American politics is a bicycle with a rusty chain, flat tires and no brakes. It’s broken, and it’s not taking any of us where we want to go.
Congress is so bogged down in conflict it can barely function. Presidents have found it’s easier to issue executive orders than win over legislators. Polarization has grown to the point that people in each party increasingly see the opposition as dangerous extremists.
It’s tempting to blame this entirely on voters.
President Donald Trump and supporters think the left is hellbent on destroying him because he represents real Americans and patriotic values. A lot of other people think the problem is all the Trump supporters who dislike minorities and believe things that aren’t true. If only those other people would come to their senses, each side thinks, things would be fine.
Some of the fault is in ourselves. But some of it is the product of a political system that has changed in ways that magnify our worse qualities and suppress our better ones. Trump is mostly a symptom rather than a cause.
The fundamental problem is the gap between what most Americans want and what our elected officials increasingly represent. The most sharp-edged figures set the agenda for both parties — Trump and Ted Cruz in the GOP, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with Democrats.
Jeb Bush and John Kasich had no real chance in the 2016 Republican race because they didn’t excite the hard right. Hillary Clinton evoked tepid enthusiasm among the Democratic rank and file because of her establishment credentials. Satisfying ideologues takes precedence over appealing to the broad mass of citizens.
The two parties in Congress have never been so dissimilar in their voting patterns or so reluctant to work together. The overlap that existed when there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats is gone, taking pragmatic bipartisan problem-solving with it.
This shift leaves a lot of citizens unrepresented. A majority of Americans regard themselves as moderate, slightly liberal or slightly conservative — more than in the 1970s — but these centrists have the least influence.
Just look at the debate over Obamacare. Republicans thrived politically by adamantly opposing it and promising to repeal it. But now they find that position unpopular with the electorate. Only 12 percent of Americans favor the Senate health care bill, with 53 percent in favor of keeping Obamacare. The amazing thing is not that the bill is so unpopular but that Republicans may enact some version of it regardless.
How could that happen in a democratic country? Today, all sorts of institutional factors promote and reward all-or-nothing militancy. If we want to encourage our leaders to find solutions they can agree on, we need to create conditions that foster compromise. Fortunately, there are reforms that could help. Here are a few:
• End partisan redistricting. When seats are safe for one party, the incumbents don’t fear a challenge from the other party; they fear a challenge from someone more ideologically pure. Republicans are reluctant to vote to keep Obamacare because they don’t want to invite more conservative candidates to run against them. Incumbents naturally resist giving up gerrymandering, but in its next term, the Supreme Court will hear a constitutional challenge that could curtail it.
• Revise campaign finance laws. “Increasing or entirely removing limits on how much money party organizations can raise and spend would be a step toward reducing polarization,” argue political scientists Raymond La Raja and Brian Schaffner, because parties tend to have a moderating influence. Existing restrictions on parties induce candidates to “seek a greater share of donations directly from highly ideological individuals and group donors.” Giving parties more latitude would nudge politicians toward the middle.
• Scrap party primaries. California has replaced them with “open” primaries, which pit all candidates against one another, with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, proceeding to the general election. Research by political scientists Eric McGhee and Boris Shor indicates the change has had a moderating effect on outcomes. Another option comes from Louisiana, which forgoes primaries in favor of an open general election, with a runoff if no one gets a majority. It could help centrists because general elections involve more voters, diluting the influence of zealots.
The great majority of Americans have more in common with one another and more willingness to cooperate than they may realize. They need to repair a political system that seems rigged to keep them from getting their way.
Steve Chapman (SChapman@chicagotribune.com) is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.