Americans across all political ideologies agree on one thing: Our current two-party political system is broken. According to the new NBC/WSJ poll (PDF), only a tiny minority–15 percent–think our two-party system works fairly well. Fifty-two percent say it has real problems but can work with some improvement, and 31 percent think it is seriously broken and that we need a third party.
A full 83 percent of Americans say our political system needs significant improvements. The question is, what are the sources of the problem and how do we fix it? There are three core causes corroding our democracy: money, lack of accountability and zero-sum politics.
So much damn money
Money corrupts. It costs a lot of money to run for office and, more important, members of Congress have the ability to spread around huge amounts of money. This means a few hundred million dollars invested in campaign donations and lobbying can result in the return of billions in federal money, at the expense of taxpayers. The negative influence of so much money in politics is evident in almost every legislative battle and breaking news story. It’s no wonder the majority of people think both parties in Congress are more concerned about the interests of large corporations (PDF) than of regular Americans.
The solution: public financing
Attempts to keep money out of politics have failed and been ruled unconstitutional. The only solution is voluntary public financing of federal elections. In this system, honest politicians can get sufficient public funding to remain viable against candidates with big corporate backing. The proposed Proposition 15 will give California voters a chance to make a small step in the right direction. While not perfect, the proposed Fair Elections Now Act would help too.
It is not an issue of whether elections will soak up money. The choice is, do we want politicians to get their campaign money from a nonpartisan public system or by begging rich CEOs whose profits depend on politicians passing laws in their interest?
Lack of accountability
Our system of single-member districts with plurality winners creates many problems. It inherently drives us to a two-party system by suppressing third parties and independent candidates due to fear of the spoiler effect. This creates the problem of super-safe districts and gerrymandering, drawing district lines to reduce competitive races. We are one of the few nations foolish enough to let politicians draw their own districts. The result is that in 2008, more than one third of Congressional districts had zero competitiveness. These safe seats destroy accountability by making it almost impossible to dislodge incumbents.
The solution: independent redistricting
Giving the responsibility of redistricting to nonpartisan boards should be the first step. It would reduce but not eliminate safe seats.
The problem with a two-party system is that it produces zero-sum politics. Both parties spend their time tearing each other down, with the goal being to look slightly less terrible than the other party. Our system prevents other viable, third-party candidates from emerging to capitalize when Republicans and Democrats have equally turned off voters. That creates an incentive not to be the better party–just the less-hated one.
Solution: election-law reform
The only way to deal with safe seats and zero-sum politics is to allow for victories by more than the two major political parties. Multi-member districts with proportional representational would deal with both issues but can’t be used for Senate races. Instant runoff voting, or even quick runoff elections, would increase viable third-party and independent candidates by eliminating the fear of the spoiler effect. It should also help reduce the safe-seat problem by enabling challengers in areas that are too overwhelmingly conservative or liberal for the other major party to compete.
The problems persist for a reason
Most Americans know our political system is broken and needs reform. There might not be broad support for some of these solutions. But there should be significant support for the less-controversial ones, like taking away from politicians the ability to redraw their own districts and reducing the influence of corporate money in elections.
The biggest hindrance to reform is members of Congress, who have the greatest power to change the system yet benefit from its dysfunction. The odds against reform are long—but they get even longer if we don’t demand it.