Speaker Pushes For Broader Electoral, Party System Reforms

CHAUTAUQUA — Lee Drutman insists that Democracy in the United States can renew and innovate.

“We’re actually, I think, on the verge of it happening precisely because we’re in this doom and gloom moment,” Drutman said.

Speaking on the theme of “The Vote and Democracy,” Drutman shared his thoughts with an Amphitheater audience Friday at Chautauqua Institution on making a case for broader reforms to the electoral and party systems in the U.S.

Drutman said there are many problems facing democracy which include a hyper-polarized two-party system that keeps the U.S. divided and angry; a move to a multiparty democracy will stop the division; a reform is needed and is in line with American democratic traditions; and a reform is needed because the current self-reinforcing feedback loop will not break itself.

“Democracy has had a long history, and it’s a history of ups and downs. We’ve had downs before and we’ve gotten up, broadly,” Drutman said.

He noted that throughout the history of the U.S., there has been a pattern — a deep dissatisfaction with the unfairness and corruption of existing rules. He believes the U.S. headed for another transition moment in its democracy and another moment of big reform.

“Given the historical parallels, we are right on schedule, because these errors seemed to happen every 60 years or so. And the last one took place 60 years ago, so we’re kind of right on schedule,” he said.

Drutman noted 60 years ago, most politics were local and the functions of national parties were to come together every four years to say who should run for president. Both Democrats and Republicans took part in the process. Since then, he noted, the U.S. has been experiencing thermostatic politics where it gets hotter, colder, hotter, and back to colder, where neither side ever seems to quite amass enough power to actually do all that much for all that long.

“What we’ve had over the last 30 years is this constant swing back and forth,” he said about the two-party system as the core problem.

He added that the framers of America were right about self governance, where no faction should ever be in a position to dominate, and no other faction should ever have to fear permanent domination. What the framers were wrong about, he said, is that there should be no political parties.

Political parties are the essential institutions of modern mass democracy, and political parties mobilize and engage citizens, he said.

“They give us a sense of something beyond ourselves,” he added.

Drutman added, that with no political parties there may be incoherence and chaos, and maybe a collapse into authoritarianism, but with only two, very distinct, highly-nationalized parties, everything becomes all or nothing or zero sum, and that is the reason Drutman is arguing for a multi-party system.

As an example, he said, gerrymandering will not be a problem. According to dictionary.com, to gerrymander means the dividing of a state, county, etc., into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.

Drutman said that some ideas go from being on the fringe to being mainstream. Examples are allowing women to vote, the civil rights movement, and gay marriage. The process happens when people start taking ideas seriously and build a momentum.

Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He is the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America and The Business of America is Lobbying, winner of the 2016 American Political Science Association’s Robert A. Dahl Award, given for “scholarship of the highest quality on the subject of democracy.” Drutman is also the co-founder of Fix Our House (a campaign for proportional representation in the United States), co-host of the podcast “Politics in Question,” a lecturer at The Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, and writes regularly for FiveThirtyEight. He has also published numerous pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, NBC Think, and Foreign Policy, among many other outlets. He holds a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor’s from Brown University.

“Now, we are going through this real moment in this hinge point in our politics in which the old order is clearly collapsing,” Drutman said. “It’s a moment of transformation. And we’ve got to figure out how to build something new that takes the best principles of American democracy and updates them for our modern era.”


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