Can Political Innovation Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy?
It seems paradoxical that the US, which touts itself as the bastion of democracy around the world, has a political system that, at the best of times, seems to jolt along in fits and bursts of efficacy. Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter wanted to understand why, and their research flips the script of the political system on its head.
- 2019 Festival
The current US political system seems like a dysfunctional mess—if, on the rare occasion Congress manages to pass a consequential piece of legislation, it will almost assuredly be repealed when political control shifts from one of the two US political parties to another. But business leader Katherine Gehl wants you to understand the dysfunction isn’t because the system is broken. Gehl says the political system is actually operating exactly how it’s intended to:
So how can a political system be functioning properly yet deliver such dismal results for its citizens? The problem, according to Gehl, is that the needs of the US political system just don’t align with the needs of the country. The political system is designed to safeguard itself, not to champion the public interest.
Economist and Harvard professor Michael Porter set out to understand why the US is struggling to maintain a high quality of life for its citizens and a robust economy, and the results were unequivocal: bad governance directly damages US social and economic progress. The ineffective US political system produces incoherent regulation, a restrictive tax code, and a substandard quality of life.
Whether it’s through rising infant mortality rates, difficult access to higher education, or subpar economic performance, Porter says the US and its citizens are being held back by the political-industrial complex. The US government is failing in its mandate, and it’s seemingly unable to reform itself in the necessary ways.
Congressional primary elections are notoriously frequented by a small minority of highly partisan voters. Katherine Gehl explains how the primary system feeds the cycle of partisan gridlock in Congress:
When primaries are the only viable path to office in the US’ two-party system, that means eventual Congresspeople have to vote to fulfill the wishes of their primary voters or they risk losing their party’s nomination. And since Congresspeople also represent a political party whose main interest is self-preservation, these two factors combine to create an end result that doesn’t prioritize the public good.
It's time to stop thinking of our political system as a civic institution, says Michael Porter, and to start thinking of it as an industry. He explains how the two political parties operate as businesses, and the effects that has on citizens:
“The rules have been made to serve partisans, not to solve problems,” says Katherine Gehl. But the system that created our idiosyncratic rules also gives politicians the ability to change them. And that’s how political innovations like ranked choice voting can restore healthy competition in politics. Ranked choice voting, which is starting to be used by more and more states and municipalities, drastically undercuts the ability of the two major political parties to control elections.
How it works: ranked choice voting
Gehl argues that innovations that directly challenge the structure of our elections (like ranked choice voting) and our legislative process are the best hope we have. Some will take longer than others, and combating political entrenchment won’t be easy. But, says Gehl, our democracy depends on it.