The signs of the potential death of our democracy are beginning to add up. The situation has grown stark enough to get Damir, our resident contrarian, to wonder if he’s been too glib about the state of our politics and if an inflection point might be approaching.
I tend to agree with the assessment that our democracy is in danger. It doesn’t feel inherently political to point out that the former president, and the party he has a stranglehold on, have undermined the integrity of our elections.
In his recent piece for the January issue of The Atlantic, George Packer argues:
Nothing has aided Donald Trump more than Americans’ failure of imagination. It’s essential to picture an unprecedented future so that what may seem impossible doesn’t become inevitable.
What strikes me most about this moment isn’t the lack of imagination for how things could go south, but rather a lack of imaginative proposals for getting out of this predicament. Packer’s proposed solution to the crisis is hardly distinguishable from the strategy of a typical election. He argues America must assemble a coalition of the center-right and the left, set aside their differences, prioritize the greater good, and do the humdrum hard work of politics on the local level.
In fairness to Packer, we at Wisdom of Crowds haven’t been a bastion of imaginative solutions either. When this conversation came up during one of our most recent podcasts, Shadi said, “I just have a kind of faith that we're going to muddle through.” Damir, who doesn’t believe it’s a writer’s job to offer solutions, wasn’t inclined to hypothesize a way to wriggle out of this mess. While our mission at Wisdom of Crowds is to interrogate our own beliefs rather than persuade and win arguments, perhaps we should examine whether the potential demise of American democracy shouldn’t merit an exception.
Of course, it’s not just political pundits exhibiting a lack of imagination for how we could avoid democratic catastrophe. The Democratic Party hasn’t offered any inspiring solutions either. Despite framing this election as—the most important election of our lives (again)—their proposed solution is the same old playbook. Increase turnout, pass some voting rights laws, and elect Democrats. To the dismay of Americans who want America to remain a democracy, this underwhelming plan to save democracy doesn’t seem to be going well.
Recent polling foreshadows significant troubles ahead for Democrats—this seemingly spurred writer Matt Yglesias to tweet:
This was not my preferred course of action, but one highly effective response to the GOP threat to steal elections that Democrats have hit on is becoming unpopular so they'll likely lose fair and square.
While I’d argue that one shouldn’t feel relieved if a party threatening to steal an election retakes power, his point is well taken. The Democratic Party is not very good at politics—the fact that we are in this position is evidence enough. The Republican Party was only able to get to its current state because Democrats were not able to punish it at the ballot box. If our democracy is on the line, it seems absurd to place all of our chips on a strategy that relies upon Democrats winning elections.
This brings me back to our failure of imagination.
If the current iteration of the Republican Party is an existential threat and Democrats are unable to defeat it reliably, perhaps it’s time for new blood. While the assertion that we need more political parties might seem naive to people who spend their days engrossed in politics, it is a popular sentiment amongst the electorate. According to Gallup, as of February 2021, 62% of Americans say a third party is needed—including 63% of Republicans. Changing the rules to allow more viable parties to emerge is relatively easy (in theory, if not necessarily in practice). As Francis Fukuyama puts it, “replacing our current plurality voting with RCV will facilitate the emergence of third parties by eliminating wasted votes or strategic voting.” Passing a bill like the one proposed by Democrats in 2019, requiring states to use ranked-choice voting to elect candidates for federal office, would open the field for more viable political parties.
Of course, RCV would not act as a silver bullet to this looming threat—no policy proposal would. And ranked-choice voting might prove to be a wholly ineffective solution. I only mention it here as an example of how we need to begin thinking outside of our current constraints.
If electing Democrats is our only solution on the table, we are doomed. We live in a two-party system, and Americans like to vote against the party in power. The reality that Packer’s imagined center-right and left coalition needs to understand: this Republican Party is going to retake power—and probably soon.
If the next presidential election is indeed a democratic emergency, then it is time for us to break the glass and reach for the fire extinguisher—whatever that may be.