Derailing the Doom Loop
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
Parties and Dysfunctional Democracy in the U.S.
A common explanation for Donald Trump's successful presidential run in 2016 was that he tapped into the electorate's frustration with the way the federal government operates. In Trump's telling, it was necessary to "drain the swamp" of politicians and bureaucrats. Hillary Clinton, a veteran political operative, proved to be the perfect foil. Americans' exhaustion with our political system wasn't new in 2016 (although the "Giant Meteor" bumper sticker seems to have had its genesis during that election). It hasn't abated in 2020 and even Trump supporters unironically fly flags that read "No more bullshit" nearly four years after the President received his swamp-draining mandate.
A strange thing about these times is that, even as some Americans understand politics to be mired in fruitless conflict, others have adopted a new enthusiasm for political sport. Trump's campaign rallies attracted ardent fans intent on hearing their favorite performer repeat "the greatest hits." Trump's most potent applause lines were never calls to action or popular policy arguments, but invectives against his enemies. These were predictably delivered and primed to echo within information bubbles across cyberspace.
Politics has fused itself with our other identities in new and ominous ways, supplanting other social pastimes. In a recent podcast episode of "This American Life," reporter Mike Giglio recounts accompanying a group of Virginia militiamen as they toured their county's polling places (outfitted with body armor and long guns), ostensibly to confront violent leftists looking to disrupt the vote. As they drove, one of the men commented on how they used to argue about sports but now their conversations fixate on politics. Their militia might scratch the human itch for comradery, but its purpose is rooted in far-right ideology and popular myth. These real-world actions often have their origins online, where Facebook's algorithms push people further down whatever rabbit hole they are peering down. The site has become a home to political extremist groups of all stripes. The left isn't immune from these trends; politics drives more than its share of liberal virtue-signaling and "political hobbyism" (something of which I'm definitely guilty).
So how are we simultaneously disgusted by our political system's inability to solve our problems while at the same time increasingly fixated on it? These trends could both be considered symptoms of what Lee Drutman has called the partisan "doom loop." When people's myriad identities (geographical, educational, racial, etc.) all align with political party, politicians have less incentive to moderate their policies to appeal to a cross-section of voters and every reason to speak directly to their most extreme supporters. The resulting polarization enforces the status of party affiliation as a "mega-identity" (check out Ezra Klein's book "Why We're Polarized" for a more complete accounting of the U.S.'s slide into polarization). The stage is set for the "doom loop," in which parties take every opportunity to consolidate power, even when it means endless stonewalling to thwart the opposition. Drutman has written about how a lack of legislative compromise grows the power of the presidency since executive authority is increasingly the only way to get anything done:
"A stronger presidency creates higher-stakes presidential elections, which exacerbates hyper-partisanship, which drives even more gridlock. Meanwhile, as hyper-partisanship has intensified legislative gridlock, more and more important decisions are left to the judiciary to resolve. This makes the stakes of Supreme Court appointments even higher (especially with lifetime tenure), leading to nastier confirmation battles, and thus higher-stakes elections."
So partisan obstruction leads to government impotence, which results in higher stakes elections which leads to further polarization, etc.
Breaking out of the doom loop
When I first heard our situation described in this way, my first reaction was despair. There are clearly powerful incentives for parties to continue acting in ways that perpetuate the doom loop. However, there are some creative ideas that could allow us to pump the brakes. The ones that are the most interesting to me accept the existence of political parties but propose tweaks that temper their most polarizing tendencies.
My introduction to the insidious nature of parties was the Freakonomics podcast episode titled "America's Hidden Duopoly," which explores the idea of the American political party establishment as a self-reinforcing industry that benefits political players at the expense of constituents. In the podcast, Katherine Gehl, a board member of the nonpartisan advocacy group Unite America, explains her organization's approach to improving our democratic system. She advocates for ranked choice voting, single ballot primaries, and measures designed to amplify the power of small political donations. Unite America hopes that these measures will advance the candidacies of less extreme candidates.
Other thinkers, such as Lawrence Lessig, have long targeted the role of money in politics. In his book Republic, Lost, Lessig describes the "green primary" in which only those candidates who are able to attract the largest share of major donors are allowed to advance (about 0.02% of Americans make the maximum allowable contribution to political campaigns). During his 2020 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Andrew Yang proposed "democracy dollars" as a way to dilute the power of large donors. HR1, the first bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House in 2019 (but ignored by the Senate), also included policies that would multiply the monetary impact of small donations.
Some believe that reinforcing voter rights could help us escape the doom loop. HR1 would have bolstered the franchise generally with policies such as automatic voter registration, limiting partisan gerrymandering in federal elections, and improving election procedures. Stacy Abrams, the former Democratic Georgia gubernatorial candidate, has turned her attention to fighting voter suppression through her PAC, Fair Fight. Her advocacy is credited with changing the political landscape in Georgia during the runup to the 2020 election.
Grander solutions have been proposed for anti-democratic structures in our political system. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact could nullify the Electoral College, ensuring that the winner of the popular vote would win the presidency. Adding Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states could give real representation to American citizens and make the Senate more representative. The Supreme Court could be restructured in a way that accepts the existence of parties while lowering the stakes around court appointments. Ending the Senate filibuster could allow Congress to legislate with a majority in the Senate, limiting legislative stalemate and allowing government to respond to voter demands (and be judged by their responses at the polls). With continued Republican control of the Senate almost assured, these sweeping measures seem more unrealistic than ever. Current Republicans take a dim view of democratic reforms in general, as epitomized by Senator Mike Lee's infamous Tweet:
Where we are now
The aftermath of the 2020 election shows that the doom loop is alive and well. As I write this, Joe Biden has secured enough electoral votes to become president-elect. Yet President Trump has not conceded the election and most leaders in the Republican Party have chosen not to speak out against the President's unsubstantiated claims of systemic voter fraud. This disturbing fact, together with the stability of President Trump's approval rating throughout the last four years, is a testament to the simultaneous strength and weakness of our political parties. They are endlessly successful at tribalizing their adherents and demonizing members of the other party, but are helpless to censor demagogues and extremists. The Republican Party's relative silence in the face of Trump's alarming autocratic post-election behavior is only the latest evidence of this.
The anti-democratic institutions built into our government help explain why Republican leaders have no incentive to speak out against the standard-bearer of their party. The Republican Party's built-in advantage in the Electoral College and in the Senate mean that their main concern is satisfying their base. Infuriating Democrats will delight that base, strengthen their party, and increase their ability to win elections.
The Republican Party, under the spell of Trump, is currently driving the doom loop spiral. The Democrats might do no better given the chance, but that party's demonstrated interest in basic democratic ideals make them our current best hope. Let's hope that Biden's victory doesn't breed complacency. Escape from our two party doom loop is as necessary as ever and the chances of rescuing ourselves seem increasingly dim.