We’re all being cooked

I believe nearly every American who follows politics or has political opinions at all is being “cooked” by a set of pressures caused by the media, social media, and bad voting systems; and it’s all making us a little weirder and way more tribal than we arguably should be under more natural conditions.

If you need to solve a thorny problem outside of American politics, I think you can take ten people almost at random, put them in a private room with a good lunch and basic rules, and end up with a solution that’s far better than nothing. Some days will have more contentious and heated debate, but lunch will come, they’ll at least bite at the sides of the problem if they can’t tackle it all, and they’re not going to spend their time being righteous in front of cameras.

Instead, legislatures are arenas for grandstanding, insults, owns, and walking out with glaring problems unfixed, with most everyone likely to be re-elected to do it all over again. One side can on occasion become dominant enough to get everything they want, but it will swing back and forth to please one side and anger the other. Hard problems—that only Congress can fix—don’t get addressed at all. “We’ll get everything we want next time, you have to vote harder!” What Congress really agrees on is hollowing out the legislative calendar so they don’t have to be around one another. Some of them can barely hide their disdain for Americans who think differently.

We’re putting the wrong people there and giving them bad incentives, and their behavior in the Capitol and in the media is routinely unreasonable if not loathsome, and it’s driving partisanship through the roof.

Reforming media and social media, even if we could, wouldn’t fix this. I believe there’s one path with the fewest barriers: Voting reform to get rid of First-past-the-post voting.

“You have to vote for the lesser of two evils because otherwise you’ll throw your vote away” is only true under this crummy system, which is why it’s proven to be terrible at capturing the will of voters. And, worse, it delivers candidates who don’t have to think about their duty to represent everyone in their district. So they don’t.

That system and the politics it’s created over decades has made most of us feel like we’re going crazy: Both sides are yelling “all the extremists are on the other side and how can they not see it?!”

We’re all being cooked—the people, the politicians, the media—and without powerful forces to reduce tribalism, it’s going to keep delivering more extreme, combative politicians; to keep distorting our perceptions of politicians, the media, our neighbors, and family members; to keep pushing us to pick a side on virtually everything; to keep compelling us to defend everything our team says and does.

I hold on to hope that most of the reasons we find to despise each other are caused by these forces, and that fixing voting systems can put in place some good incentives to mitigate those forces.

Let’s try that, please.

Voting Reform: The only fix I see for rising partisanship

The first-past-the-post voting systems we’ve been stuck with for too long create very bad incentives for politicians, even if they were “good people” that got into politics for all “right reasons”:

  • In negotiation, giving even an inch to the other party offers ammunition to your primary opponents, even if an available compromise would please the vast majority of citizens.
  • If your party’s base is strong enough in your district, you’ve little incentive to be nice to the other team when interacting with the media. Bad-mouthing the other team might even make you more-liked by your base.
  • The same goes for interacting with more fringe/partisan media outlets. Why not go onto some podcast or radio show that regularly demonizes the other side? The most partisan of your base will really love it.
  • Once you’ve alienated the other party’s voters completely, you need your base fired up hot to remain in office. Solving big problems does not fire up a base.
  • Your mantra eventually leads toward, “the other guys blocked us because they’re awful, but I’ll fight even harder next time!” and your base will keep sending you back.

All the above feed on each other, fooling voters into believing, “we can get everything we want once we finally demolish our opponents” instead of wondering about what could be achieved if negotiation were possible.

If any organization outside politics proposed problem-solving in a way that ran all negotiations into the ground with everyone left despising each other, it would seem absurd. That is what first-past-the-post voting yields.

One reform of many fine options is Approval Voting. The idea and implementation is simple: Same ballot, but you can vote for any and all candidates. The candidate with most votes still wins, but you no longer have to fear your vote “going to waste”. Every vote for every candidate counts.

Of course there are other solutions to reduce partisan animosity, but every other one I see faces extreme headwinds while alternatives to FPTP voting are gaining popularity. I think people are sick of choosing the lesser of two evils and ending up with someone in office that adopts more extreme measures that they’d like, or gets nothing fixed.

Really whether you can put in place Approval or STAR or Ranked Choice voting, any of these free voters to much better express their true preferences without fear, and they heavily incentivize a corner of politics to be less caustic and held hostage by extreme partisans and stalemates.