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interviews

The Emperor Has No Clothes

by Lee Drutman
December 31, 2020

This interview with Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America and author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Lee | I'm a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. My focus is trying to make sure American democracy doesn't self implode.

frank | In the vain of imploding American democracy, what were some of the fears held by the founders?

Well, the framers of the constitution were doing something pretty radical at the time, which was establishing a system of self-governance. At the same time, they were afraid of tyranny, the concentration of power, they were deeply afraid of division. The historical record of democracies showed they frequently collapsed in civil war as people became deeply divided. 

They thought that the organs of division would be political parties, which they had many choice words for in their writings.

We've had two political parties at the helm of American politics for a very long time. You argue that parties have changed, for the first time, into two truly distinct groups. What changed? 

I consider the mid to late 20th century to be a period of really four-party politics: liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The parties had considerable overlap ideologically. It meant that different coalitions came together to work out compromises. That created a certain amount of flexibility and fluidity that allowed Congress to function reasonably well. As Democrats became more dominantly the party of urban and cosmopolitan, Republicans became much more clearly the party of a traditionalist and ex-urban America, it became harder and harder for conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans to exist. Parties became more homogenous in Congress and leadership became stronger as a result.

It's certainly the case that there are tremendous disagreements within the Democratic party and tremendous disagreements within the Republican party. The parties themselves are still these uncomfortable coalitions, but what's different now is that those coalitions don't really have much overlap.

Which lends to this idea you write about – that parties have become much more nationally focused. Can you talk about what that means and when that shift started to happen? 

It started in the 80s and really was solidified in the 90s. Practically, it means that voters don't look at candidates as separate from their parties. It used to mean something to be an Alabama Democrat. Now, an Alabama Democrat is just a Democrat.

What most voters care about is that their party controls Congress or the White House.

Additionally, candidates are running on national issues. In the past, an Alabama Democrat would run on local issues. Now, nobody votes on local issues. Everybody wants to know, what's your stance on the Supreme Court? The Democrats are trying to tie all the candidates to Trump, Republicans are trying to tie all their candidates to Nancy Pelosi.

It seems like such a destructive situation. Parties have become very powerful as institutions, more powerful than the individuals that make them up. What is there to do when parties become dominant, top-down institutions? 

Break the two-party system. That is the thing to do. 

Let me back up for a second. We know that binary thinking is incredibly reductionist. It's an oversimplification. There's a ton of psychology, that humans have an innate tendency to reduce the world into us versus them, good versus evil, black and white. You look for a dichotomy. That is an incredibly dangerous way of thinking. It reduces the world and makes it hard for us to incorporate new information because we want to be on the right side. It makes it easier to demonize the other side by reducing to a caricature.

We have highly consequential, high stakes, very close national elections, in which a high percentage of the messaging involves describing the other party as an existential threat to the country, in which the other party is described by their most extreme positions and extreme figures. We live under a constant sense of threat, which further makes it hard for us to really think rationally about things and leads us to somewhat extreme behavior in response.

It's a very destructive way to run a democracy. You might say, well, we always have had a two-party system, so why are things so crazy now? The answer is yes, we've had a two-party system, but now we have a party system where parties are truly nationalized and stand for two very different world views. For most of our political history, the parties didn't really stand for all that much. There was considerable overlap. There were a lot of voters who could shift between the parties during elections, and also a lot of people who had friends and community members and family members who were members of the other party.

As we've increasingly only surrounded ourselves with people who share our politics, it becomes easier and easier to think of the other side as something distant and dangerous. That makes them seem like more of a threat, which then justifies more extreme rhetoric. We lose a shared sense of legitimacy in our political system: if one party is viewed as illegitimate, maybe extreme measures are justified.

We saw that intensely in this year's presidential election.

There are a lot of Republicans who believe just absolutely crazy things about what happened in the election because Donald Trump is telling them there's some crazy conspiracy.

In terms of the electorate, obviously, there are people who are true believers. But what's disturbing, is listening to somebody like Ted Cruz abandon the political platform for the individual in charge. It makes it really hard to believe they believed any of it ever, let alone now.

Well, I mean, what is reality?

Right, does it matter if Ted Cruz believes what he's saying?

Ted Cruz is an ambitious politician. He's working under the assumption that if he wants to become the next President of the United States and he wants to win the nomination for president on the Republican ticket, he needs to give credence to this grievance. If he gets out there and says, this is not what happened, you are crazy, that is going to hurt his chances of winning the Republican nomination.

I mean, anybody who's ambitious in the Republican party right now is not going to get cross wires with what they perceive as the energy in the party. It's a funny thing, because if everybody said, you know, the emperor has no clothes, then Trump would magically disappear, but in order for that to happen, everybody has to jump at once, and…

It hasn't happened yet.

That hasn't happened yet. And I think the rationale for that, if you were to ask someone like Ted Cruz, would be, "I know some of these people are a little crazy, but I think their heart's in the right place. I believe in conservative values. And I think this country would be better served if I were president. The way for me to do that is to acknowledge the grievance and then use my power for good.”

Do you think moving to a multi-party system is likely or possible?

Well, it's possible. You can see what it could look like when you look at the splits in the Republican party. You could see a potential for a center-right party that is. And on the other hand, there's not a lot of overlap between the really progressive Democrats and the moderate centrist Democrats.

We have a much more diverse political culture than the two-party system really allows us. And parties have to cobble together coalitions through negative partisanship. For example, a lot of Democrats weren't excited about electing Biden, but they were really excited about electing somebody who could defeat Trump. Similarly, people like Donald Trump, not because of his policies, but because he fights.

What holds Democrats together is the fear of Republicans taking power and what holds Republicans together is the fear of Democrats taking power. And the irony is that nobody who has taken power has ever been able to do all that much.

It is possible, but the question of is it likely is a harder one. All we're doing right now is digging a deeper and deeper trench in this zero-sum warfare we've been doing for about 30 years, in which we're devastating the landscape around us both metaphorically and literally. We are fighting for a few inches of territory that we end up giving back. It's just the definition of insanity.

There's a lot of folks on both the left and the right who think that the only way to end this craziness is just to crush the other party. But that never happens and seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, given the state of partisanship. That way of thinking is itself the problem, because if Democrats want to crush Republicans, and Republicans want to crush Democrats, it's not so much about enacting policy anymore as it is just about winning. And this is Trump's appeal. To some extent people like his policies, but a lot of conservatives really like him because he's a fighter — he's fighting the liberals and he's fighting back against the cultural establishment. At some point we all have to wake up and say, whether or not you think the other side is evil, as long as you have a two-party system, the other party is not going away. I think a multi-party system would benefit almost everybody in politics because nobody feels like they're winning under this current system. 

Every time I ask why about politicians or campaigning, the answer comes down to what you described above  – power. And it’s so dissatisfying. It’s so trite. But I guess it’s really that simple. 

With people in politics, there's some level of justification. You start out with some idea of what you want to do, and then you realize that in order to do what you want to do, you need to accumulate power. And then power and winning become everything because you spent all your time focused on that and you forget what it was you even came into politics to do.

So much of the political process is just about winning that next election. And to what end?