Oct 30 2023

Finding Common Ground on Democracy

How is American democracy doing, and what can we do to improve it, if necessary? This is clearly a question of political science, and I am not a political scientist, and this is not a political blog. But there are some basic principles of critical thinking that might apply, and the second word in “political science” is “science”. Further, while this is not a political blog, what that really means is that I endeavor to be non-partisan. I am not trying to advocate for any particular party or ideological group. But many of the issues I discuss have a political dimension, because most issues do. Global warming is a scientific question, but there are massive political consequences, for example.

So if you will indulge me, I want to apply some basic critical thinking principles to some pressing questions regarding our democracy. My goal is to see if we can find some common ground. This is something I frequently recommend in many contexts – if you are trying to convince someone that a particular belief of theirs is pseudoscience, a good place to start is to establish some common ground and then proceed from there. Otherwise you will likely be talking past each other.

Also, despite the fact that we seem to be having increasing partisan division in this country, my sense is that we still have much more common ground than may be apparent. The media and politicians both benefit from emphasizing division, conflict, and differences. Keeping everyone as outraged and agitated as possible maximizes clicks and votes. Both polling and personal experience, if you look beyond the surface level, also tell a story of common ground. Most common-sense positions are supported by large majorities. Most people want basically the same things – safety, prosperity, liberty, transparency and fairness. This is not to minimize the very real different value judgements that exist in society. This is why we need democracy to work out compromises.

Most people are decent human beings, who see themselves as good people who are in the right, and who want the basic things I listed above, but just may have different ideas about what that means for them and how best to achieve these ends. People may also be proceeding from very different sets of facts and assumptions, a problem that can be improved with more information. But at the same time, many people feel (because this is what they are being told) that the “other side” wants to destroy America. A recent Pew poll finds that Americans increasingly see their partisan rivals as “closed-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, and lazy”. Partisan “rivals” have become enemies – enemies of the people, enemies of America. This tracks with increasing numbers of Americans on both sides feeling that it may become necessary to use violence or go outside of normal democratic methods to achieve victory over the other side.

To be clear (I always find I have to include this caveat), I am not making an argument for equivalence here. This is not both-sidesism. I think there is good evidence that Republicans have been increasingly radicalized over the last 20 years and are currently in the grips of a populist, even authoritarian, movement. Both parties have their centrist and extreme wings. The difference is, the extreme wing is in charge of the Republican party. This actually connects to my next point – there seems to be a disconnect between the average person, of either major political party, and what’s happening politically.

I think we can look at the issue here as being comprised of two problems. One is the proportion of people in each party who are centrist vs extreme, and the other issue is the center of political power within each party. These are related but distinct issues. I want to focus on the latter issue. The former issue is way more complex, having to do with our media ecosystem, social media, education, and other social factors. I have also dealt with his issue many times before, from many perspectives – this is essentially the core of skeptical activism, promoting critical thinking, scientific literacy, and media savvy.

But it does seem to be the case the the mechanisms of democracy increasingly favor the fringe. This is, in a way, a potentially easier and quicker problem to address. In other words, when you ask individual people about their opinions on various issues, there are absolutely differences between the parties, but still more agreement than disagreement (depending on how you ask the question). If we agree more than we disagree, then why do we seem so intensely divided? It’s partly because political power rests disproportionately at the extremes. This is a democracy problem.

Do we have some common ground here as well? It seems so, yes. Most people surveyed think American Democracy has problems, and large majorities agree on a lot of democratic basic principles. Let me review what I think are the big ones. In order for democracy to work, citizens need accurate information about what is going on. Further, we need to be able to hold our politicians accountable in many ways. We need to hold them accountable to being honest, fair, diligent, and competent. If they cheat or lie, they should be punished. If their ideas are wrong and fail, they should pay a price. We need this basic feedback loop in order for democracy to work. And of course, the primary way that we hold politicians accountable is at the ballot box. There are legal lines that can trigger legal remedies, but basically we defer to the voter.

This means that fair and effective voting is critical to a functioning democracy. In my opinion, one of the gravest threats to the power of the vote to hold politicians accountable is gerrymandering. With highly gerrymandered districts, essentially politicians choose their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians. This can disenfranchise voters, even categories of voters. Further, when districts are not competitive because of gerrymandering, then the contest is essentially won during the primary, and our primary system favors more extreme partisan candidates. There is no incentive to appeal to a moderate voter, or to appeal to independents or moderate members of the other party. For those who are already elected from a gerrymandered district, their only fear is being primaried by a more extreme candidate. This creates political pressure to be more extreme.

We should be able to create the common ground to agree that gerrymandering needs to go, and quickly.

There are lots of other tweaks and fixes we can do, and this does get into the weeds of political science. We should debate open primaries, ranked-choice voting, and getting rid of the electoral college. For president and vice president, it makes sense that each American vote counts the same. Rural states have enough of an advantage with senators. Basic fairness dictates that voters in California should have the same say for executive as voters in Wisconsin. Also, if you don’t live in a swing state, your vote is all but worthless, and presidential candidates can safely ignore you. A national popular vote for president would favor more centrist candidates with broader appeal. You know, just like with a functioning democracy.

The big picture is – while there are very real disagreements on many political issues, we actually agree much more than most people think, and there are large majorities that support common-sense centrist positions on most of the big issues. Yet our political system does not reflect this reality. We need to have a national debate about this fact – how can we improve the functioning of our democracy so that it better reflects the will of the people, and better holds our political leaders accountable? We can get there by building on our vast common ground.

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