A Review of Another Very Significant Book
By Marvin Zonis
Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter, The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy, Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2020.
Run! Do not walk! Read this book now!
Here you will find both an explanation and a cure. The explanation makes clear why our political system – what the authors label the “political-industrial complex" – is dysfunctional. The cure, they argue, requires change in our political primary system as well as in the rules which govern the functioning of the House of Representatives.
The first problem dealt with in their explanation is that our political system is governed by a duopoly – two political parties and effectively only two political parties. The authors quote some very wise founding fathers. John Adams said, “There is nothing I dread so much as the division of the republic into two great parties. . .” Thomas Jefferson said “If I could go to a heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
The duopoly depresses competition through the system of primary elections.
“Rather than competing head to head for the same voters – those often described as America’s “middle” – the parties divide the electorate into mutually exclusive partisan camps and prioritize on each side the highly engaged (and often single issue and more ideological) constituencies who most dependably vote or give money.”
Given that less than 20 percent of eligible voters participate in primary elections, the most extreme candidates tend to be elected. Then, given the gerrymandering across the country, the winners of primary elections get elected to office. In the 2016 general election, “less than 10 percent of US House races and just 28 percent of Senate races were competitive.”
That the primary election outcome determines the general outcome is further strengthened by the duopoly passing “sore-loser” laws. Some 44 states have passed these laws that bar a loser in any primary election for running for office in the general election.
Once arrived in Washington, the elected representatives find a system that the duopoly have so carefully structured over the years that the party in power can determine what bills get voted on and what bills get passed.
The House committees are controlled by the majority party. Bills that emerge from a committee then go to the House Rules Committee that is controlled by the majority party. Bills that emerge from the Rules Committee then face the so-called Hastert Rule. “The Hastert Rule dictates that the Speaker will not allow a floor vote on a bill unless a majority of the majority party – the Speaker’s part – supports the bill, even if a majority of the full House would vote to pass it.”
The Senate has similar legislative processes.
If a bill gets through the House and the Senate, it used to be sent to a Conference Committee. “In the 114th Congress [which met from January 2015 to January 2017] there were just 8 conference reports, down from 67 in the 104th Congress a decade earlier.”
Instead of all that hard work, the majority leaders meet behind closed doors and announce the outcome.
In short, the duopoly has successfully managed to prevent real competition. As a result, the rules of the game prevent the public interest from being served.
The book then goes on to suggest workable solutions to the partisan rules that result in so little legislation that serves the public interest. Two in particular stand out – 5 person non-partisan primaries and ranked choice voting in place of the present system of plurality voting.
The primary system they propose is a single, open, non-partisan primary in which all voters are eligible to vote. The top five winners of the vote then become candidates in the general election.
Because the top 5 go on to the general, any given candidate need not fear losing her seat for not voting their party orthodoxy and party leaders have far less control over the candidates allowed on the primary ballot. The result would be more competition in the general election and more legislators able to act in the public interest.
Gehl and Porter’s other major proposal for reforming the “political-industrial complex” is ranked choice voting. The present system of plurality voting often results in candidates elected without majority support.
Rank choice voting requires voters to express their support for the five candidates emerging from the primaries by ranking them one through five. If no candidate emerges with a majority, the candidate in last place is eliminated and any first place votes she may have received get allocated to their second choice. Eventually, a candidate emerges with a majority.
Candidates would thus be incentivized to appeal to a larger group of voters when the outcome of the general was not largely determined by the outcome of the partisan primaries. The chances of legislation in the wider public interest would be vastly increased.
This summary of Gehl and Porter’s explanations and solutions does not capture the richness of their contributions and the data that support the efficacy of their proposed solutions.
This book will shatter your faith in the current rules that govern our elections and our legislative process. The outcomes they produce are a very warped version of democracy. To restore the real thing, we need to break the power of the ruling party duopoly. This book will also tell you how we can bring that goal towards ever more democratic outcomes to fruition.
(A note from Harvard Business School:
“Thank you for your interest in The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy, presented on June 10 by Katherine Gehl and Professor Michael Porter. For those of you who participated, we hope you enjoyed this virtual program. If you were unable to attend live, please visit www.alumni.hbs.edu/politics-june2020 to view the recording.
“For more information about actionable steps you can take to help reform US democracy, please view this brief video, created by Ms. Gehl. We also invite you to read “Fixing US Politics,” an article written by Ms. Gehl and Professor Porter for the July-August 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review. To learn more about how you can engage with this ongoing work, visit www.political-innovation.org.”
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