The Costs of Polarization and How to Reduce Them

The leading Democratic candidate for governor in my state, one of the worst governed in the union, is running continuous advertisements on the music service to which I listen. The message is unvarying: he will be a leader of the Trump resistance, creating a firewall against his agenda.  While members of Congress have substantial power to resist the President’s agenda, a governor’s powers are very limited in this regard.  Unlike the Attorney General of Illinois, the Governor even lacks the power to sue Trump over his policies.

No doubt his campaign advisers have recommended this course to take advantage of radical polarization of our time and position himself for election in very blue Illinois.  But such cynical ploys have costs to political governance. Any reasonable observer would stay that Illinois faces huge challenges, including its structural defecit, its mounting debt, its near junk bond rating, and its unaffordable state pensions. But this candidate may well be able to get elected by ignoring them even on his website and  instead protesting Trump. As a result the serious issues over which the governor actually has substantial influence will get much less vetting, making it harder to prepare the state for painful choices that any governor will face. My point is emphatically not itself a partisan one. I am sure candidates for governor in very red states ran similarly cynical advertisements when Obama was President.

Our era of radical polarization makes it more important than ever to create two kinds of reforms—electoral reforms that give more power to those who are not swept up in polarization and government reforms that reduce the political causes of polarization.

1. Require all candidates to run in a common primary where the top two advance to the general election. Top two primaries give more leverage to voters in the middle.  Primary candidates would then have to appeal to independents and even moderates in the other party, forcing them to talk about salient issues rather those that rouse the partisan passions of those who dominate partisan primaries.

2. Second, get more good policy predictions into political discourse. Arguing about which governor will create more economic growth for the state beats beating partisan dead horses. For a long time, I have argued that the United States and states themselves should remove the roadblocks to these markets.

3. Reduce the amount of policy set by the federal government compared to the states. Much polarization comes from national policies that majorities in some parts of the country cannot abide.

4. Even within policies that should be national, reduce how much of that policy is determined by administrative fiat rather than legislation. Legislation requires more compromise. Administrative fiat allows partisans of both sides to achieve their maximalist position when their President is in power. Witness the moves back and forth on net neutrality and more generally on labor policy as set by the NLRB. Reducing the gains from winning the Presidency lowers the national political temperature, allowing more informed and deliberative discussion.

Reader Discussion

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on December 19, 2017 at 09:40:59 am

The primary problem with "top two" primaries is vote splitting when one party runs a lot more candidates than the other. For instance in Washington's 2016 primary for state treasurer, here is how the results turned out:
Republican A 25.09% Top 2
Republican B 23.33% Top 2
Democrat A 20.36% Defeated
Democrat B 17.97% Defeated
Democrat C 13.24% Defeated

But if you add up the total Rep/Dem votes you get 48.42% Republican votes to 51.57% Democratic votes. Presumably the democrats would rather any of the three democrats get elected over any of the republicans. So you end up with a candidate who wins when a majority would rather another candidate win.

No, the best way to do this is with preference voting. That way you can have a #1 pick, and pick a second choice if your #1 pick doesn't make it. Eliminate the lowest vote getters first and move those people's votes to their 2nd choice until only 2 candidates remain.

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Devin Watkins
on December 19, 2017 at 10:52:43 am

"structural deceit?"

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Melvin Foster
on December 19, 2017 at 12:00:33 pm

Yep, but it is even worse that that. In some cases, "top two" simply means "Which Democrats" will run in the election? - and that has proven to be the case in both statewide and municipal elections within Washington State (then again, look to California for the "benefits" of top-two).

Moreover, in places such as Seattle that has had "citywide" rather than district elections for CouncilMember, combining that with top-two provides even greater assurance that ONLY Democrats will survive into the General election.

But, to my mind, the real problem is that top-two reduces the influence of Party (properly understood) and allows the most active (read: SJW's) to dominate the election and primary. Contra McGinnis, top teo DOES NOT provide a greater or consistent voice to the "middle" - it simply further enables the activist left to have its choice of Left or even more Left.

Me, I'll go back to "smoke-filled rooms" where at least, the purchase of tobacco products being restricted to those over the age of 18, there were some GROWNUPS in the room.

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on December 19, 2017 at 21:18:38 pm


Are you talking about Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party (2008)? But that was authored by Justice Thomas, so it [top two] must be a conservative republican idea, right? And the dissent was written by Justice Scalia, so the opposing point of view must also be a conservative republican idea, right? Funny how we always end up back with conservative republican ideas in America . . .

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on December 20, 2017 at 10:58:38 am


shouldn't that be "Kozinski-ON-a-sled" - as it appears he is high-tailing it out of there?

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on December 22, 2017 at 12:33:34 pm

Why should people resist? Because R donors blackmailed legislators into enacting an atrocious bill that blows up the deficit and borrows $400B from our children to hand directly to foreign investors. Lindsey Graham even admitted that if they didn’t give the donors a fat tax cut, the donors would cut off their allowance.

The bill was a fraud from the outset. The tax cuts were front-loaded, providing an artificial Keynesian stimulus to make the average American think that they hadn’t been had. The real goal of the Ryan/Paul wing of the Republican Party is to abolish Social Security and Medicare. Paul Ryan is the Karla Faye Tucker of American politicians, who seems to derive orgasmic bliss at the thought of Grandma choking on dog food while freezing in the dark.

Resistance is basic humanity. Common decency.

And there is a simple solution for the Bribery Yields Fantastic Returns Act of 2017: Fix it at the state level.

What is to stop CA from imposing a 20% corporate tax, apportioned on the basis of sales? Or NY, imposing a 70% estate tax?  Or FL, imposing a hefty surtax on tax-favored pass-through income when it flips blue (200,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, and they will remember how they were treated) in 2018?  State tax regimes can be progressive as they want to be, and the 10Am ties DC's hands.  Property taxes, recapture of non-economic depreciation--the power to tax is the power to destroy, and the people can put oligarchs like the Donald, the Kochs, Bob Mercer (who lives in NY), and many of their friends in the poorhouse (relatively speaking).

One of the tools would be an anti-flight provision--an expatriation tax, similar to 26 U.S.C. 877 (it could be constitutionally sketchy, but you can try).  Another is to pierce the corporate veil in the case of closely-held companies, taxing the Kochs on hard assets they hold in Blue States in corporate solution at a 70% rate for estate tax purposes.  You can write the law to tax the last dollar of the estate, as opposed to the first--so that there's nowhere to run.

States can also impose a 10% surtax on dividends and capital gains, coupled wth an intangibles tax, to pay for CHlP and fund the state exchanges. And why not a 50% state tax on hedge fund income? The possibilities are limited only by legislative creativity.

Sell it as a realignment of the state tax code to secure maximum advantage for the citizenry upon implementation of the BYFR Act.  lf the Blue States (including FL, and other places likely to flip) acted in concert, they could put the Koch cartel in a worse place than where they are.

Governors can lead. The person who first suggested this approach publicly was a Republican.

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