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Divide and Conquer?
Could the Democrats win by cracking up?
Ben Dreyfus posted a sensibly pessimistic piece about a week ago complaining that, while there’s increasing recognition of just how dire Democrats’ electoral prospects are—thanks mostly to educational polarization and its consequences for the geographic distribution of the two parties’ respective coalitions—almost nobody has any terribly persuasive ideas of what to do about it. To be fair, though, the reason nobody has a terrible persuasive idea of what to do about it is that it’s not clear what there is to do. It’s not so easy to move right, for example, when the party’s center of gravity has moved so significantly to the left. Nor is it easy to cure the problem with better information when, in fact, a lot of the problem is that voters now are better informed, and are therefore less willing to split their vote.
So I’m going to suggest something more radical, which I have suggested before: divide and conquer.
Now, the usual meaning of that phrase is “divide the enemy so you can conquer them” and I will discuss that a bit. But in this case the problem the Democrats have is not that they are divided but that they are too united—or, rather, too committed to unity—while not possessing a governing majority. They need to bring in people who are sufficiently distant from the party’s political center of gravity that they’re likely to feel out of place in the Democratic tent. Maybe those people need their own tent instead?
In a first-past-the-post system like America’s, third parties are generally spoilers, and that would certainly be true on the presidential level where only one candidate can win nationally. But statewide, congressional and local contests are a different story. There’s no reason in principle why North Dakota, say, couldn’t have two viable parties, neither of them being the Democrats. And if the second party were still to the left of the Republicans, even if significantly to the right of the Democrats, that would increase political competition while also opening up possibilities for passing the parts of the Democratic agenda that could actually obtain geographically broad popular support.
There are any number of practical objections that might be made to such an idea—but let’s assume for the moment that it actually happened. What then? Three senators arrive in Washington from a brand new party, and the first question they’ll be asked is: which party are you caucusing with? If they answer “the Democrats,” then the whole charade probably falls apart. They’d be viewed no differently from Angus King in Maine, and be readily tarnished by their association with the Democratic brand.
But what if they don’t answer “the Democrats?” What if they say, instead, “here are our demands for forming a coalition—and we’re ready to negotiate with anyone.” Now we’ve actually changed the game. In fact, changing that game first might be the best way to open up space for the kind of novel competition I’m suggesting we might need.
Consider, if you will, Joe Manchin. The senior senator from West Virginia is the bête noire of a lot of liberal Democrats despite being infinitely more friendly to them than any plausible replacement, because he refused to vote for the Build Back Better Act. They think he should have fallen into line and voted as the party leadership required. But in an alternate universe where Joe Manchin was the leader of the Mountaineer Party, and drew up a list of demands before joining in coalition with the Democrats, then there’d be no question of discipline or loyalty. There’d be negotiation, and then an expectation on both sides of fidelity to their very public agreement.
Something like that, of course, is precisely what happened in our world—except for the public part. But not being public, in turn, made it harder for either side to enforce fidelity. Manchin’s supporters claim, in so many words, that the majority leader, Senator Chuck Schumer, didn’t uphold his end of the deal. Manchin told him what his requirements were for a bill, and Schumer delivered a very different bill but still expected him to vote for it. Schumer’s folks spin things differently, but it doesn’t really matter because, in the absence of something formal and public, it’s all he-said/he-said. Nobody is actually on the hook; everyone can point fingers where they like.
What would Manchin have demanded in a public agreement? No doubt it would depend on what he thought would best help his state (and help him politically in his state) as well as how much leverage he had. In an evenly divided Senate, he’d have a lot of leverage. But the mere fact that he had that leverage might have induced other senators to consider playing the same game. Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona is one obvious candidate—but Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, is even more obvious. Once one senator did it, any others with a strong enough personal brand and sufficient distance from the national party would have a powerful incentive to go independent and drive a public bargain for forming a coalition. And any of the ones who were centrist enough to plausibly negotiate with both parties could reap outsized rewards for so.
Now consider the effect such a break would have on one-party states with scleotic leadership. To pick an example: California, whose senior senator, Diane Feinstein, just filed paperwork for reelection even though there are widespread concerns about her ability to perform the functions of her office. Who is going to challenge her? Mainstream party members are unlikely to act in such a disloyal manner, and a left-wing challenger might well lose. A Republican, meanwhile, is unlikely to stand a chance. But what about a genuine independent? Today, a senate seat probably doesn’t sound terribly appealing to most rising political stars. But if you could hold the balance of power in your hand? Well, that just might appeal to someone with sufficient fame and no sharp partisan edges. That’s how Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. Might it be how Dwayne Johnson becomes senator?
With the exception of Murkowski, all the examples I’ve given involve losses to the Democratic coalition. But if the senate genuinely became a multi-party chamber, then opportunities would surely appear on the other side of the aisle as well. In Utah, for example, Mitt Romney occupies the state’s center, with a weak majority of Republican support but also a weak majority of Democratic support and slightly higher approval from independents. Mike Lee, by contrast, has seen his support slide significantly, but retains strong support from self-described “very conservative” voters. It’s unlikely a Democrat could defeat him—but a business-oriented Beehive Party candidate might. Indeed, under the right circumstances you might get two for one, with Mitt Romney joining or even founding that party. To pick another example, Ted Cruz of Texas very nearly lost his bid for reelection in 2018 to Beto O’Rourke. Texas’s long anticipated blue shift has stalled thanks to Republican gains among Hispanic voters, but the state’s Republican Party keeps turning further and further right. Perhaps the way to end that trend is for a Lone Star party to turn the state permanently purple.
I’m not suggesting that this is a model that would work everywhere. In politically bimodal states like Iowa, or in states with restrictive ballot-access laws like New York, the existing two-party system is probably unavoidable. Nor is this some magic formula for turning the country centrist. On the contrary: the Democratic Party would likely become more unabashedly left-wing if it were clear that it really only had to appeal to voters who wanted precisely that and could still govern in coalition with a more moderate party. The electoral viability of moderate Republicans in the Northeast, after all, has hardly induced Democrats to move right. But it has given voters an alternative to the Democrats, and a check on their wildest ambitions. That’s all I’m suggesting a fractured Senate might provide: an opportunity for greater political competition in red states and a check on Republican ambitions that did not explicitly and directly empower a Democratic Party that is currently well to the left of those states’ centers.
There is one area, though, where the crackup of the partisan Senate might genuinely induce moderation: in appointments to the judiciary. The principal GOP achievement of the Trump years was the appointment of so many federal judges in addition to three Justices to the Supreme Court, and a major impetus for conservative voters to continue to vote Republican is the desire to hold onto and even expand that dominance of the judicial branch. Senate moderates like Murkowski and Manchin have been the main voices decrying this politicization and calling for a return to bipartisanship. That’s not going to happen so long as the two parties are so far apart on the kinds of nominees they would appoint. If they held the balance of power, though, Senate independents could veto nominees from either party who looked likely to try to push the judicial envelope. If they were able to hold that balance through presidents of both parties, one could imagine a situation where the norm shifted towards a judiciary that was more restrained across the board. I certainly think that would be a good thing.
The United States Senate structurally overrepresents voters from Whiter, more rural and more conservative states. This systematically biases American politics to the right. But this, in itself, is not unusual; lots of other political systems do the same. It has become a problem for the United States primarily because a right-leaning coalition has seen the opportunity to take semi-permanent control of the chamber without anything like a majority of popular support, which threatens the system’s democratic legitimacy. That’s the important dynamic to break. A left-wing party is unlikely to be able to do it. A centrist party is unlikely to be able to do it for other reasons. So maybe we need both.