As our nation comes to grip with the horrific events of January 6 and watches the Republican Party descend further into Trumpism as it pushes hundreds of restrictive voting laws across the country, the obvious question is how does American democracy come back from all this?
There is a path forward: The super-majority of Americans across the political spectrum who reject the extremism need to come together. This includes the pro-democracy right. But for the pro-democracy right to thrive, we need to reform the U.S. voting system to allow for new parties to emerge outside the existing two-party system. Without electoral reform, third parties are likely to fail as spoilers. But only a new small “l” liberal Republican Party—distinct from the increasingly illiberal Trumpist GOP, can establish a new partisan identity that gives center-right voters a meaningful home. Only a new party can create a distinct pathway to elected office that avoids the combatively hyper-partisan Republican primary voters. A party faction cannot do these things. Left to fight a losing battle in the Republican Party, as the recent CPAC confirmed, the withering pro-democracy faction is up against frightening odds.
Electoral reforms that make space for more parties may seem unlikely. But urgent times call for big changes. And American democracy has done big things before.
First, we need to understand the urgency of the problem. By international standards, the current Republican Party is an illiberal anti-democratic nativist global outlier, with positions more extreme than France’s National Rally, and in line with the Germany’s AfD, Hungary’s Fidesz, Turkey’s AKP and Poland’s PiS, according to the widely respected V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute.
This is not a new problem. The GOP has been sliding into authoritarianism over two decades, using increasingly demonizing rhetoric against its opponents. But it got worse under Trump’s leadership, and the failure of center-right factions to push back. We are running out of time. What happens in a hyper-polarized party system when a major party turns against the entire system of legitimate elections? Historically, democracy dies.
And yet, if recent months and weeks have highlighted the dangerous extremism of the current Republican Party, they’ve also shown how broadly unpopular such violent extremism actually is. Three-quarters of Americans disapprove of the January 6 mob’s actions, and Trump’s seemingly immovable approval floor dropped by about more than six points. In the days after, only 13 percent of Americans considered themselves “Trump Supporters” while another 16 percent considered themselves “Traditional Republicans.” If “Trump Supporters” were their own party, they’d be about as popular as Germany’s far-right AfD, which polled at about 15 percent for 2019, though their support more recently dropped off to 11 percent.
But the obvious difference is that in Germany, the popular center-right CDU Party, headed by Angela Merkel, was able to form of a governing coalition with the center-left, keeping the AfD far away from power. In the U.S., where governing power can fall to a mere plurality of a plurality, the center-right has been overwhelmed by the far-right in the Republican Party. And because the U.S. has a two-party system, the center-right is largely homeless. If fighting for a place in the GOP is pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill, fighting for a place in the Democratic Party is pushing an even heavier rock up the side of a cliff.
But why is the United States a two-party system? It’s not because voters want just two parties. For decades, majorities of Americans have told pollsters they want more parties to choose from, and registered their dissatisfaction with the two-party system by increasingly identifying as independents. Rather, it’s because the U.S. uses a system of first-past-the-post single-winner plurality elections for Congress. In such a system, votes for third parties are “wasted” and third parties are dismissed as “spoilers.” All ambitious politicians, thus, set their sights on one of the two major parties. And because anybody can run in a party primary, parties have very little control of their candidates. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, was not selected by Republican Party leaders. She simply won her primary, with the support of just 43,813 voters in a district of almost 700,000 residents. Instead of being a minor party candidate, she is now an increasingly prominent Republican.
The U.S. is the only advanced democracy to give voters full control over party primary nominations. In every other advanced democracy, party leaders control nominations. The U.S. is also the only genuine two-party system among advanced democracies—and absent major reform, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Historically, the U.S. two-party system functioned reasonably well only because it operated more like a four-party system, with liberal Republicans (largely from New England and the West Coast) and conservative Democrats (largely from the South and the mountain west) elected alongside conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. In this four-party system, parties operated like overlapping coalitions, instead of opposing armies. Politics was more local, and less national. These overlapping parties rooted in more local political cultures meant more bargaining in Congress. And because both parties had liberal and conservative wings, they wound up both being moderate overall, reducing the stakes of national elections and the potential for demonizing the other side as radical. Take the 1990 Clean Air Act, one of the last major truly bipartisan bills that came out of Congress, which brought together Democrats environmental activists with pro-market Republicans for a bill that passed overwhelmingly.
But as the two parties began sorting more clearly along liberal-conservative lines as “culture war” issues starting in the 1970s, and as American politics nationalized around these cultural issues, and, starting in the 1990s, as the long-time Democratic control of the House ended, every election became a high-stakes all-or-nothing fight for control of federal power. In this high-stakes nationalized context, the liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, who had been the hinge groups in shifting policy coalitions, were the casualties. The differences between the parties became sharper as the overlap vanished.
With its liberal wing marginalized, the GOP became much more conservative and rural—dominated by evangelical whites who saw their social status declining and whose hold on political power increasingly came to depend on counter-majoritarian institutions like the Senate, and on voting rules that limited the franchise of Democratic constituencies. Fueled by grievance, dominated by reactionaries, the party became more anti-system, more distrustful of the “establishment,” and more receptive to the racist demagoguery and wild conspiracies that now dominates the party and led to the rise of Donald Trump. Even if most Americans may reject this extremism, the constrained geography of the right gives this ideology a firm hold on the Republican Party. And in a two-party system, the Republicans still remain the only alternative for those uncomfortable with the Democrats.
The only way to elevate the moderate Republicans is for Congress to use its constitutional authority (Article I, Section IV) to change how we vote, and create electoral opportunities for a center-right to rise again. In the House, this would mean multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting. Combine existing districts into larger ones (ideally five members), let voters rank candidates, and send the top five winners to Congress. Massachusetts and Maryland could start sending more Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan-type center-right representatives to Congress. And Kansas and Oklahoma could start sending more center-left representatives to Congress.
In the Senate, elections could operate like Maine and Alaska now do, with ranked-choice voting.. This will encourage more moderate, coalition-minded Senators to emerge. The combination of these two electoral reforms will open space for more parties, and especially for a new center-right. Ideally, we should also pass a constitutional amendment to elect the President in a two-round system using the national popular vote. But the Congressional election reforms require only legislation, so they should have top priority.
The threats to American democracy are terrifying. But the good news is that a super-majority of Americans consistently reject the tear-it-all-down extremism. The bad news, however, is our two-party system presents a major obstacle to that super-majority asserting itself. Electoral reform to allow multiparty democracy is an urgent necessity. If it’s Democrats vs. Republicans, American democracy is deep trouble. But if it’s small “l” liberals vs illiberal extremists, we might yet survive. And the most likely way to achieve this urgent realignment is to change the voting system to break up the two-party binary.