Democrats vs. Democracy


A lot of the discussion around Hacker and Pierson’s new book focuses on how the Democratic party can wrest control away from the Republicans. What Hacker and Pierson have done is show just how difficult this is to do. A political system has emerged which increasingly favors incumbents, and in pay-to-play money politics makes it harder and harder for a minority party to turn things around.

All pretty depressing, but there is something the Democrats could do: open up the political system to greater competition. It might seen self-destructive, but I believe the opposite is just the case. The Democrats should seek to end the nationwide two party system. This system seems to benefit Democrats by ensuring that they will continue to control those seats they have already secured, but it is increasingly clear that it is an impediment to regaining control of the nation as a whole.

The two party system is protected by a number of institutions that limit greater competition. The strength of Hacker and Pierson’s argument is that they show just how much better the Republicans have been at controlling and manipulating these institutions. Creating greater political competition, would involve creating party-neutral voting districts, instant-runoff voting that favors minority candidates, fusion voting that gives greater power to smaller political parties, having a paper trail, true campaign finance reform, a more democratic mass media, etc. In short, it means creating a more democratic nation in which the extremes cannot govern against the popular will. Exactly what our constitution was initially designed to do.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party isn’t desperate enough to give up their cozy position as number two in a two party system. In this sense they are like the media companies who insist on using DRM (digital rights management) to protect copyright, rather than adopting open standards. All the evidence points out that the latter policy would be a sounder long-term strategy for the industry, but they are more concerned about short term profits. The Democrats are no different. They like these institutions because in the places where they already have power these institutions work in their favor. But it seems clear that it isn’t working in the favor of the country as a whole.

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