This Week in Political Wonkery – June 5, 2018, Edition

A voter casts his ballot in California’s midterm primaries (Photo: New York Times)

For you election + sports nerds:


California’s electoral experiment may produce bad outcomes for both parties.

Here’s how it works:

In the old days, each party nominated a candidate — at a party convention or in a primary — with the idea that a Republican and a Democrat would face off in the November election. In theory, that would present voters with a choice of two governing philosophies.

But critics — including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was the Republican governor at the time — argued that the system was producing ideologically extreme candidates who were forced to appeal to the most fervent wings of their party, and that was leading to gridlock instead of governance. The solution? An open, nonpartisan primary in June, with the first- and second-place candidates heading to the November election, no matter which party they represented. The theory was that candidates would be forced to moderate their appeals to win a broader section of the electorate.

Here’s the potential danger in CA:

What it has done is occasionally let two candidates of the same party slip through to the general election, which critics say deprives voters of a true choice in November. Let’s say you have a district that’s perfectly split — 50–50 — between Democratic and Republican voters, but 10 Democratic candidates run for the seat compared with only two Republicans. The two Republicans might get 25 percent of the vote apiece, while the Democrats each receive 5 percent. That would advance the two Republicans to the general election, locking up that district for the GOP.

That’s exactly what Democrats fear will happen in California’s 39th, 48th and 49th congressional districts — and perhaps in the 10th and 50th districts as well. Those districts’ swing status attracted a large number of credible challengers in what has been a great recruiting year for Democrats, but that high Democratic enthusiasm could backfire as a result of the jungle primary.

One election reform that could save California’s (and our country’s) politics.

One way some political scholars and pundits have suggested fixing California’s system is by using a different method, called ranked-choice voting, which has already had some success and is preparing for another test run this month in Maine.

David Brooks looks at how this format, in concert with multi-member districts, could change our politics for the better:

The good news is that we don’t have to live with this system. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says there have to be only two parties. There’s nothing in the Constitution about parties at all. There’s not even anything in the Constitution mandating that each congressional district have only one member and be represented by one party. We could have a much fairer and better system with the passage of a law.

The way to do that is through multimember districts and ranked-choice voting. In populous states, the congressional districts would be bigger, with around three to five members per district. Voters would rank the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate had a majority of first-place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes would be eliminated. Voters who preferred that candidate would have their second-choice vote counted instead. The process would be repeated until you get your winners.

This system makes it much easier for third and fourth parties to form, because voting for a third party no longer means voting for one with no chance of winning. You get a much more supple representation of the different political tendencies that actually exist in the country.

The process also means that people with minority views in their region have a greater chance to be represented in Congress. A district in Southern California, for example, might elect a Bernie Sanders-type progressive, a centrist business Democrat and a conservative.

  • Lee Drutman examines how this reform could impact California

American Politics

Despite their bad rap, the polls have largely been right.

…here’s a stubborn and surprising fact — and one to keep in mind as midterm polls really start rolling in: Over the past two years — meaning in the 2016 general election and then in the various gubernatorial elections and special elections that have taken place in 2017 and 2018 — the accuracy of polls has been pretty much average by historical standards.

You read that right. Polls of the November 2016 presidential election were about as accurate as polls of presidential elections have been on average since 1972. And polls of gubernatorial and congressional elections in 2016 were about as accurate, on average, as polls of those races since 1998. Furthermore, polls of elections since 2016 — meaning, the 2017 gubernatorial elections and the various special elections to Congress this year and last year — have been slightly more accurate than average.

The media narrative that polling accuracy has taken a nosedive is mostly bullshit, in other words. Polls were never as good as the media assumed they were before 2016 — and they aren’t nearly as bad as the media seems to assume they are now. In reality, not that much has changed.

America keeps growing, but its representation hasn’t changed.

The U.S. House of Representatives has one voting member for every 747,000 or so Americans. That’s by far the highest population-to-representative ratio among a peer group of industrialized democracies, and the highest it’s been in U.S. history. And with the size of the House capped by law and the country’s population continually growing, the representation ratio likely will only get bigger.

In the century-plus since the number of House seats first reached its current total of 435 (excluding nonvoting delegates), the representation ratio has more than tripled — from one representative for every 209,447 people in 1910 to one for every 747,184 as of last year.

Political Theory

Why liberals should resist embracing “progressivism.”

In recent decades, the label “progressive” has been resurrected to replace “liberal,” a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use. Both etymologically and ideologically, the switch to “progressive” carries historical freight that augurs poorly for Democrats and for the nation’s polarized politics.

A liberal can believe that government can do more good or less, and one can debate how much to conserve. But progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it. Like conservative fundamentalism, progressivism contributes to the polarization and paralysis of government because it makes compromise, which entails accepting less progress, not merely inadvisable but irrational.

One cannot, of course, make too much of labels. But democracy is conducted with words, and progressivism, by its very definition, makes progress into an ideology. The appropriate label for those who do not believe in the ideology of progress but who do believe in government’s capacity to do good is “liberal.”

Understanding the world using a “realism” lens.

Instead of relying on realism, both Republicans and Democrats tend to view foreign policy through the lens of liberal idealism. Rather than see world politics as an arena where security is scarce and major powers are forced to contend whether they wish to or not, America’s foreign-policy mavens are quick to divide the world into virtuous allies (usually democracies) and evil adversaries (always some sort of dictatorship) and to assume that when things go badly, it is because a wicked foreign leader (Saddam Hussein, Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin, Muammar al-Qaddafi, etc.) is greedy, aggressive, or irrational.

I’ll concede that the Trump presidency presents a particular challenge for realists. […] Trump’s singular incompetence isn’t sufficient reason to toss realism aside completely. For one thing, realism still helps us understand how Trump can get away with all this meshugas: The United States is still so powerful and secure that it can do a lot of dumb things and suffer only modest losses. More importantly, realism remains an extremely useful guide to a lot of things that have happened in the recent past or that are happening today. And as Trump is proving weekly, leaders who ignore these insights inevitably make lots of dumb mistakes.

In short, it is still highly useful to think like a realist. Let me explain why.

Other Research & Analysis

New study connects white American intolerance and support for authoritarianism.

Lots of super interesting tidbits in this story. Noah Berlatsky offers the key takeaway from the new study:

A new study…suggests that the main threat to our democracy may not be the hardening of political ideology, but rather the hardening of one particular political ideology. […] [The] study finds a correlation between white American’s intolerance, and support for authoritarian rule. In other words, when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.

Thanks for reading!




Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.

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Michael Baharaeen

Michael Baharaeen

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.

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