Nick Troiano on Reforms to Fix American Democracy

Nick Troiano, Executive Director of Unite America, joined the podcast to talk about his recent Op-Ed in The Hill "Why America doesn't have the third party it wants."

This week on the podcast, I talked with Nick Troiano, the Executive Director of Unite America, about structural electoral reforms that could save democracy.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: You have a new column out on why America doesn’t have the third party it wants. Talk about that.

Nick: Gallup found recently, after decades of polling, a record high number of Americans, 62%—nearly two-thirds—desire a new option. And I think a good starting point is why that is. And my sense is that it's because voters left, right, and center are dissatisfied with governance, the lack of outcomes it is producing, the lack of problem solving that is happening, and they don't feel well represented by either of the two current political parties. Gallup also found recently a record high number of Americans now identify as politically independent. And so, there's a context right now in the country of dissatisfaction with our political system, and the reigning two party duopoly. Now, some think a third party is the answer, and some would disagree. My perspective at Unite America is that, if we can't get a third party, let's at least have two parties that are capable of governing, because what matters most is, can we solve the major challenges that we face. And from climate, to growing debt, to immigration, these are perennial issues that the worst thing we can do to address is nothing. They're on autopilot, and compounding with time. But that's exactly what we're getting, because of the inability of our system to actually produce the results that the country wants. And so, we need to think about, not just who we elect and the players in the game, but actually how we elect in the rules of the game, because it's the system and the incentives that dictate so much of the behavior that we see.

Matt: I think you're exactly right, I have to say 10 years ago, I would not have been as open to this argument, partly because things weren't as broken. I would have thought, look, our two-party system has been pretty good at preventing fringe candidates from getting the nomination and winning the presidency. But it didn't stop Donald Trump from becoming president. So obviously, there's a problem. The main point that I think you've clearly demonstrated is that whatever we're doing today is not good working. I might have argued about that even 10 years ago, when other people were complaining about our political parties, I would have said, “Well, look, the Founders created this system that was always going to be messy, there was always going to be gridlock, but it still better than all the other systems.” But it's harder to make that argument today, so that's one check in your favor. The next concern I have though, is the unintended consequences. We know that what we’re doing today isn’t working I'm afraid though of trying other things, what unintended consequences there might be. I guess before we delve into what those things might be, how would you answer that conservative concern? 

Nick: On the first point, I would say the problem isn't just gridlock and a lack of good governance, although that was the reason why I and others got involved 10 years ago. We noticed that a two party system worked when both parties work together, and that's no longer the case. We used to be able to do big things with big majorities, but now we only get gridlock, or one party shoving its agenda down the other's throat. That's still a problem, but the even bigger problem now is that democracy itself is threatened by the state of division and polarization in the country. Because when we're this divided, when winning becomes the only thing that matters for both parties, then the shared rules and institutions that we are supposed to value become less important—because all that matters is keeping and growing political power—because we see the other side as an existential threat. Political scientist, Lee Drutman has written extensively about this, and in his book called the Doom Loop, we're stuck in a self reinforcing downward spiral of negative partisanship, which contributes to this idea that the other side is not just folks that we disagree with, but actually an enemy, and that's a threat to the American experiment. And so that is, I think, all the more reason we should be having this conversation about structural reform.

Matt: Yeah, and I think you're right, though, I think it is structural. There's no doubt that politicians today are responding to incentives, they are not dumb. They're in the business of getting reelected, and therefore they were making rational decisions based on a messed up system. So I'm with you there. And I also know that there are certain things that we're doing, like the filibuster, that's not in the Constitution, you know, and the number to invoke cloture doesn’t necessarily have to be 60. But before I go any further, for someone who is a conservative person, I am hesitant to change. I mean, the Founding Fathers and their infinite wisdom, devised a system that has served us very well for like 250 years, and I think that they were very wise in foreseeing a lot of problems, and I'm hesitant to go against anything that they set in place. Now, we're doing a lot of things that they didn't necessarily set in place, things that have become tradition and norms for us—and it almost sounds sacrilegious to say we shouldn't be doing them this way—but a lot of the things we're doing are actually not things the Founding Fathers told us to do, they're not in the Constitution. Of the things you want to change, do they fall into the category of things where we would need to amend the Constitution, or do they fall in the category of things we started doing for random reasons?

Nick: Well, this is a good point, because I think we take for granted that the system we have today is the one that our Founders designed, and it's not true when it comes to so many of the aspects of how we run our elections. Certainly one of the things that our Founders worried about most was the division of our republic into two great factions. Washington, Adams, etc, wrote and spoke extensively about how the “mischiefs of party” they called it, would only serve to enfeebled the public administration, raise false alarms, and ultimately, pit one side against the other. We're living the Founders’ worst nightmare, in many ways. And that's because our electoral process has been designed by and for the benefit of these two factions, and not for the voters. So when we look, for example, at the way that we draw congressional districts, and the pernicious effect of partisan gerrymandering—when we look about our party primary process, and how that disenfranchises voters and distorts representation—these things aren't written into the Constitution. These are things that we invented, and in large part the parties invented, not for the benefit of the public, but to keep and maintain their own power. And so I think a lot of what we're trying to accomplish in the structural reform movement is to make the institutions our Founders designed actually work. Because, right now, our polarization is working against those institutions, not with them. 

Matt: I agree with everything you said. In the book, How Democracies Die, the authors argue that political parties performed a vital function for most of our history, which was vetting nominees. And that actually when you had smoke-filled back rooms. And it was only after reforms that democratized the nomination process that things got out of hand.

Nick: Well, I would agree that for a large part of our history that the two-party system did serve us well, and that was when there were overlapping ideological coalitions within both parties. But we've gotten to the point now, where we've self sorted into two almost mutually exclusive tribes—where geography and our demographics and ideology are now stacked on top of each other to create what Lilliana Mason and other political scientists would call “mega identities,” and so our politics is increasingly about who we are, not really about what we believe.

Matt: In the old days, you could have been a southern Democrat, who was in many ways conservative, but you were in the Democratic Party. Or you might have been a northern liberal, who was in the Republican Party. But now the parties are predictive. If you're a Republican, you're probably an older white, non-college educated, Christian dude, who lives in a rural area, and if you're a Democrat, you're probably none of those things.

Nick: Right. And in fact, after the last presidential election, there's a good analysis that could predict people's votes, with an absurd amount of accuracy, based on their proximity to either a Whole Foods or a Cracker Barrel. That’s how culturally sorted we've become. And that's where there's a real challenge in how our republic can continue to function as divided as we are today. So our argument is not against parties. In fact, people make a good argument why we need strong parties. But the idea is that, because of our electoral system right now, it's actually just the base of both parties, the most extreme wings, that have disproportionate power in both [parties], and therefore in our politics. 

Matt: I want to turn to some of the reforms that you're championing in a minute. But first, explain to me why the sorting is bad. Why is it problematic that we have these strong brands—that a Republican is always this and a Democrat is always that? 

Nick: The short answer is because we're humans. And the way that we're wired is to see us versus them. That's how we've survived as a species for thousands of years. And so, whenever we put things into a binary, black and white zero-sum context, we ignite all of those are tribal tendencies in human nature. And it becomes much more difficult to see the other person as another human, as someone who has valid beliefs, and as someone that we might want to compromise with. That's why it makes the task of governance so much harder, when the whole point of government is to narrow our differences to solve problems. And the main problem in our politics today is that it's doing the exact opposite. And again, this goes back to the incentive structure. No longer are most of our politics oriented around competing for those voters in the center, it's actually quite the opposite. It's how do you raise the stakes to feed and turn out your base. And that's how we wind up with the division and the dysfunction that we see so much today.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.