All right, I need to vent. For months, I’ve watched Donald Trump decry as “rigged” everything from the Democratic primaries, the Republican primary rules (that’s right, the same rules that helped him win the nomination) and the fall debate schedule. And I’ve winced as many Bernie Sanders supporters have accused the Democratic National Committee of “rigging” the primaries and thrown around wild, roundly debunked conspiracy theories about deleted votes.
Here’s the truth: Washington is rigged, but not in a literal sense and not in any of the nefarious ways those loud voices are contending. Instead, the blame may lie more with voters than politicians: Our legislative process is not designed to withstand the current levels of partisan polarization in the electorate.
Voters’ vexation with standard-issue, do-nothing D.C. politicians and party elites helps explain the Trump and Sanders phenomena of 2016, and the “rigging” theories seem to arise out of that frustration and suspicion. Yet much of this anger with “insiders” is misdirected. If only our political problems were due to “rigging” elections, we could arrest someone and get on with it. But our problems are much more structural.
In 2012, my colleague Nate Silver wrote: “Why is compromise so hard in the House? Some commentators, especially liberals, attribute it to what they say is the irrationality of Republican members of Congress. But the answer could be this instead: Individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives.” That’s truer than ever: When narrow primary bases dominate elections, everyone loses. And politicians as a whole get blamed.
Sure, many politicians on both the right and left fan the flames of partisan hysteria and feed off their base’s fire — and they tend to get disproportionate attention. But in my experience, most candidates and officeholders don’t see the world as red versus blue: They genuinely run for office to solve problems, not to please special-interest groups or for self-glorification. Unfortunately, they increasingly find themselves trapped in a voter-driven vicious cycle that shows no sign of abating.
Here are the five steps to how it works:
1. Geographic sorting — Voters tend to cluster near other people who share their cultural and political values, and the parties’ coalitions have become far more geographically isolated in recent decades. In the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election, 52 percent of the nation’s voters lived in states decided by 5 percentage points or less. In the 2012 Obama-Romney race, just 17 percent of all voters lived in such states.
As a corollary, there are far fewer truly competitive congressional districts. Just 90 of 435 House districts had a Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index score, an attempt to measure the partisan lean of an area independent of the candidates on the ballot, between D+5 and R+5, down 45 percent from 164 in 1998.
Sure, gerrymandering has played a role in the House, but sorting is the dominant factor: In the impossible-to-gerrymander Senate, the number of seats with a score between D+5 and R+5 has declined from 52 in 1998 to 28 today.
2. Straight-ticket voting — Voters are splitting their tickets — voting for a Republican for one office and a Democrat for another — at lower rates than we’ve seen in decades. They’re just not making distinctions between parties’ presidential and congressional candidates like they used to. The decline of local news readership probably plays a role — after all, these outlets have traditionally provided an avenue for candidates to build a personal brand independent of their party’s.
In turn, that’s further narrowing the trading range of Senate and House seats that are truly up for grabs in November. Even a 53 percent Democratic district or 54 percent Republican district can now be considered a safe seat in most cases. Most races are no longer contests between two candidates with unique backgrounds and qualifications; more often they are censuses of how many Republicans or Democrats live in a given state or district.
3. Primaries have become the new general elections — The Cook Political Report currently rates just 37 of 435 House seats as competitive this fall, less than 9 percent of the House. As a result, primary elections have become tantamount to general elections in the vast majority of seats. Because primaries are held on many different dates, they tend to generate less national attention and attract disproportionate shares of hardcore, ideological party activists to the polls.
In 2014, only 14.6 percent of eligible voters participated in congressional primaries — a record low, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. That means a tiny fraction of voters who are the most hardened partisans are essentially electing more than 90 percent of members of Congress. And these low-turnout primaries are often easy prey for ideological interest groups who demand purity.
4. Congress grinds to a halt — The enormous pressure to please narrow, extreme and grossly unrepresentative bases of primary voters has straitjacketed members who would otherwise be willing to collaborate across the aisle, ditch talking points or behave in a way that reflects their true conscience. No one wants to risk alienating their base unnecessarily for fear of becoming the next Eric Cantor.
One vehemently anti-Trump GOP member recently confessed to me that the NRCC, his party’s campaign committee, had pressured him not to declare #NeverTrump until after his state’s candidate filing deadline had passed, for fear that his stance would generate a primary challenge on the right and jeopardize the seat. My hunch is that some GOP members will be more willing to speak out against their nominee after their primaries pass.
The big picture, however, is that the tyranny of primaries has turned Congress into a legislative graveyard. The last two full Congresses, the 112th and 113th, were the two least productive in history. Last week, federal officials confirmed the first local transmission of the Zika virus in Florida, yet Congress is still struggling to pass emergency funding because of partisan squabbling over abortion and environmental regulations.
5. Anger at politicians grows — Every year, legions of candidates take to the airwaves with trite tropes about how “Washington is broken” and how they can fix it, in most cases by just fighting the other party harder. But most candidates end up contributing to the very problem they’re decrying. When no one gets anything they want and Congress can’t address basic problems, voters grow even more disillusioned with D.C. and hungrier for an outsider.
This has been especially true among Republican primary voters, who hold their own leaders in contempt for having fallen short of overturning President Obama’s agenda after hearing overzealous campaign promises in 2010 and 2014. So while Hillary Clinton was barely able to turn back an insurgent in the Democratic primaries, Trump was able to co-opt the entire GOP by capturing 14 million votes from a pool of 220 million eligible U.S. voters.
How do we escape this insidious cycle of polarization? I have no easy solutions. But it might be time for a national conversation about how we can structurally modernize our system of elections to incentivize bipartisanship instead of fringe behavior. I tend to think redistricting reform is a bit overrated and primary reform is underrated. Left untouched, our politics will reach a breaking point — maybe we’re already there. And ultimately, voters get the government they deserve.