Reforms possible for polarized political system, Aspen Ideas Festival panel says

Brandice Canes-Wrone (center-left) listens as Lee Epstein, (center-right) gives her take on the top at Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, June 30, 2023.
Daniel Bayer/Aspen Institute

When National Constitution Center CEO Jeffrey Rosen introduced the Aspen Ideas Fest discussion with political experts by saying the title of the talk — “Is Our Political System an Ill Fit for the Times?” — the audience jumped in with a resounding affirmation.

Though the question was rhetorical, the enthusiastic response sounded emblematic of widespread discontent and frustration while America seems as divided as at any time since at least Vietnam — and maybe the Civil War.

New America senior fellow Lee Drutman and professors Brandice Canes-Wrone and Lee Epstein sat down to discuss reforms that might lessen polarization and partisan politics.

According to Drutman, the sorting of American politics, nationalization of politics, and close national elections have been filtered through the single-winner election system to bring the country to a moment of hyper-partisan polarization that has become “a fundamental threat to our system.”

“Over the last several decades, what was a vibrant, multi-dimensional, really multi-party system within our two-party system has collapsed, it’s flattened,” he said.

To re-introduce dimensionality into politics, he proposed reforming the single-member district system to create larger, multi-member districts with proportional representation.

“We can get more diversity of representation that allows us to build back a political sector. It makes every vote everywhere consequential,” he said. “Everybody gets to elect somebody who represents them.”

Drutman said that more than a quarter of Americans have unfavorable ratings of both major parties, which both have become radicalized. Fusion voting, where multiple political parties can list the same candidate on the ballot, would revive the political center by allowing it to become a party that endorses moderate candidates, he said. While fusion voting is currently illegal in the United States, restoring it to legal status — as it once was — would give moderate voters a ballot line to follow, he asserted.

“Political parties are the central institutions of modern representative democracy,” he said. “Without political parties connecting people to government, we have demagoguery, chaos.”

Canes-Wrone doubled down on the significance of political parties, advocating for reforms to bolster the ability of political parties to control electoral politics.

“Parties tend to want moderates to be nominated to win in a district,” she said. “When parties are kneecapped in terms of being able to fund candidates, then the individuals who are funding them may not be as moderate as parties.”

Currently, parties are allowed to surpass expenditure limits if the money is used for litigating election results. Canes-Wrone suggested eliminating those carve-outs in favor of allowing parties to spend the money directly on candidates.

Voters often rely on news coverage to learn about candidates. The emergence of local-news deserts across the country has contributed to the nationalization of politics, according to her. As local news outlets dwindle, local candidates, particularly challengers to incumbents, receive minimal media coverage.

“The challenger will just be seen as a member of a party, and that places the emphasis on what are the national parties doing, and not what could that challenger do for your district,” she said.

The elimination of the legislative veto by a 1983 Supreme Court ruling has also contributed to polarization, Canes-Wrone said. 

“The Supreme Court is dramatically cabining Congress’s ability to delegate decisions to administrative agencies, like the student-loan forgiveness, and Congress is powerless to respond,” Rosen said.

While the legislative body is oriented toward compromise, the executive branch is not. The removal of Congress’ ability to veto executive decisions has given the President increased power to decide major policies, according to Canes-Wrone.

“It matters increasingly who’s in the executive branch in terms of what our major policies are, and that’s going to push polarization to the forefront,” she said.

She said that resurrecting the legislative veto would shift power from the executive office back to the legislative branch. However, would require a constitutional amendment.

The courts have not remained immune to polarization, Epstein said, as evidenced by the recent series of 6-3 decisions regarding affirmative action, Biden’s student-debt relief plan, and free speech versus gay rights, which were all split along ideological lines.

“That looks quintessential, but it doesn’t characterize this term very well,” she said. “This term has seen some unexpected victories for the left side of the court. … The center has moderated a little bit compared to what we saw last term.”

In referring to the “center” of the court, he was talking about Justices John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

However, the current makeup of the Supreme Court displays unprecedented partisan sorting. It is the first time in history that all of the liberals on the court are Democrats, and all of the conservatives are Republicans, according to Epstein.

“You might think that’s business as usual on the Supreme Court, but it isn’t,” she said. “This is actually the first time in history where we’ve had such a clear, partisan split.”

To ensure judicial independence and move away from a partisan divide in the court, she suggested changing the way judges are appointed.

“The more political actors that are involved in selecting justices, the more political the court,” she said.

Currently, there are 101 political actors involved in the process of selecting justices. Epstein pointed to the United Kingdom’s supreme-court appointee process, which uses a selection committee based on legal expertise, removing political influence from the courts.

“These proposals aren’t designed to help one party or another but to resurrect basic principles of democracy, like nonpartisan deliberation,” Rosen said. “It makes me hopeful that there is a way out of the polarization that afflicts our parties.”

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