level of government are put under such a microscope that it is not a hyperbole to say their every move is watched. This heightens the need of the politician to react in a way that will please their constituency. This is a problem, because there are some issues they are reluctant to act on because they would alienate a section of the voters, such as the elderly, and because the current political climate makes it so those with the most influence on politician’s actions are typically those who are most politically extreme. These types of voters are angered by compromise, and so oftentimes to please their constituency politicians are forced to be uncompromising, even though this is not in the best interest of the nation.
Our politicians are petty, spiteful, and uncompromising, because the political structure they operate within is one that encourages petty, spiteful, and uncompromising behavior. Whether our political structure forces otherwise moderate and reasonable politicians to act extreme, or whether our political structure encourages the election of politicians who are themselves already extreme, is an irrelevant distinction. This evidence may give credence to the idea that representatives should be insulated, to a degree, from public opinion, both so that they can decide issues without having to cater to a polarized voting base, and so they can act in the best interest of the country, even if that will cost them votes such as the elderly vote.
What To Do
The key to resolving many of these issues is to distinguish between democracy by the people and democracy for the people. The former is an inherently flawed type of government, while the latter is the best kind. The latter is what our Founding Fathers envisioned for the country; the former is what we have evolved into. Democracy by the people is direct democracy—democracy where the general public has the ability to directly control what happens in Washington. It is a positive power, in the sense that as a result of their actions the people can directly create policy, as they used to do in California. Conversely, in a democracy for the people the people are one step removed from the process—they elect their representatives, and then the representatives create policy, buffered from public opinion. The power of the people here is, in a sense, a negative power—it does not create; it checks and, when it sees fit, destroys. Democracy for the people ensures a protection against tyranny, because the people have the power to tear down a tyrant, should any American leader ever become so bold. What makes this the best form of government is that it inherently guarantees protection from despots, while also enabling our representatives to make the difficult choices the country needs—an ability they cannot have if they are forced to sway as trees every time the public wind blows.
At the time of its conception American democracy had the distinction of being the best political philosophy known to humankind. I believe today it still has that distinction. However, present circumstances seem to indicate we should consider making adjustments so that we can more properly equip American democracy to deal with the challenges of the current world.
The adjustments we need to make should be grounded in two parts. First, they should be grounded in removing the incentives of politicians to cater to extremist voters, and second, in ensuring voters are knowledgeable about what they are voting for. While I do not know exactly what adjustments to make, and am likely going to have to leave it to someone smarter than myself to outline the specifics, I would like to mention some brief ideas.
First, the practice of closed-door meetings should be re-implemented. In 1983, with a social security crisis looming, a bipartisan commission was formed to propose a solution (Ferrara and Tanner 1998). After months of floundering, the White House intervened, and selected a small group of leaders from the commission. They worked behind closed doors, in secret, and did not reveal what went on in the room to the media (and by extension the general public). This group of leaders was able to recommend proposals to the committee, and the committee then recommended proposals to Congress at large, which then passed the legislation. Another example, again from the Reagan administration, is the Tax Reform Act (Gutmann and Thompson 2012). The hard work on the bill began in secret, again behind closed doors, and again a deal was able to be struck. In both cases, each side gave up some of what they wanted (Gutmann and Thompson 2012) and each deal left the country better off than when negotiations started. Both sides of the aisle were happy to get something accomplished. Congress should re-implement this practice of closed door negotiations, because taking negotiations out of the public spotlight would alleviate some of the pressure on politicians to lament to their constituency about how tough and uncompromising they are being. It is possible that if negotiations are removed from the spotlight politicians will feel that they are able to reach a compromise without severely alienating any segment of their voting base that is politically extreme.
Second, it might surprise Americans that in our country the media is actually allowed to misrepresent the truth, provided it is an honest mistake and they are reporting a story on a public figure. This dis-incentivizes reporters from fact-checking before publishing a story, and also allows clearly bias news networks, such as Fox News and MSNBC, to exaggerate stories for their respective ideologies. Additionally, Facebook provides people with many news stories that read like news but are simply flagrantly untrue. Take, an as example, a story reporting President Obama filed federal charges against George Zimmerman after he was acquitted in Florida (Logan 2013) even though no such charges were ever filed, and another story (Free Thought Project) claiming the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday, April 29th that police are allowed to search a person’s home without a search warrant if someone else gives them permission, even though the Supreme Court ruled on no such case (Supreme Court). These practices are particularly troubling, because we live in the Age of Information. When news outlets report flagrantly untrue information this compromises the ability of voters to cast an informed vote, which is a crucial part of the democratic process.
Finally, both because I think we should not be afraid to do more thinking outside the box, and because I think out of the box ideas can generate good debate, I am going to suggest three very radical ideas. First, in an effort to reduce the amount to which politicians have to cater to extreme voters, I do not think it would be too insane of an idea to try and force political parties to take a step back from the process. In this vein, it is not too difficult to imagine a system in which politicians run for office without first going through a Primary Election. Perhaps there could be a system where to run for office politicians have to meet certain conditions, such as acquiring a predetermined number of signatures, and then they could just declare themselves eligible and begin campaigning. There would be one General Election, where to be elected they would have to receive 51% of the popular vote. If in the first General Election no candidate obtained this 51% of the vote, we could have a run-off. Each candidate could affiliate with a particular party, but both parties would be prohibited from endorsing any particular candidate. Elections like this could happen at both the state and federal level.
This seems like it could potentially solve much of the polarization problem, because politicians would no longer have to cater to extremist voters in the Primary Elections. While it is likely they would still have a base of more extreme voters to appeal to, this base would probably be much more moderate, because it is likely more people generally would come out to vote in this type of an election. Theoretically, more people would mean more moderates, and we could get away from the 20% turnout of extreme voters in the Primaries. (California has actually recently implemented a similar system for their state legislature (Oot 2012), but the complete effects of it are yet to be determined).
My second idea is that we could also consider making changes similar to how the Framers of the Constitution originally intended us to elect the President and United States Senators. Obviously, that system was flawed, and I am not suggesting we return to it. Rather, I think there is credibly to the general idea, and we should try to fill in the specifics.
For example, we could have a system where the citizens of each county in the country would elect an Elector by popular vote. This could be done in a manner similar to the one I described above: the candidates would not go through the Primaries to be nominated by a party and would need 51% of the popular vote to win the election.
The counties in each state could comprise each state’s Electorate, and all the counties taken together could comprise a federal Electorate. The process could go something like this: politicians would announce their candidacy for the United States Presidency or Senate, as they do now. Then, the Electorate could vote for these candidates and whichever two candidates receive the most electoral votes would advance to the General Election. At this point, the American public would vote for one of these two candidates and whoever receives the most popular votes would win. The state Electorate would narrow the list of candidates for their State Senatorial position down to two, and the federal Electorate would narrow the list of candidates for the Presidential Election down to two.
Certain rules would have to be placed on the Electorate, such as a ban from ever being appointed to or running for any other elected office. However, a system like this seems like it would have many advantages. First, people would be able to vote for their first choice Elector, at least in the first election, which would mean less people would sit-out the election feeling like there was no good choice. People also would likely see this election as important, as they see the Presidential election more important than a Congressional election today. This would mean the Electors would likely be elected by a greater percentage of the population than the 20% that typically votes in the Primaries, and this would cause our representatives to be more representative of the public at large. Because of this, and this is the second benefit, we would elect better people. In the first place, we would elect better people because they would likely be more representative of the population at large. And in the second, if the Electorate was given some level of security clearance, they could quite feasibly stay abreast of politician's decisions in a way that the average American simply does not have the time or inclination to do. Particularly, if the Electorate was given a high enough salary to where being an Elector could be their only job, then this Electorate could become very knowledgeable about what is going on in Washington. This would mean those voting in the Primary Election would be both informed and relatively reflective of the general population. Then, because the population at large is voting at the second level, we would ensure the representative finally elected is truly representative of the public’s will. Third, politicians would be incentivized to act in the country’s best interest. They would have to appeal to the Electors, who would be knowledgeable about their actions and voting for who did the best job, and the public, who would be voting for who represents their interests the best. Finally, in the case of the Presidential election, it would incentivize everyone to vote, even Republicans in California and Democrats in Texas, because the President is elected by a straight popular vote. In a system like this, the Electorate could ensure Americans are presented with two good options in the General Election.
I will admit this system is not perfect. It has two main flaws. First, it puts very small states that have very few counties, such as Delaware, in an undesirable situation in regards to their senatorial elections. It is possible the Electors in these small states and their United States Senatorial candidates would be exposed to an even more extreme version of the hyper-interaction I described above, so that the two senatorial candidates the Electorate of Delaware picks for the State of Delaware are not those who are the best at their job, but who appeal to the Electorate of Delaware the best. Similar reasoning could apply to the Presidential election—perhaps the two men/women who emerge from that first election would be just the ones who appeal more to the demographic of the Electorate as a whole, which may not be representative of the total population. However, I believe there are several features of the system that counter these challenges.
First, the system could be designed so that small states are given an additional number of Electors, and this would feasibly moderate the hyper-interaction effect. Second, in the case of the Presidential Election, having an Electorate made up of counties should prove to be a sufficiently diverse group of people, because there are approximately 3,000 counties in the United States. Third, both the House of Representatives and state legislatures could remain popularly elected, and this would further ensure we have representatives who accurately reflect the population at large. Fourth, it is important to remember the politicians would be appealing to two bases. The first is the Electors, but the second is the people at large. So, even if the Electors become compromised, the public at large would still choose the candidate that best reflects their opinions. Theoretically, there could even be a third option on the ballot, which, if a certain percentage of Americans vote for, would force the Electorate to go back and pick a different combination of candidates.
Fifth, under our current system, I think it is worth remembering that it is generally wealthy people of the majority culture who win elections now, and there is a sizeable proportion of this demographic who advocate for cultural and economic minorities. Finally, we should not forget, the American people will always elect the Electors. If the public feels that the Electors have been compromised, they will quickly vote the Electors out of office.
Finally, I believe we may be at the point where it would be wise to consider granting the President some legislative power. Initially, the Framers of the Constitution separated the powers to the extent they did because they were coming off the traumatic tyranny of King George. King George’s system of government was a bit too efficient, to the point where people’s rights were violated too easily. Because of this, the Founding Fathers of our country intentionally hamstrung the government’s operating power so that history would not repeat itself. I think they succeeded too well.
We could grant the President legislative power and give all the checks Congress currently has on the President to the state governors. The President could have this power in two ways. The first is that the President only be allowed to act on his/her own when declaring broad objectives that the States have to comply with. This could happen with federal programs. So, for example, rather than creating a federally run healthcare system, the President could declare each state must have a healthcare system in place for all residents of the state by a certain date. Rather than the federal government creating programs (often unwieldy programs) designed for a very diverse group of many different people, the leader of the country can impose the right path on each state, and each state can pick the best way for their state to go down that path. States would still be able to make policy at the state level, as they do now, through their state legislatures.
In the case of issues that are not malleable to this structure and that require policy by the country and not by the state, such as immigration policy, the President should propose legislation. For the legislation to pass it should have to be approved by a certain, to be determined, percentage of governors. If, in this system, governors could propose federal legislation too, both for federal policy and federal programs that will be implemented by the states, then this system could potentially have much upside effect. The first is that much of the political process would be would simplified. First, it eliminates many of the hoops policy makers have to jump through to initiate or reform policy. It is far too easy for any reforms to get twisted up when policy makers have to navigate all 650 U.S. Congressmen. Navigating the 50 state governors would lessen this problem enough so that policy initiatives would be able to move forward, but not so much that it would be too easy to change the laws. The process is also more simplified by being hierarchical. Rather than having many different representatives looking out for many of the same people, there would be an easily navigable line of who represents who. This makes it easy for the public to understand what is happening. It also a system that is easier for the politicians themselves to work within. The state representatives would work with the governor of the state, while the President of the country, along with his/her various federal departments, would work with the states. Policy ideas will come from and be debated by only those who are actually going to have a hand in implementing it, and the hierarchical structure will mean policy implementation that affects different groups of people in ways that are tailored to meet each group’s different circumstances.
This is another benefit; the primary implementation of policy will take place on the state level, where it is likely the individual state governments know best how to implement policy in their state, with mandates given by the leader of the entire country. Finally, it is worth pointing out that the current U.S. Congressmen would be pushed down into the governor and state legislature positions, which means we would be getting better governor and state legislature races.
So long as all the current checks that Congress has on the President are given to the state governors, we would not be losing any protection against tyranny. The President would still be bound by the constitution, and would only be able to create legislation accordingly. If he/she ever went outside the bounds of the Constitution the Supreme Court would still exist to strike it down. Additionally, the governors would retain the former congressional power to impeach the President, as well as all the checks on his authority, such as confirming his nominations for the Supreme Court. The President being able to change the constitution as he sees fit would not be an issue, because the only way to change the Constitution with no Congress would be for the 75% of the governors to approve the change. Additionally, and importantly, the governors should be given the power to veto any Presidential legislation with a certain, to be determined, percentage of votes. If this idea were combined with my first, it would likely result to greatly reduce the polarization in the state legislatures, and also ensure the President would likely be even more moderate than he/she usually is. If these remarks seem too radical, as I am sure they most definitely are, we could moderate the idea by eliminating just one chamber of Congress.
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