Democracy on Life Support
Reimagining our great political experiment may save it from terminal decline.
An existential crisis of American democracy is upon us. As significant majorities of elected Republicans as well as rank-and-file Republican voters nurse anti-system grievances of a “stolen election,” the basic foundation of American democracy—free, fair and legitimate elections leading to a peaceful transfer of power—is shaken. Indeed, we did not have a smooth transfer of power this time around; large numbers of voters, even those who did not try to storm the Capitol on January 6 or assault state capitals thereafter, entered the Biden presidency as citizens firmly convinced that the free and fairly elected President is illegitimate.
A dominant majority within the Republican Party has deliberately shredded any sense of legitimacy in our electoral process, in cult-like thrall to a demagogue. It has succumbed to a “doom loop:” an escalating feedback loop of increasingly aggressive, zero-sum-minded hyperpartisanship that turns political opponents into enemies to defeat and destroy. While some on the left have shown worrying signs of anti-liberal, zero-sum thinking, it has been mild compared to the volcanic lava flows of hatred on the further right.
All is not lost. Previous eras of democratic crisis have ultimately generated significant innovations and reforms. Major changes require widespread support, however, and support tends to coalesce around popular proffered reforms. Right now, although the status quo has few defenders, little agreement exists on what to do next. That is because no consensus exists on exactly why things have gone so wrong.
That there is no agreed theory of the case to explain the present dysfunction is not surprising. Its causes work at multiple levels and are difficult to tease apart even among those able to set their emotions aside for the purposes of analysis. But we do not need a comprehensive analysis that digs down to the cultural foundations to think about the problem as a prelude to doing something about it. It is ultimately self-defeating to see the problem as so deeply entrenched that politics itself stands helpless before it. We do need, however, some basic understanding of what the problem is, and what it isn’t.
One thing it isn’t is a fall from some pinnacle of absolute political grace. There has never been and there never will be a perfect, freezable formula for a functional mass-participation democracy in any nation. Democracy is a permanent management task involving competing values in tension with each other, not something one perfects and is then forever finished with. This is of critical importance, because it suggests that any reform that goes far to resolve one flaw could well end up exacerbating other weaknesses.
Another thing the problem isn’t is simple, and this begs a special word of explanation. Liberalism and democracy are invariably pushed together in standard-issue American analysis, for understandable reasons: That is what history, particularly American history, contrived to produce. But liberalism and democracy are two different things, with separate pre-histories and separate ontologies. Illiberal democracies exist, as do liberal-minded autocracies, though both are deeply unstable.
Democracy describes a method by which leaders are chosen in accordance with popular sovereignty. But democracy is also a method by which differences and disagreements are structured. Disagreements among factions, as James Madison termed them in The Federalist No. 10, are a natural outgrowth of society . Democracy, then, is a system of conflict management through regular elections.
Liberalism is something different. It is an ensemble of attitudes and norms governing public life that is derived from the Enlightenment revelation that politics can be structured as a positive-sum partnership in which various types of cooperation modulate and moderate the reality of competition and disagreement. Liberalism embodies the view that political institutions can ratify, protect, and extend to the national level the basic dignities of human freedom and expression.
Even if democracy and liberalism are potentially separable, they do not last long without each other. Liberalism without the accountability of democracy easily becomes tyranny. And democracy works at a mass level only because liberal principles enable it to work. That is because liberalism endows democracy with a critical foundation of fairness. As we have seen in recent times, when fairness decays into self-help narrowly defined, liberalism becomes a causality of a win-at-all-costs mentality. “Loyal” oppositions cannot, by definition, exist if there is no loyalty to the foundational principle of free and fair elections. And if anything goes, then everything goes: violence and corruption follow when the rule of law is swept aside in service of the rule of individuals.
The Institutional Imperative
In the current American case, both democracy and liberalism are under deep stress. If the basic rules of elections or protections for minority rights stand in the way of victory, the current partisan zeitgeist says: so much worse for those rules and protections. And because the stakes of elections are so high, a growing number of strong partisans, especially on the right, openly question whether democracy is worth preserving if it doesn’t guarantee their power.
In the present moment, it is the abandonment of liberalism we need fear most. If the inherent tension between individual rights and equality cannot be resolved, a liberal democracy loses legitimacy. Once liberal principles and norms are lost, it is very difficult to build them back. But, if liberalism preserves democratic institutions, democratic institutions also preserve liberalism. Or, at least, the right democratic institutions do. Not all democratic institutions preserve liberalism equally. Some undermine it.
Much as we may exhort political leaders to use restraint and hold to liberal principles, politicians are not superhumans capable of rafting upstream against a raging river. As the Framers understood, institutional design can support liberal norms only if it channels ambition in productive directions. With the right institutions, the twin American ideals of liberalism and equality can work together in productive tension. With the wrong institutions, liberalism and equality are at odds, and will ultimately destroy each other.
Certainly, it is all well and good to decry the erosion of liberal principles and norms—to stand up for the rule of “laws, not men”; to cry “truth”; to insist on the crucial importance of “character” in politics. After all, no set of democratic institutions ever invented can long withstand rule by amoral rogues and liars. At the same time, humans are complex creatures, capable of making different choices under different pressures. Institutions can mold character, too.
Liberal democracy has had its ups and downs over two-plus centuries. The collapses are rarely sudden. Rather, a decaying commitment to liberal norms opens the door to authoritarians. When short-term winning becomes the most important thing of all, illiberalism typically follows. When politics collapses into a simple binary “friend-foe” distinction, as the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt famously put it, fascism often follows.
U.S. democracy, likewise, has had its ups and downs. Because society changes over time, political parties, media, and other extra-constitutional institutions shift over time in response. Thus, institutional structures that worked well enough in one era may no longer work in a later era. For example, in an era of nationalized partisan politics, federalism is no longer a source of countervailing power. Majoritarian electoral institutions that may have appeared to incentivize moderation in one era can accelerate extremism in today’s very different era.
Certainly, our problems are complicated and manifold and go way beyond our democratic processes. But we are capable of reforming our democratic processes on a timetable—which is to say fast—that eludes us when it comes to affecting the deeper cultural factors ultimately shaping attitudes toward American politics. We must do what we can do. Democratic institutions that better balance the tensions between individual rights and equality can at least give us a fighting chance.
A Proper Framework
Thus, this essay will deal mainly with the democracy reform challenge. Here, we have no shortage of proposals. What we lack is a framework for evaluating the range of proposals, the underlying visions of democracy that power them, and the extent to which they are capable of holding liberalism and equality in proper balance. This essay offers such a framework as a thinking tool.
This framework reflects of two dimensions, one contrasting mass-public versus expert or elite inputs into elections, and the other contrasting party-dominant processes versus strong-leader-dominant ones. Put a bit differently, options for democracy reform turn on two fundamental questions: Who should define electoral conflicts, individual actors or political parties? And should elections resolve conflicts directly or indirectly? Depending on the answers, we wind up with four types of democracy, each with its adherents and advocates. The result is a four-quadrant matrix that can help clarify our thinking about the possibilities for democratic institutional reform.Visions of Democracy
Political parties define conflicts
Elections resolve conflicts directly
Elections provide clear mandates and clear choices for voters, two-party binary politics with strong parties. Coalitions form before elections and are consistent.
Elections are about individual leaders. Parties are weak.
Elections resolve conflicts indirectly
Elections are about representation, elected officials negotiate compromise. Elections have multiple parties. Coalitions frequently change.
Elections are mostly symbolic. Experts make policy, with limited public input.
Before we work through these four categories, we need to set out the core of democracy. We start with some simple observations that actually turn out to be important as they move from the tacit to the explicit.
Democracy is at its heart a conflict management system with phases: conflict definition followed by conflict resolution. Democracy is quintessentially about elections, and to have genuine elections, parties and candidates invariably distinguish themselves from each other by emphasizing their differences. No candidate or party has ever run a successful campaign on the slogan, “We all agree on everything and we’re all equally competent, so it doesn’t matter who you choose,” even when the statement has been close to true.
Let’s start with conflict definition. Elections have to be about something, so the supreme power in democratic politics is the power to define what these elections are about. In most democracies, elections are contests between political parties, so parties typically define conflicts to be fairly adjudicated within some agreed constitutional legal order. Most scholars of democracy agree that strong, coherent political parties are necessary organizing institutions of modern democracy.
Others believe that political parties are inherently divisive and therefore to be avoided, or at least minimized. In place of parties, we should rely on courageous individuals, who, the argument goes, are better equipped to channel the public interest without the limiting commitments and blinders of partisanship. This seductive view of national unity through singular elite leadership sounds appealing and has a deep foothold in the American political tradition: It goes back to the Framers, who were leery of parties and initially hoped to do without them. But it is also vulnerable to the sirens of populism, an inherently anti-pluralist doctrine that undermines diversity and, not incidentally, individual liberty along with minority rights—an excellent example of how electoral modalities implicate liberal principles. Too much faith in a single unifying leader inexorably leads to the inherently divisive claim that only one side is for unity.
Now the second question: How do we resolve conflicts? If elections involve illuminating conflict in order to give voters choices, elections resolve conflicts based on what voters choose. But should voters resolve conflicts directly or indirectly?
With direct resolution, voters have a clear, binary choice: option A or option B. If the election is a choice between two parties or two candidates, the winning side gets full power to enact its promised program for the duration of the legally stipulated tenure. It should have what is popularly called a “mandate.”
The alternative is indirect resolution, in which voters select representatives who then bargain with each other. Voters have less direct power: Instead of conferring a direct mandate, they rely on advocates to bargain on their behalf. This is a doctrine of deliberation and deal-making. Voters select no clear policy program but rather register their preferences for a wider range of alternative programs, creating space for more complex and fluid coalition building.
The American political tradition has been of two minds here. In one tradition, Americans equate democracy with majority rule and want elections to result in clear mandates. In a contradictory aspiration, Americans believe that politicians should work together and bargain across party lines, undercutting the premise that elections should provide clear mandates. Here we have an example of norms that are in themselves good—majority rule and bipartisan problem-solving—but often contradictory in practice. This helps explain why democratic politics is an endless management task and never a finished architectural plan.
The four types of democracy we are about to explore also differ in another way. Some of them are, at least in theory, cleaner and simpler than others. They appeal to certain kinds of personalities who mistakenly think that politicians can be architects instead of managers. The lure of political reform is the chimera that there is a neat and tidy solution that maximizes everything good.
No perfect solution exists, neither a simple one nor a more complex one. Demanding too much in any one direction will destroy the necessarily delicate balance. Again, there is no end point. As the social world changes, because of technological innovation or collective learning or anything else, democratic politics must adapt.
“Elite-ocracy” is actually the type of democracy closest to the origins of the American republic. The Framers had an ambivalent relationship with popular elections, which is why we have the Electoral College and why the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of constitutional probity, is the least democratic of the three branches of government. Senators were also initially chosen by state legislatures, not directly elected, so that the states as states—as distinct political units as opposed to mere administrative divisions—could exert balance against the power of the Federal center, but also so that the Senate could function as an elite guard against the “confusion of the multitude.” The Framers, who wished to avoid political parties, hoped that elections would select individuals of character who could approximate the public good through careful deliberation.
Elite-ocracy is not quite oligarchy or technocracy because it still relies on elections, thus qualifying it as democracy. But it assumes that the more policy made by unelected elites, the better. Economist Garrett Jones begins his 10% Less Democracy (2020) with this provocation: “We’ve taken democracy, mass voter involvement in government, at least a little too far. We’d likely be better off if we kept the voters and even the elected officials a little further away from the levers of power. Let the government insiders run more of the show.”
Jones likes central banks and appointed judges so experts have room to run the show. He thinks educated people should get weighted votes. So does Jason Brennan, a political philosopher whose Against Democracy (2016) makes a similar argument. The more removed policymaking is from the voters and reelection-seeking politicians, the more rational and therefore better it will be.
Elite-ocracy is strong among libertarian thinkers (Jones and Brennan are both libertarians), presumably because they believe that political elites are far more likely to value the individual liberties they prioritize, as opposed to the masses who seem to prefer an active, entitlement-dispensing Federal government. Utah Republican Senator Michael Lee shared this view last fall when he argued on Twitter that, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and [prosperity] are,” he wrote. “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
“Elite-ocracy” as a solution to fractious partisan politics got a boost in the Progressive Era, as corrupt partisanship and high inequality undermined representative democracy. Building on newfound faith in “scientific management,” a new generation of public administrators set out to wrest power from corrupt politicians and put it in independent agencies insulated from partisan politics and the whims of voters. Expert bureaucrats using the latest tools of social science and economics could manage the public weal far better than the public could manage itself.
The Progressive vision suffered from a deep contradiction: It simultaneously embraced aspects of a more populist view of democracy (direct elections, referenda, a stronger president) and its expert-driven view of scientific management (government by specialized agency). Its leaders ignored the contradiction by optimistically assuming that “The People” and “The Experts” would ultimately agree because only one correct vision of the public good would exist once the divisive parties and “interests” were stripped of their influence. Philosophers call this sort of condescension a category error; ordinary commonsensical people call it either hubris or stupidity.
In due course, of course, “expert” bureaucrats proved as prone to partisan infighting and errors in judgment as politicians and voters. This is the fatal flaw of Elite-ocracy. The history of centralized planning by experts is an abysmal one. Like everybody else who has too much power with too little accountability, they end up focused on their own well-being and status, convinced of the rightness of their own vision, and ultimately cut off from the reality that eventually undermines them. This is not a model for legitimate, sustainable democracy. The consent of the governed must never be taken for granted.
This ideal of rule by nonpartisan elites insulated from the madness of crowds maintains its appeal to many. But is “too much democracy” our only problem, or does the recent surge of populism rather reflect a different problem? One way to understand the current crisis of democracy is as a revolt against elites whose competence and fealty to the common good may legitimately be questioned. In recent years, especially in Europe, that revolt has arrayed itself against faceless global bureaucracies that advanced a neoliberal consensus—namely, that the more democratic governments left important decisions to markets and global institutions, the better off we would all be. Perhaps less elite rule would have inclined governments to listen more sympathetically to those most directly harmed by financialized globalization, instead of dismissing their concerns as selfish, hidebound, or even, in the U.S. context, “deplorable.”
Elites may be more supportive of core values of liberalism; certainly, education correlates closely with tolerance and respect for civil rights. But elites, whether mandarin bureaucrats or academic “nudgers,” are too often insulated from the consequences of their mistakes. They also tend to be the individuals least likely to respond to new information because they are the most wedded to their pre-existing beliefs and most prone to groupthink in order to maintain professional reputations. Experts are important, to be sure. But expertise untethered to democratic accountability eventually undermines the legitimacy of liberal democracy. Too much emphasis on preserving liberty at the expense of democracy ultimately undermines the democratic support necessary to liberalism.
“Great Leaderism” is the idea that the nation is best led by a single person who puts aside petty partisanship and narrow interests and governs for the sake of the entire nation. Voters should decide directly who to put in power, and that person should be able to run the country more or less unfettered.
This vision emerged in the early 20th century with the example of Theodore Roosevelt, a force-of-nature President who took on a clear and decisive leadership role. He stood astride great conflicts as a neutral arbiter between capital and labor. His cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, later offered a similarly powerful vision of executive leadership, which subsequent presidents have tried to imitate. American politics have become increasingly presidency-focused. In the separation-of-powers tug-of-war between Congress and the presidency, the executive has been winning for a solid four decades, with Congress exerting ever less tug and ceding ever more powers.
The argument for a stronger and more centralized executive is straightforward: Only the president (and vice president) is elected by all the people, so only the president is accountable to all the people. He is therefore the nation’s embodiment of unity. Whereas legislatures bicker, often inefficiently and incoherently, over parochial and partisan interests, executives can act efficiently and coherently because of their unitary authority. Hence, the enthusiasm for Joe Biden as a unifier, just as Obama was supposed to be a unifier, just as Bush was supposed to be a “uniter, not a divider;” just as … You get the picture.
In 2016, political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe laid out a version of this argument in Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency. They argued that the presidency is “manifestly underpowered” by the U.S. Constitution. The Framers, they wrote, could not have envisioned the complexities of our modern global society, which throws up problems that a deliberative Congress of regional representatives cannot solve. Therefore, they suggest one small tweak to our system of government: Give the president the power to propose legislation, and force Congress to take an up-or-down vote on it. This would resemble the process by which the UK parliamentary democracy, with its Westminster system, passes a budget; and of course a budget is prelude to much else that government does.
Howell and Moe published a sequel in 2020, Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy, in which they push back against the claim that the election of Donald Trump revealed the dangers of a more powerful executive. Rather, they argue that Trump’s rise was a direct response to the failures of government caused by (you guessed it) a too-weak executive: “Government—captured by special interests, incapable of crafting effective policies—has demonstrated time and again that it can’t perform and can’t be trusted to meet their needs. Enter Donald Trump, the rogue outsider.… Demagogues feed off dysfunction.”
Frustration with government dysfunction may indeed have contributed to Trump’s rise and popularity. But it was only one of several contingent causes. Politicians (especially presidents) have been promising for decades to rid Washington of special interests and to work on behalf of the American people. Politicians (especially presidents) have been campaigning as outsiders for decades. The persistent myth beneath the surface of these campaigns is that all the transactional log-rolling of politics is corrupt, and only an outsider can “drain the swamp” (a phrase that dates to Ronald Reagan). The persistent myth is of a Great Leader, a Jupiter who can alter the laws of “politics as sausage-making” and transcend partisanship. Trump promised to change Washington. He did, but not in the ways he promised.
It is easy to rail against the messiness of politics, against division and conflict and petty parochialism. The aesthetics of clean rationality offered by a single leader will always be attractive. But in politics, coherence and efficiency frequently come at the price of inclusion and legitimacy. A top-down defined and promulgated “national interest” is a dangerous mirage. As everyone knows, it is the sort of temptation that can turn democracies into populist dictatorships or, in the past, back into monarchies (as in France after the Revolution of 1848 sired the short-lived Second Republic). A democratic public interest can emerge only through bottom-up compromises and negotiations among a representative group of private interests.
As the political scientist Juan Linz warned in his classic 1990 essay, “The Perils of Presidentialism” in the very first issue of the Journal of Democracy, “Presidentialism is ineluctably problematic because it operates according to the rule of ‘winner-take-all’—an arrangement that makes democratic politics a zero-sum game, with all the potential for conflict such games portend.” A president wielding the claim to be the only representative of all the people makes the presidency a uniquely populist office. Populism and hyperpolarization naturally go together. Both depend on a politics of division.
Linz noted the tendency of presidential democracies to devolve into collapse and crisis. Presidents inevitably clash with legislatures. Crises of democratic legitimacy sometimes follow. Presidents develop charismatic followings, which can become powerful weapons deployed against the checks and balances of courts and legislatures, especially when executives rely on “emergency powers” and use them to crack down on civil liberties. And once liberalism degrades, the decline of democracy soon follows. Elections are no longer free and fair. Political opposition becomes costly and constrained. Constitutions are amended to expand presidential powers still further. It’s the familiar course of authoritarianism, from Hitler and Mussolini to Franco and Perón to Chavez, Erdogan, and Orbán.
This populist-authoritarian temptation becomes most acute in moments of hyperpartisan gridlock—like the one we are struggling through now. The more Congress bickers, the greater the appeal of a single leader to cut through the fighting, put “country over party,” and “just lead.” But this is precisely the moment in which centralizing power in a “strong leader” becomes most dangerous, when there is no way to lead without dividing the country even further.
The two types of democracy described so far reject political parties, or at least marginalize them. When individual actors—whether unelected experts or great leaders—structure conflict, political parties become mere appendages of the leaders who define them. The temptation to seek a unifier in an elite corps insulated from partisan division or in an individual is understandable. Parties are inherently divisive, noisy, and prone to producing unstable tenures. But division and conflict are inevitable in any form of pluralist politics, and no unifier can eliminate them and still end up with a democracy. They can only repress and distort them.
Political parties structure political elites into consistent and persistent teams and, thus, make collective governing possible. Ongoing players in elections and in governing political parties have powerful incentives to maintain quality control in their candidates and consistency in their priorities. In order to win elections, they must organize and mobilize large groups of citizens. They also make electoral options clear. Political parties have made modern liberal democracy possible; indeed, modern democracy is unthinkable without them.
But political parties are fundamentally creatures of legislatures, because both are collective institutions in which only team play can accomplish anything. Legislative accomplishments require cooperation, however grudging at times, and so depend on positive-sum dynamics. This type of system stands, of course, in direct contrast to an insular expert elite and a plebiscite-crowned executive who acts as a singular force.
Once we accept parties are necessary, the foundational choice is this: Do we want two parties or more than two parties? America is a rare two-party presidential system. Most advanced democracies are multiparty parliamentary systems; some are multiparty presidential systems.
The simplest difference between two-party and multiparty systems is whether governing coalitions should form before or after an election. The question is, should voters get to choose between two competing parties, anointing one to run the government? Or should voters choose among many parties, then let the parties form governing coalitions? Put another way, should voters resolve conflicts directly or indirectly? This question defines the differences between our third and fourth democratic forms.
To many Americans, democracy means majority rule. On the surface, nothing could be simpler. Whichever party wins the majority should govern, and the “loyal opposition” should keep them honest. Then, in the next election, voters can evaluate the performance of the party in power and weigh the alternative. In its purest form, this requires a two-party system. Only two parties can mechanically guarantee a majority for one of them. This is simple majoritarianism.
To many on the left, simple majoritarian democracy feels like a logical response to the current distorted arrangement of American politics. No coherent theory of liberal democracy can justify a system in which the party that gets fewer votes regularly wins majority power in government. Yet that is true for the Senate because each state has two Senators regardless of population; and in recent years it has been true for the presidency, where victory in the Electoral College has not always corresponded to victory in the popular vote and where third parties have allowed Electoral College victory with less than a popular vote majority. Moreover, for Democrats convinced that the Republicans would become more moderate if they had to appeal to a more diverse 52 percent of the electorate instead of a less diverse 48 percent of it, the push for a more majoritarian democracy can even feel like a genuine solution to the crisis of hyperpartisanship.
A longer view of minoritarianism in American democracy could also convincingly argue that the most persistently illiberal element of American political culture—the abusive treatment of racial minorities—has endured because of the disproportionate power of small rural and Southern states, particularly in the Senate: A near century of Jim Crow comes readily to mind. Compared to minoritarian democracy, then, majoritarian democracy seems like a logical remedy.
Simple majoritarianism also feels like a solution to the current crisis of gridlock and immobilism. With simple majoritarianism, parties would be empowered to enact policies. In a recent Vox essay arguing for the elimination of the filibuster, for example, Ezra Klein made a compelling case for the simple majoritarian theory of governance.
The American people are perfectly capable of judging the policies that affect their lives.… In the end, I trust voters more than I trust politicians. And so I prefer a system in which voters get some rough approximation of the change they vote for, and can then judge the results and choose whether to reelect the leaders they entrusted with power or throw them out of office.
This, however, is a highly idealized version of majoritarian democracy. After all, in his excellent book, Why We’re Polarized (2020), Klein cites study after study showing that the American people actually are not capable of judging policies. Instead, they evaluate policies through the filters of partisan media and identity. If partisan trust always outweighs nonpartisan truth in mass politics, then it certainly outweighs amateur efforts at public policy analysis.
This is the core problem of simple majoritarian democracy: The responsible and coherent two-party system it requires engenders the same polarization that undermines the ability of voters to hold parties accountable and accurately judge their performance. Probably more important, however, is its sheer impracticality, given the U.S. system of strong bicameralism and checks and balances—institutions specifically designed to make it difficult for coherently enduring majorities to form and govern, and thus blur the lines of accountability
For majoritarian democracy to offer voters a meaningful choice and clear accountability, parties must offer clear policy programs; the power to enact those policies if in government; and enough time to show whether those policies are working. But because of America’s use of first-past-the-post plurality elections for Congress and a single-round presidential election, which requires 50-plus percent of the Electoral College to win the presidency, the two parties must operate as big tent coalitions, doing their best to suppress internal disagreements. Historically, this has meant that party programs are either incoherent, not enactable, or both. That often leads parties to manage their own internal divisions by focusing on the threat of the other party’s policies, usually trumpeting the most extreme proposals circulating among the opposing party’s representatives. Rather than clear choices, the two parties offer voters caricatures, misdirection, and confusion.
Part of the confusion also results from the difficulties in actually enacting programs. The House, Senate, and president face different electorates on different timelines. As a result, parties have rarely governed unilaterally. Most legislation has historically passed with large majorities in bipartisan fashion after compromise deals have been worked out. But bipartisanship blurs the distinctions between parties and undermines the premise of holding parties accountable. For the past half century, unified party control of government has been the exception, accounting for barely one out of every four sessions of Congress. At the end of 2020, America had experienced divided government for 38 out of 52 years, ruling out even the bare possibility of simple majoritarianism 75 percent of the time.
Finally, there is the problem of timelines. House elections happen every two years, the shortest terms of any elected legislature among advanced modern democracies. Policies take time to work: At what point in the process should voters judge their effectiveness? If elections hinge on economic performance, the economy is prone to random ups and downs beyond the control of public policy. However, it can be juiced with short-term stimulus, which can lead parties to sacrifice long-term policy sense for short-term popularity bumps. Such short-termism is a persistent problem in American politics. It is hard to think long-term when persistent winner-take-all elections hinge on short-term performance.
But even with practicalities set aside, the notion of simple majoritarianism is internally problematic. It promises clear choices and accountability; but to give voters clear choices parties must be truly distinct. Two truly distinct parties are inevitably hyperpolarized parties, however, and hyperpolarized politics turns most voters into loyal partisans, incapable of judging both policy and performance objectively. Put another way, the key condition necessary for clear choices—clearly distinct parties—undermines accountability, and the condition necessary for accountability—large numbers of unaffiliated voters indifferent to partisan loyalty—arises only when parties are incoherent.
The two major U.S. parties have in recent years managed to become polarized and polarizing even while being fairly incoherent. The Republican and Democratic parties are less big-tent-like and more distinct from each other than they once were; but, for example, is there any logical policy reason why support for lower taxes should be linked to strict limits on abortion? In mass public opinion they aren’t, but in the Republican Party they are.
Public opinion scholars have repeatedly found at least two distinct dimensions of public opinion: economic issues and social/cultural issues. In American public opinion, the majority position is left of center on economic issues, right of center on social issues. Yet neither party offers this bundle to voters, largely because the coalitions they have built make the combination impossible. Instead, they try to define elections in terms of an issue cluster on which they think they can win. So, historically Republicans have pushed to make elections center on cultural and identity issues, while Democrats have pushed pocketbook issues. Rather than providing clear choices, parties muddle the choices by trying to shift the terrain of the election. Clear choices, therefore, do not necessarily mean coherent or meaningful choices.
But, while public opinion is complex and multidimensional, simple majoritarianism can render electoral judgment only on the single dimension of whatever happens to be the main issue of the election. As a result, the narrow governing majority produced by an election will typically represent majority support for certain issues but minority support for others. Thus, simple majoritarianism proves to be a recipe for frequent minoritarianism in significant issue areas.
Moreover, the voting system necessary to deliver single-party majority rule is one that allows a party with minority support to control a majority of legislative seats. A system of single-member districts, with winner-take-all elections, is necessary to create just two parties. However, because two parties distribute their voters differently, with liberal voters typically “packed” into urban districts, majoritarian voting systems often lead to “plurality reversals,” in which the party that wins the most votes doesn’t always win the most seats. This is true not only in the United States but also in Canada and the United Kingdom. It was also true in New Zealand until 1996, when the country changed to a more proportional voting system to solve precisely this problem of minority government.
Also, if simple majorities can rule, then a small swing in the electorate can yield a very different set of governing priorities. If closely balanced parties offer sharply contrasting policy programs, policy whiplash will follow. This unpredictability undermines the ability of both individuals and corporations to make long-term investments, and creates tremendous uncertainty in the global order, with foreign policy direction potentially changing dramatically every four or eight years.
Finally, when it comes to the underlying tension between liberalism and democracy, simple majoritarianism in its purest sense can undermine the checks and balances of liberalism, which is precisely what the Framers feared. Again, because simple majoritarianism requires distinct and polarized parties, it leads to high-stakes partisan elections—precisely the conditions most likely to persuade partisans to end-run the niceties of liberal democracy in order to keep their side in power. This is precisely the threat U.S. democracy currently faces, as illustrated on January 6 about as vividly as is possible to imagine. Democrats and Republicans both deeply fear what would happen if the other side takes power. Under such conditions, it defies logic to think that giving one party even more unfettered power will strengthen American liberal democracy in the long run.
“Complex majoritarianism,” a term coined by German political scientist Steffen Ganghof, works by authorizing voters to select partisan representatives but not directly choose the governing majority. Voters have only indirect control, and elections do not confer mandates. Instead, a coalition of elected partisan representatives works to develop and enact public policies. This is not necessarily the most efficient way to govern, but it generates the most inclusive approach, has the best chance at long-term stability, and promises the surest balance between the liberal and democratic elements of liberal democracy.
Political reformers rarely celebrate complex majoritarianism, given the messiness and lack of clear accountability that characterize a process featuring blurred lines and convoluted compromises. Good government reformers have instead long preferred the straightforward rationality of either expert bureaucrats using the best science (Elite-ocracy), singular national leaders ruling with coherent efficiency on behalf of The People (Great Leaderism), or clear (if narrow) partisan majorities enacting policies and being judged by their results (simple majoritarianism). But, as we have seen, the intuitive simplicity of each of these neatly rationalistic schemes falls apart upon further inspection of its inherent contradictions. Liberal democracy is complex and messy, featuring competing values in tension with each other. Impulses to make it tidier can only sweep the muddled tangles under the rug for so long before they pile up into destabilizing mounds.
The idea of complex majoritarianism has its American roots in the writings of the Framers. Factions are inherent in any society—“sown into the nature of mankind,” in the timeless words of Madison’s Federalist No. 10. Madison recognized the “mischiefs of faction” as the fundamental challenge of self-governance, but he had ideas for managing it. With power decentralized across multiple institutions, factions would need to bargain with each other on a largely ad hoc basis to win majorities. Representatives would consider a wide range of perspectives and, through deliberation, resolve conflicts and promote the public interest.
This plan balances liberalism and equality. It elevates equality because it treats all groups and perspectives as equal and gives them a political space to build coalitions. It is liberal because, with coalitions continually changing, competing groups and parties can all see themselves as both future winners and future losers; thus, they have a shared interest in a fair set of liberal rules that protects the rights of all participants to participate equally. Perhaps even more important, when no one group or faction can realistically dream of permanent power, no one has reason to plan to abuse such power. Moreover, no competing group has to fear permanent subordination, a fear that can harden into illiberalism.
This is a description of multiparty democracy, in which multiple parties (or, in Madison’s words, multiple factions) can combine and re-combine, forming different majority coalitions on different issues. While simple majoritarianism binds two competing coalitions into distinct policy bundles, complex majoritarianism allows for something far closer to true responsiveness, allowing it to represent majority opinion better than simple majoritarianism and promoting more inclusive, legitimate, and stable policymaking.
Arguably, America has had something close to complex majoritarianism until recently. It is the collapse of complex majoritarianism toward some amalgam of simple majoritarianism and Great Leaderism that has led to so much of the recent democratic breakdown.
Consider that for most of American history, the two parties—Federalists and Whigs, Democrats and Republicans—existed mainly as broadly overlapping coalitions of competing factions. At the start of the New Deal era, Democrats and Republicans both had liberal and conservative wings. Thus, in practice, the U.S. system operated like a multiparty or, at least, four-party system within a loose-fitting formal two-party system. This incomplete differentiation between the two parties generated lower stakes elections. But because the factions operated within the two-party system rather than as distinct parties, voters had a harder time figuring out what the parties actually represented at the national level. Voters often had a clearer connection to their representatives and Senators than to national parties or the federal government as a whole. This situation generated high degrees of parochialism, legislative individualism, and what critics called a sense of collective irresponsibility. But it also offered great flexibility and rewarded the skill of seasoned dealmakers.
We shouldn’t over-romanticize the arrangement. In the Senate and, to some extent, the House (especially before the Supreme Court promulgated the “one-person-one-vote” doctrine in 1964 over-represented rural and racially conservative parts of the country, a feature exacerbated by winner-take-all elections), political minorities had decisive veto power, leading to many policies that were both illiberal and anti-democratic. From the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, however, American democracy worked reasonably well as a complex majoritarian system. Overlapping factions in the party coalitions worked together to generate broad bipartisan support for a wide range of public policies that genuinely improved the lives of the American people.
Over the past three decades, however, the muddled four-party system sorted into a clearly divided two-party system, one party’s coalition built around a highly educated, cosmopolitan, multicultural urban America dependent on knowledge-economy jobs and the other coalition built around minimally educated, traditionalist, largely white rural and small-town America dependent on extractive and declining manufacturing industries. As the parties sorted themselves and as politics nationalized, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats vanished. The two parties became as coherent as they have ever been in American political history, establishing something new—a genuine two-party system that, as theory and practice in other places had predicted, produced deeply divided, highly polarized politics generating hatred and dysfunction. The collapse of complex majoritarianism into simple majoritarianism has been a disaster, especially because, as we have seen, it has descended upon a governing structure specifically designed to thwart narrow majoritarianism.
If American democracy took a wrong turn at some point a few decades ago, perhaps the logical reform is to restore some of the features that used to work reasonably well. Three ideas stand out: getting more moderates elected again; supporting more internal factions, as there used to be; and returning power from Washington to the states, thus reducing the stakes of national elections and allowing the diversity of localism to restore more variety and pluralism to the political system.
All of these options seek to re-create a feature of the lost complex majoritarianism by restoring part of what used to be there, but too much has changed to make this approach feasible. The only way to create something similar to what worked in an earlier era is to embrace, not deny, the significant changes of the past four decades, re-creating a de facto multiparty system.
Let us first describe the weaknesses of the three turn-back-the-clock suggestions that most attract reformers these days.
More “moderates” within the two-party system. Many of the “lost” moderates appeared moderate because they represented constituencies that didn’t fit neatly into either party. Some were moderate-to-liberal Republicans who typically came from New England, the West Coast, or professional-class suburbs. Some were conservative Democrats who typically came from the South or small-town and rural America. That is, many of them were really members of the two “lost” parties of the old four-party system.
Today’s “moderate” representatives come mostly from the fifty or so “swing” districts, typically in the suburbs, where some well chosen partisan apostasy is considered an advantage in winning reelection. Many belong to the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a bipartisan group of House members who have struggled to solve any problems, despite their noble intentions.
One challenge is that Congress now operates in a highly centralized way, with party leaders controlling the agenda. In the earlier era, when the parties were more overlapping, less power centered in partisan leaders because partisans were less committed to the same priority rankings: They often focused on single-issue advocacy. This gave moderates more space to operate. Today’s party leaders don’t like bipartisanship. After all, compromise legitimates the other side.
Second, because many moderates now represent swing districts, they come and go in frequent wave-shift elections. In an earlier era, many moderates were Southern Democrats and New England Republicans with deep regional roots and personal brands that stabilized long careers. It takes experience to become effective, experience that many vulnerable moderates have difficulty gaining. Presumably, the more moderates with a genuine interest in cross-partisan work get elected to Congress, the more leverage they might develop within their party caucuses to shift the balance toward more cross-partisanship, which was once the hallmark of complex majoritarianism.
The third challenge is that historically, congressional dealmaking came not necessarily from centrists but from—wait for it—dealmakers: Think Ted Kennedy plus Orrin Hatch. They were not moderate or centrist. They had their principles. But precisely because they had such principles, they were motivated to accomplish something. Compromise and dealmaking reflect personal dispositions, which are not easily captured on a traditional left-right spectrum.
So, how to get more moderates? Many reformers in this camp advocate a mix of good government reforms: independent redistricting committees, substituting open for partisan primaries; and ranked-choice voting. All are plausible, and some empirical evidence suggests that on the margins they would generate a few more moderates in Congress. But a few more moderates are unlikely to make much difference, especially since they are likely to be among the most vulnerable members of Congress.
These reforms do not challenge the single greatest force driving binary hyperpartisanship: the single-winner district. Given the strong geographic polarization of the two parties, most states and most electoral districts will remain decidedly conservative or liberal unless map-makers draw really weird urban districts that look like jagged and distended pizza slices (and they won’t).
More factions. More factions within the parties might work in theory. Political scientists Steven Teles and Robert Saldin have argued that, with more factions, “control of Congress by party leadership will break down.” The breakdown would generate some chaos but reward “legislative entrepreneurship.… Habits of cross-party coalition-building that have faded in recent years will be rediscovered and the utility of constructing coalitions of strange bedfellows will increase.” A less partisan mode of governing will emerge.
Teles and Saldin are right that the two parties, as distinct and polarized as they look on the surface, still harbor multitudes, which are on full display during party primaries. Still, the parties remain sharply united on what matters most: voting. Unlike factions of earlier times, today’s factions are not naturally overlapping. The two underlying dimensions of partisan conflict, the economic and the social, are now more completely fused into a single partisan dimension. Perhaps Teles and Saldin are correct in seeing “deep forces at work in American society and politics that are going to cause the two parties to become less and less cohesive in the coming years.” But for now, the two parties are persistently polarizing those forces into ever deeper partisan divides. If the underlying factions are to be liberated and empowered, they’ll need outside help.
More federalism. More federalism is a standard argument by many conservatives, who routinely blame the centralization of power in Washington for many contemporary problems. But for all their talk about federalism, they don’t practice much of it when they have power in Washington. After all, why give up the reins of power when you control them? As long as overweening Federal powers exist, the side that controls them will use them as much as possible.
In an earlier era, more independent authority rested in state and local governments. A far greater regional diversity of political cultures flourished, rendering the national parties much more jumbled than they are today. The incoherence and overlap were essential ingredients in allowing complex majoritarianism to work.
Yet today, national hyperpartisanship is being rapidly replicated at the state level. Republican-led states are enacting very similar policies across a wide range of areas. Democratic-led states are doing the same. In this circumstance, more devolution of functions and powers to the states could lead to even greater divides between red and blue states and more bitter fights between the rural and urban parts of states that have become much more solidly Republican or Democratic.
Perhaps someday a cross-partisan coalition might agree to abide by a broader principle of subsidiarity. But this is far less likely when the national reins of power in a polarized two-party system are so tempting to pull.
The three plans above share one big idea: a less binary politics, with more pluralism, more diversity, more room for a kind of complex majoritarianism to emerge on an issue-by-issue basis. They envision national elections less as singular winner-take-all contests and more as means of producing a diverse group of representatives to engage in positive-sum negotiation and bargaining.
All three approaches bear merit as essentially visions of multiparty politics on the sly. They all imagine success based on exploiting cracks within the formal two-party system. But a fourth approach, not a throwback but a launch forward, is better still: Why not fight for actual multiparty politics under proportional electoral rules and get the benefits of having more actual parties?
The most common answer is that the American system is somehow naturally a two-party system, partly because a candidate for president needs an Electoral College majority to win office, or that it would simply be too difficult to create a multiparty democracy in America given the longstanding persistence of the two-party system. Or, the thinking goes, at the very least one of the three alternative approaches would be easier.
This is nonsense. True, relatively easy changes would be too marginal to have an impact. But major reforms do happen, roughly once every generation. So, if it’s complex majoritarianism we want (and we should), then we should aim directly for multiparty democracy.
The practicalities of multiparty democracy are both simple and complex. They are simple in that all it would take would be an act of Congress (fully constitutional, since Congress has Article I, Section 4, powers to write its own electoral rules) to make congressional elections more proportional, using multi-winner districts elections for the U.S. House. If the top three vote getters from a congressional district were elected to the House of Representatives instead of just one, we might need to expand the size of the House, which has been frozen since 1911, with the effect that the House has become increasingly distant from the people as district sizes have ballooned. The case of the Senate would be more complex, though single-winner ranked-choice voting would help.
The practicalities are complicated because there are many kinds of proportional representation. Most democracies use proportional representation. Each has its own electoral rules. Larger district sizes and lower vote thresholds allow for more parties, but too many parties can be as big a problem as too few. Generally, it’s best to aim for between four and six parties, through modest district sizes (around five representatives) and/or reasonable thresholds (around 5 percent) for representation. Some systems only allow voters to choose parties, giving parties full power to select their representatives. Others allow voters to choose candidates from among those pre-selected by the parties. Still others allow more space for independents. Generally, stronger parties are better, but some voter choice is desirable.
For these reasons, multi-winner ranked-choice voting systems like the one used in Ireland work best. The mixed-member proportional system used in New Zealand and Germany works, too. So does an open-party-list system like the one used in Finland. A more comprehensive discussion of the alternatives quickly gets technical and is beyond the scope of this essay. The point is simply that there are several alternatives, all of which have been used successfully by thriving advanced democracies, including some with presidents, for many years.
At a practical level, multipartyism will operate most effectively for Congress, since legislatures are the institutional home of pluralism. Unless we change the current single-round Electoral College system of presidential elections, we are likely to continue to see a binary choice for president. But in a multiparty Congress, the processes for choosing presidents would evolve. One could imagine different national coalitions coming together to select presidential candidates, who would subsequently govern with broader coalition cabinets.
More broadly, a more multiparty Congress would likely be a more effective Congress, since we would no longer be in the baleful situation of two parties competing for narrow majority control, each denying its opponent any possible “victory” and viewing every electoral fight primarily through the lens of future campaign messaging. In an earlier era, when a four-party system effectively kept cross-partisan compromise lively, Congress acted more like an Article I branch. But as Congress has polarized, presidential power has stepped in to fill the void created by binary hyperpartisanship. A stronger, more compromise-driven Congress could bring back the checks and balances of an earlier era, thus reducing the centrality of the winner-take-all office of president in our politics.
Certainly, implementation poses many practical questions of institutional design. These, too, are beyond the scope of this essay. The first stage, though, has to be reaching agreement about our collective vision for America’s liberal democracy in the decades ahead. We must have a destination in mind before we can map out the pathways for getting there and distinguish the variations within the larger vision. This will be a big change, but moments of dire challenge demand big solutions.
The contemporary crisis of American democracy is not exclusively one of hyperpartisanship and the breakdown of shared rules of fairness. Social media is a hyperconductor of conspiracies, and the attention-market internet writ large dulls our critical and analytical thinking, sapping the attention needed for thoughtful political engagement. The crippling inequalities of our society, the hyperindividualism and instant gratification of our culture, the loss of community ties, and the loss of external sources of meaning other than work or consumption vie for our attention.
Certainly, culture matters and economics matter. But the problems of our economy require public policies to reduce burgeoning inequalities, and hence a politics not mired in hyperpartisanship and gridlock. So political reform is necessary for economic reform.
Culture is much harder to change through politics. But as much as politics is downstream from culture, culture is also downstream from politics. Complex majoritarianism is not just a way of doing politics; it also encourages more complex thinking in general. With more sides to any issue comes more critical and analytical thought. If there are only two teams and the other team is by definition always wrong, what is there to think about? Eager confirmation bias is the strongest accelerant of disinformation. Uncertainty and ambiguity are the truest precursors to critical thinking.
We have serious, possibly terminal problems. But American democracy is and always has been an ongoing experiment. At many times it has been on the brink of failure and collapse, and at many times it has reinvented itself through significant reforms. Democracy is capable of self-adjustment and repair. That capacity frames the choice we now face: Go big or go down.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America (2020), and co-host of the “Politics in Question” podcast.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe