RBG and Democracy’s Downward Spiral

RBG and Democracy’s Downward Spiral

It’s a shame we can’t simply honor the incredible life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

And it’s one hell of a messed up system in which the death of one judge will likely trigger an existential crisis for our entire judicial system.

Yet here we are.

It’s very clear what’s going to happen now:

  • We know President Trump will nominate a replacement that stands for the opposite of everything Justice Ginsberg stood for.
  • We know Mitch McConnell will do everything in his (formidable) power to successfully install this replacement on the Supreme Court as quickly as possible.
  • And we know Democrats will be furious at this shockingly hypocritical double standard, following the shenanigans employed in 2016-17 to deny President Obama the opportunity to nominate a replacement for Justice Scalia.

Sure, we don’t know yet if enough Republican senators will balk at this power grab and delay the vote. (Two have already done so; four are necessary.) Nor do we know yet if Democrats will “pack the Court” (i.e., add 2 or more additional liberal justices to the Court) if they win both the presidency and the Senate in November.

But honestly, these are just details.

The real significance of this event is that it’s another dangerous escalation in the “two-party doom loop” that’s going to destroy our democracy if it’s not stopped.

A Short History of the Two-Party Doom Loop

The premise of the doom loop is very simple:

  • Increasingly, both Republicans and Democrats are unwilling to work together, and willing to do anything and everything within their power to get their way.
  • Increasingly, both Republicans and Democrats are resorting to not-illegal-but-largely-unprecedented-and-sketchy tactics to get their way (or stop the other party from getting its way): government shutdowns, threatened debt limit defaults, dubious executive orders, filibuster reform, impeachments, etc.
  • Increasingly, Washington is consumed by gridlock, extraordinary power grabs, and extraordinary obstructionist tactics.
  • And increasingly, the voter bases of both parties are actively encouraging their politicians to engage in these tactics to get their way (because, of course, our preferred party is just engaging in these tactics to stop the other party from fighting dirty and destroying the country, right?)

You can trace the origins of the doom loop back to the government shutdowns and impeachment of President Clinton in the 1990s. As early as 2004, legal scholars were warning that both parties were increasingly playing “Constitutional hardball:” discarding the norms of good governance that weren’t enshrined in the Constitution but had emerged over time through informal understandings, in favor of any politically advantageous behavior that happens to increase their power in the moment.

People don’t realize the Constitution is a fairly short document. There’s an awful lot that’s not covered in it, that isn’t expressly sanctioned or forbidden. Past lawmakers avoided government shutdowns, frivolous impeachments, and holding Supreme Court justices hostage because a) they knew it wasn’t good for the country, and b) they feared voter backlash.

But in our current era of hyperpartisanship, these sorts of tactics aren’t punished at the ballot box, because we’re so invested in our party winning and getting to implement its agenda. If we have to engage in scummy behaviors to right the wrongs of the other party, we reason, so be it.

We will lose our democracy if we don’t disrupt this vicious cycle

That’s not just my belief. That’s the consensus of other social scientists like me. It’s happened in other countries, like Venezuela and Argentina, and it can easily happen here.

In fact, with each escalation, each tit-for-tat reprisal, and each passing day that urgent problems go unaddressed due to our partisan quagmire, the odds that we’ll lose our democracy are increasing. More and more Americans are adamant that their party needs to win. More and more Americans are encouraging their party to ignore democratic precedent and do anything technically legal to get their way.

Democrats are going to try to cook something up to stop Republicans from filling Ginsberg’s seat with a conservative. They may or may not succeed. If they don’t, you can be certain they’ll play Constitutional hardball the next chance they get. And if they do, you can be certain that Republicans will howl just as loudly as the Democrats are howling now.

Neither side has any moral high ground, except within its own ranks. Neither side is going to give up. And unless we figure out a way to disrupt this vicious cycle, we’re going to end up with a nation comprised of two roughly even voter blocs clamoring for their own vision of a “just” autocracy.

Regardless of which party wins, the American people will lose.

What can we do to prevent this?

Again, there’s a consensus among social scientists like myself: electoral reform.

We need to make drastic changes in how we elect our officials. Lee Drutman, the political scientist who coined the phrase “two-party doom loop,” for example, advocates such changes as ranked-choice voting, campaign finance reform, multi-member districting, ending Congressional primaries, and increasing the size of the House of Representatives.

Solutions like these may seem radical. But we know how democracies die. They don’t die through splashy revolutions or coups. They die slowly, through would-be dictators exploiting divisions among voters and loopholes in the law to consolidate their power. It happened in Russia. It’s happening in Turkey. And we are absolutely heading down that road.

Many of Drutman’s proposed solutions have already been successfully implemented in other countries.  Some have even been successfully implemented in the U.S., at the state level. Maine, for instance, already uses ranked-choice voting in its elections.

There are better ways to do democracy. Ways that encourage more diverse parties, greater collaboration, and fairer outcomes.

But, of course, there’s a big problem …

How do we realistically make these reforms happen?

The missing piece of the puzzle isn’t what to do. It’s how to make it happen.

Even fantastic scholars like Drutman, who have thought about this as much as anyone, struggle to solve this conundrum. The most optimistic scenario that he lays out in the final chapter of his book requires lots of death and suffering before cooler heads in our two parties prevail.

I don’t know about you … but I don’t want to wait that long!

Nor do I want to have to trust these craven, self-interested politicians to wake up and fix democracy on their own!

I want to make the politicians change. And I want to do it now.

Obviously, it’s too late to avoid the struggle over RBG’s seat. It’s also too late to avoid whatever crises may emerge from contesting the 2020 election. But what if we could start dismantling the two-party system in 2021? What if, by the 2022 and 2024 cycles, the American people could already be taking our power back from the two-party duopoly that’s so expertly pitted us against each other?

That’s the plan I lay out in Chapter 4 of my #1 Amazon best-selling book

Because fixing our broken politics isn’t just a matter of preserving our democracy. It’s also going to determine whether we can rein in the excesses of global capitalism, slow down global warming, continue to promote human rights around the world, and so much more.

So much about the outcome of the coming decades depends upon whether or not we Americans can fix our broken political system.

That’s why I embarked on my own quest to figure out how to do it realistically and as quickly as possible. I describe how, using a few basic principles, the American people can create a large, cross-party coalition that can convincingly beat the Democratic and Republican parties, and implement the electoral reforms we so desperately need in order to pull ourselves out of the two-party doom loop.

Take a look, if you haven’t already. (It’s only $2.99 on Amazon.) This isn’t a book only for Democrats or only for Republicans. It’s a book for Republicans and Democrats who see where this vicious cycle of hyperpartisanship is taking us, and want to know how to disrupt it before it’s too late.