Polarization and the Crisis of Legitimacy

I just wrapped up Ezra Klein‘s book Why We’re Polarized. I highly recommend reading it, especially if you’re interested in why the political climate is so dysfunctionally stupefying today. I’m a big fan of Ezra. His podcast is the only one I really listen to somewhat consistently, and I think he does an exceptionally good job explaining things in a very digestible way. I generally agree with his worldview and I’m usually interested in the things he has to say.

The gist of the book is that politics has really become defined by our identities, and as a result it has led to a state of polarization that threatens the future of our democracy. I’m not going to spend time digging into the problems he very convincingly discusses. If you’re interested, Bill Gates has a good review of the book and here is another one from the The New Yorker.

It is worth noting that I am not a political pundit, nor am I an expert in politics. But I do have strong opinions and believe that national politics is a critical and defining instrument for making continued progress as a country and civilization.

I firmly believe that we are facing a crisis of legitimacy in the US government. The past two Republican presidents lost the popular vote. Mitch McConnell blocked Barack Obama from appointing a Supreme Court Justice because it was an election year, then proceeded to ram through three Supreme Court Justices under the Trump presidency, one of whom assumed her seat weeks before the 2020 election. Justice Thomas’s wife participated in the January 6 insurrection, he has refused to recuse himself from relevant issues, and is leading the Court to overturn established law that has come to define progress in our country (most recently with Roe and with near certainty more to come). The House is gerrymandered to oblivion, it is exceedingly difficult to vote in many states, and by 2050 roughly seventy Senate seats will represent 30% of the country’s population. Furthermore, the filibuster makes it impossible for legislators to do their jobs and too easy for a minority to completely obstruct any legislative agenda.

Today, we effectively have tyranny of the minority and for lack of better words, that is fucked up. It is not democracy. It makes me furious, it stifles progress, and it makes me to feel as if the current state of the government is a sham. Ezra notes that Republicans shouldn’t want this because you don’t want a majority of the country rising in revolt and disobeying the rule of law. But it’s impossible to believe in the rule of law when a minority imposes it upon a majority. A crisis of legitimacy is bad for everyone. The erosion of democracy is bad for everyone. And the most frustrating thing is it’s really difficult for me to believe that most elected Republican politicians actually care. I sometimes think there is a reasonable chance we are careening towards a Handmaid’s Tale type of dystopia. I would have considered myself crazy to publicly say that a year ago, but polarization in national politics and the way we operate as if national politics is an all-out war has convinced me otherwise. I’d give it a 50% chance that democracy survives.

Now I am optimistic that we get it together and continue our long history of making progress, but I am also realistic. If you were to ask me if there were “glory days” that exemplify the best of times, I’d still point to today. As Ezra says: “The era that we often hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent than Today…And the institutions of American politics today are a vast improvement on the regimes that ruled well within living memory. If we can do a bit better tomorrow, we will be doing much, much better than we have ever done before.”

So how do we make tomorrow better than today and ensure this grand experiment of the US government continues to make progress? Ezra highlights a handful of solutions that I vehemently support. First and foremost, he recommends doing away with the electoral college. This is an obvious move that is a long time in the making. My favorite piece of literature on the topic is Let the People Pick the President by Jesse Wegman. One of the common misconceptions is that in order to do this it requires an impossible-to-achieve Constitutional amendment. It doesn’t. Under the National Interstate Popular Vote Compact states can agree to throw their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. It can be entirely controlled by state legislatures and advocates for democracy should be spending considerable more time and money trying to achieve this. Republicans may lament that they’d never win the presidency but that’s just not true. Two of the most popular governors in the country are in blue states (Maryland and Massachusetts). They’d just have to run on policies that more people supported. It’s been done before and will happen again.

The second solution is to “combine multimember districts with ranked-choice voting. Under this system, states would break into electoral zones represented by multiple members of Congress.” Ranked-choice voting is a tool that needs to be more broadly utilized. It gives a voice to more people and enables candidates who actually represent different interests and identities the opportunity to thrive. If there’s one political thing I think Andrew Yang is doing well it is advocating for this change. It’s also the reason Lisa Murkowski, arguably the least polarizing Republican in the Senate, is able to retain her seat and more effectively represent her constituents in Alaska. Ranked-choice voting increases the likelihood that national politics actually has proportional representation, and can ultimately foster a much needed multiparty democracy.

Improving the functionality of the Senate comes down to the obvious and commonsense move of eliminating the filibuster (here’s a more in depth case for it), and giving Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico congressional representation which is long past due. Rules should also be rewritten to make it easier for the minority party to bring full bills to the floor. The Senate is arguably the most dysfunctional legislative body. The fact that a minority of the members can filibuster virtually every piece of legislation is preposterous. Elected officials should be able to enact the agenda for which they were elected to office. If it’s unpopular, then they will be voted out of office and another party can enact their agenda. This is the way a well-functioning government should work. I also believe we need term limits for Senate members. Too much time is spent focused on consolidating and retaining power as opposed to serving the interests of constituents. If a President can only serve two terms, then members of the most important legislative body should be limited to two terms as well.

With regards to democratizing politics, we also need to make it easier to vote with tools like automatic voter registration and universal vote-by-mail systems. As Ezra notes, “Too much of American politics is decided by efforts to restrict who votes or, as in gerrymandering, to manipulate the weight those votes hold.” Suppressing votes is diametrically and ideologically opposed to Republicans’ love of free markets. Voting should be easy, not hard. That would encourage healthy competition.

Last but not least, the Supreme Court needs reform. Democrats who object to this notion should be booted from office and replaced with officials who do. One solution Ezra recommends is to expand the court to fifteen justices: each party gets to appoint five, and then the ten partisan justices must unanimously appoint the remaining five. Until all fifteen are agreed upon, the Court wouldn’t be able to hear cases. Also institute term limits here. Lifetime appointments are absolutely ludicrous.

All of these solutions are primarily focused on national politics (which is what the book focuses on), and don’t touch on local politics which are also critically important. I would like to see more time, effort, and money spent on these issues. I’d also like to see members of both parties unite around them, or at least every Democrat support them. They are worth fighting for and in concert with one another they very well may be the antidote the United States so direly needs to course correct the path we are on and steer us towards a future that is continuously defined by forward progress and experimentation.