A Remedy For Undemocratic Democracy

A shift to proportional representation in the U.S. would open up new possibilities — not just on guns, but on climate, immigration and democracy itself.

Liam Warr

Lee Drutman is the author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.” He is a senior fellow at the think tank New America, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, co-host of the podcast Politics in Question and the co-founder of Fix Our House, a campaign for proportional representation in America.

After every mass shooting in the U.S., there’s a familiar cycle: Grief, outrage and frustration, followed by helplessness and the predictable sinking feeling that it will happen again, and soon, because our political system is incapable of doing something — anything — to stop it. Comparable democracies — Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom — have passed common-sense gun reforms in the wake of mass shootings. But in the U.S., even the most marginal of meager reforms are fraught and controversial.

It doesn’t seem to matter that majorities of Americans support common sense gun reform, or that majorities of Americans vote for the party that promises common sense gun reform. Even majority support is not enough to pass national laws in what has become an anti-majoritarian system. Especially when those majorities support Democrats, nothing happens.

It is easy for supporters of gun control to feel like there is nothing that could break through. Republicans seem more convinced than ever that everything but the guns is the problem. And the necessary filibuster-busting majorities in the Senate feel out of reach for Democrats anytime soon.

The path to sensible gun reform isn’t just to elect more Democrats, lobby Republicans harder or donate to gun reform groups. We need to understand why, despite shooting after shooting, the prospects for meaningful national gun reform just seem to grow more dispiriting. We need to understand why we keep banging our heads into the same brick wall and winding up with the same dizzying concussions.

The way out involves the political system itself — namely, our binary two-party system and the single-member district electoral system that preserves it. Change that, and new possibilities open up. Not just on guns, but on almost every other issue that is gridlocked and divided now for the same reason. Climate. Immigration. Democracy itself.

If we break the binary and open up the party system by switching to multi-member districts with seats allocated through proportional representation (like most advanced democracies in the world already have), we can scramble and realign the divides that prevent progress on so many issues. It’s a straightforward solution that doesn’t require a constitutional amendment.

And as a bonus, it would have a bunch of other benefits as well, such as ending gerrymandering and increasing voter turnout (since under proportional representation, every vote would matter, motivating voters to show up to the polls at greater rates).

“The way out involves the political system itself — namely, our binary two-party system and the single-member district electoral system that preserves it.”

Now imagine, for a second, if instead of deciding between Democrats and Republicans this November, voters were instead choosing between six parties, representing a broader array of perspectives on a broad range of issues. Likely, there would be one hard-right MAGA party, which would also be the staunch gun rights party. But such a party would top out at around 20% — not enough to control anything on its own.

Other parties on the political right would be more open to modest gun reforms, since there would now be parties on the right that compete for voters in the professional class suburbs and even cities. In a proportional, multi-party system, politics is not zero-sum. Parties can work together. In fact, they have to work together.

New parties would supply new and innovative solutions and new compromises. In a strict duopoly, there is little imperative to innovate and a strong imperative to keep politics one-dimensional.

The fastest way to proportional representation would be for Congress to pass a law, which it could do tomorrow. Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress wide latitude in deciding the rules for its own elections, a power Congress has used throughout American history. Indeed, the only reason we use single-member districts today is because Congress mandated it. Congress could mandate five-to-seven member districts (as possible) and could also increase the size of the House (ideally to 700). The Senate is a more difficult problem, but starting with reform in the House is likely to open up new possibilities as the binary breaks up.

Proportional representation may seem like a long shot, but we’re in a strange political moment. The system itself has become the problem. But because the system itself is now the problem, it is also ripe for reform.

It is, of course, well-known that hyperpartisan polarization is a problem in American politics, in large part because of the way it triggers this ancient us-vs-them circuits in our brains that shut down rational thought and put us into fight-or-flight mode. It is less well-understand how it became such a big problem, because on the surface, our institutions have not changed.

Indeed, for a long while, the two-party system functioned well enough within American political institutions because it contained overlapping multitudes, driven by regional differences that cut across the parties. In hindsight, we had something like a four-party system for much of the second half of the 20th century, with liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats operating as distinct factions alongside conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

In this four-party system, coalitions were ever-shifting, and cross-partisan compromise was the norm — both because there were real points of ideological agreement across the parties and because many voters were open to either party. This meant that Congress could tackle pressing problems with bipartisan support. The major civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965, for example, both passed with overwhelming majorities within both of the two parties.

But civil rights set in motion a slow realignment of American politics, and starting in the 1990s, this multidimensional, multi-factional politics collapsed into a more one-dimensional, us-versus-them partisan politics.

There were three main reasons for this flattening. First, the two political parties became much more clearly sorted by geography and ideology. Southern and rural conservative Democrats vanished from Congress, replaced by much more conservative Republicans. Coastal and suburban moderate and liberal Republicans vanished from Congress, replaced by more liberal Democrats. Both parties’ geographic footprints shrank, and Republicans became much more uniformly conservative; Democrats became much more uniformly liberal.

Second, alongside this sorting, national politics began to have a much greater influence on races that once mainly concerned residents of a specific district or state. The federal government’s powers expanded in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, an expansion that shook up the existing party coalitions because it involved both new civil rights protections (which broke the Democrat’s long hold on the South) and economic regulation (which mobilized the business community). Control of power in Washington became a more valuable prize, and the money followed. As the parties sorted by ideology and geography, the differences between Democratic control and Republican control became more consequential, and voters became more partisan-focused.

“In hindsight, we had something like a four-party system for much of the second half of the 20th century.”

In 1994, Republicans nationalized congressional elections for the first time, under the combative leadership of Newt Gingrich, a new conflict-seeking Republican. Prior to 1994, Democrats had controlled the House for 40 years. Conventional wisdom in Washington was that Democrats would have permanent control of the House.

Which brings us to the third major development: Starting in 1994, the balance of power in Washington was now up for grabs every election. This changed the game. With potential unified government now perpetually in sight for either party, the party out of the White House had every reason not to compromise. Make the president’s party look bad, and the rest of the ticket would falter. Then your side could get back into power, and instead of getting half a loaf, get everything you want. But help the president’s party, and give him a win, and you undermine your team’s chances of getting back into power.

Thus began a new era of hardball zero-sum politics, deeper divides between the parties, and further nationalization of politics. These processes all feed on themselves. In a “doom loop” of escalating partisan polarization, tit for tat begets tit for tat, and high stakes beget higher stakes. Polarization forces everyone to take sides and sends most of the remaining moderates running for the exits. In the widening gyre, passionate intensity triumphs.

Today’s divide over guns starts in a real place. Gun culture is stronger in rural America, where hunting and rugged self-reliance are part of life, and gun homicides are not a major problem. Gun violence is a much bigger problem in cities, even though gun ownership rates are much lower.

As the Democrats have more clearly become the party of the cities and Republicans much more clearly the party of rural America, these divides have become much starker. Republicans and Democrats experience guns differently in their lives. But over time, these experiences have fused with partisanship in powerful ways. They have become reified by competing narratives, which are then re-amplified by our binary brain circuitry, which likes to simplify the world into good and evil.

In 1994, Congress passed an assault-weapons ban, with 56 votes in the Senate. It was not filibustered. Ten Republicans, all of them on the moderate-to-liberal side of the party, voted in favor. But by 2004, when the weapons ban was about to sunset, it was left to expire. Republicans now controlled Congress and the White House. And of the ten Republican Senators who had voted to support the ban 10 years earlier, only three remained, one of whom had since left the Republican party.

Nearly a decade later, in 2013, in the wake of Sandy Hook, even a more modest background check bill failed, this time with 4 Republicans in support and 54 votes in the Senate total. But it failed to get the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

“Proportional representation may seem like a long shot, but we’re in a strange political moment.”

Intriguingly, while 81% of Republican respondents said they personally supported expanding background checks, only 57% said they supported the Senate passing a bill doing so. This disconnect is puzzling — until you understand that some Republicans just didn’t want to give Democrats and Obama a “win” — even if they agreed on the policy.

But while Congress failed to act, states did. As Democrats gained solid majorities in blue states, many passed increasingly restrictive gun laws, backed by a growing gun control movement with real resources. At the same time, some red states have moved in the opposite direction, with Republicans passing increasingly radical “gun rights” legislation.

Republican voters became more skeptical that gun control could curb gun violence, and instead leaned harder into an “American carnage” narrative in which unchecked evil was everywhere, and only guns could keep the true American heroes and their family safe.  It’s a dark, apocalyptic vision, stoked and cultivated by the National Rifle Association and the gun industry. It’s also identity politics. Gun owning has become an identity for many Americans, an identity that the NRA and its affiliates have nurtured. It’s also an identity that has fused with the conservative identity, the Christian identity, the white identity and the rural identity. All of them have rolled into what Lilliana Mason calls one “mega-identity”: Republican.

Group identities have always been an important part of American politics, because, again, we make sense of politics collectively. Politics is the thing we do together. But just as the four-party system sorted into the two-party system, so the many identity groups that cut across the two parties have now joined one team or the other, making everything feel higher stakes and more zero-sum.

Almost two-thirds of Americans now say there ought to be more than two parties. Almost half of Americans prefer to identify as an “independent,” declining to affiliate with either of our two major parties. The great majority of Americans are open to significant reforms, and confidence in government has been on the decline. Widespread distrust in institutions and generalized discontent recurs periodically in American politics, and it is a reliable precursor to major institutional reforms.

The years leading up to the Progressive Era offer many encouraging analogies and rhymes to today’s politics. During the first two decades of the 20th century, U.S. politics changed in significant ways (introduction of the direct primary, direct election of senators, initiative and referendum process, major municipal reforms and women’s suffrage). This followed the Gilded Age, a time of deep distrust and corruption in U.S. institutions and widespread public discontent.

America has a tradition of political reforms that have made democracy more representative and inclusive. Proportional representation would be the next stage in that tradition.

Of course, the leaders of the two major political parties are unlikely to want to give up power. However, both parties still contain multitudes within them (just non-overlapping multitudes). Many progressive Democrats would like to have their own party, separate from the more establishment Democrats they feel are holding them back. More moderate Democrats should be glad to run as their own party too, no longer tied to what they fear are loser issues like defunding the police and Critical Race Theory. Center-right Republicans would benefit from their own party, given that an illiberal MAGA faction has taken control of the Republican party. Counting across these three groups, there is a strong super-majority to support reform.

If new third party challengers emerge and the system destabilizes (and there are some early signs of this), even party leaders may embrace reform. Party leaders are pragmatic, and they should realize that a proportional system is less sensitive to narrow spoilers and the wild swings such disruptions can cause. Indeed, this is the main reason much of Western Europe adopted proportional representation between 1899 and 1919 — because it was more stabilizing than the previous majoritarian voting systems that generated wild swings based on small voting shifts. It also helped that it was widely viewed as a much fairer system, too.

Proportional representation, of course, is not a cure-all for real divides and genuine conflicts in American society. But a system of shifting coalitions that allows everyone to periodically re-evaluate their positions will help break the artificial binaries that have locked us into so many zero-sum fights. It offers a way to rearrange and scramble the many identities that shape our political selves and allow new alignments to form. It is a way to get us thinking again and help us recapture the nuance and tolerance for uncertainty that we need to innovate new solutions to hard problems.