I tried watching the Democratic debate prior to Super Tuesday. By the first commercial, I suspected the Democrats were driving the same clown car the Republican candidates drove in 2016. I thought the GOP owned that jalopy—or rented it from Ringling Brothers. I hoped Ol’ 45 had blown its engine for good. Apparently, there is a red model and an equally dilapidated and defective blue model.
Any of the Democratic Party’s candidates would be a step up from Ol’ 45, but none of them seem to be able to overcome the rattles, wheezing, and bald tires of their blue clown car. Elizabeth Warren is brilliant. Bernie Sanders is passionate. Everyone else is at least competent. But the clown car doesn’t care. Barack Obama aside, it typically responds to celebrity, shouting and cold, hard cash more than intelligence, commitment and competence. If the clown car itself isn’t bad enough, candidates who try to step out of the car and present creative non-partisan solutions get stomped on by blue donkeys and red elephants parading about the ring.
I went to sleep wondering what made the circus so dismal. Was it the lack of biodiversity of circus animals? Or the state of the clown car itself?
The day after the debate, I listened to a podcast and drove to work past red and blue campaign signs. The podcast helped provide some possible answers about the circus and clown car (“Freakonomics Episode 356: America’s Hidden Duopoly”). It examined the political system as if it were an industry with only two manufacturers providing defective products and poor customer service, and colluding to make the rules and prevent healthy competition. Hence a duopoly.
John Adams said, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and concerting measure in opposition to each other.”
George Washington mentioned two major threats to the Republic: “foreign influence” and “partisanship.”
The podcast draws on Gehl and Porter’s work, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America” (Harvard Business School, September 2017), and suggests we have developed a system that is exactly what many founding fathers feared might destroy their Republic. Bigger than Russian collusion is the problem of collusion between the red and blue teams. Gehl and Porter point out the Democratic and Republican parties (and their moneyed interests) have a stranglehold on the political process from dogcatcher to president. It’s destroyed healthy competition in the political industry.
It might seem Ol ’45 is the exception to the rule—that he somehow broke the duopoly. Ol’ 45 is about as Republican as Vladimir Putin. Ol’ 45 was forced to put an “R” on his ugly supersized orange jersey in order to be a viable candidate in 2016.
Like Ol’ 45, Mike Bloomberg has been both Democrat and Republican. Even though most voters would prefer an independent, the reason neither Ol’ 45 nor Mike Bloomberg can run outside a party is because they would have practically zero percent chance of winning.
Gehl and Porter offer two particularly creative solutions for breaking the duopoly and restoring healthy competition. Non-partisan primaries would winnow the candidate field and reduce the power of the two-party system. California and Washington State use “blanket” primaries now. The general election would use a rank-choice process. On November 6, 2018, after significant opposition from both the Republican and Democratic party machinery, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting in a statewide general election for U.S. Senate and House.
Gehl and Porter offer several ideas we could try out in North Carolina, including instituting nonpartisan redistricting, opening up debate rules for elections, and reducing the enormous power of the majority party to control the process of governing after elections. None of their good ideas will happen until we shift our focus from who is winning the right to drive the clown car to changing the rules of the road.
It’s time we junk the jalopy for a more sophisticated model.