This is adapted from Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky’s new book, If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed, and How It Might Be Saved, out this week from Norton/Liveright. This adaptation includes three of 14 specific suggestions for reducing polarization put forward in the last chapter. Kirkus gave the book a starred review. Jeffrey Toobin says it’s “brilliant and timely.” You can buy it here.
Division is the American condition. We’ve been divided since the Hamiltonians, the coastal elites, and the Jeffersonians, the country folk, the yeoman farmers, were at each other’s throats in the 1790’s. Things stayed that way for decades. Then, in the 20th century, the Depression and World War II brought people together and provided a kind of civic glue: The generation that had fought the Nazis and fascist Japan had a perspective on life that prevented them from thinking of the people across the aisle as enemies. But once that generation passed the torch to a new generation, it all came unglued. Newt Gingrich was once asked by the journalist Jane Mayer why he skipped Vietnam. “Given everything I believe in, a large part of me thinks I should have gone over,” he concluded. “But there was a bigger battle in Congress than Vietnam.”
About a decade ago, I used to think that a new Depression and world war would return us to a state of some harmony. Not that I was cheering for them to happen, but I thought at least they’d yield that silver lining.
I no longer believe this. We’re not the same people we were in the 1930s and ’40s. We’re too stratified and too materialistic. Today’s better-off Americans would never sit still for something like the rationing that Americans accepted during the war. And unless the morality of this new war were absolutely crystal clear, we’d be at loggerheads about it from the start. This would be, let’s face it, especially true if it were a Democratic president who got us involved in the hostilities—the conservative media would be full of reasons about how it was all preventable or brought on by the weakness and implicit anti-American posture of the incumbent. A colleague once joked to me that maybe an alien invasion could unify the country, but the more we thought about it, the more even that scenario fell apart. If we were invaded by the green people of Planet Zanthon, in time, we’d discover something about life on Zanthon—say, that the green majority was oppressing a restive purple minority. From there, it wouldn’t be long before Fox News was agitating for a white-green interplanetary alliance to beat back the black-brown-purple hordes. No—for now, we’re stuck here.
What, if anything, can be done about it? There are some ways out of this mess. But before we get to those, two points must be made. First, it’s useless to hope that politicians can just go back to getting along the way they once did. They didn’t get along better in the old days because they were nicer people. They got along better because a particular set of historical forces and circumstances produced a degree of social cohesion that called on them to cooperate more. Today, a totally different set of historical forces and circumstances exist, and they produce social atomization rather than social cohesion. Our politicians can’t overcome that. Being romantic about how “they” were “better” in the “good old days” is both inaccurate and a waste of time.
Nevertheless, there are some changes to our political system that we could contemplate that might help ease the situation. Most of these aren’t especially realistic, to be honest, at least in the near future; but we have a dire situation, and we have to think outside the box and be open to making root-and-branch changes to the political system.
Bring Back At-Large Congressional Elections
Of course, we need to end partisan gerrymandering if we can, through commissions that would draw legislative districts, a practice that’s catching on around the country. Meanwhile, here’s a much more interesting idea: Why don’t we revisit the whole concept of single-member districts? They are inherently and definitionally unfair, leaving a significant chunk of a given district’s citizens with their views completely unrepresented. They are not mandated by the Constitution, and some states used to use “general-ticket” voting, which we now call “at-large” voting. What if we were to return—and I’m well aware that this is politically unfeasible for now, but just go with me on the thought experiment—to some at-large voting? Say, for example, that states with more than a minimum number of districts—six, perhaps—had to elect their congressional delegations half by district, and half at large, either from the entire state or, if a large state, from common-sensical, non-gerrymandered regions?
Let’s think about New York in this hypothetical. Right now, New York has twenty-seven congressional districts. Now let’s say I waved my wand and only fourteen of New York’s representatives were chosen from individual districts, and the other thirteen were elected from three different geographic entities: five from Long Island, Queens, and Staten Island; four from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and two or three suburban counties up through the lower Hudson Valley; and four from the rest of the state (one would have to study the population distribution, but this seems roughly fair to me). What would such a system produce? Probably a few more Republicans! Certainly, the first region would tilt somewhat Republican. And at least one of the four at-large representatives from the Manhattan-Hudson region would likely be a Republican. This person would probably be from the Hudson Valley, but he or she would have to be more moderate than your average House Republican to have garnered enough votes to win the seat. And the upstate New York region would certainly lean Republican, but upstate New York has enough urban areas that this district would typically elect one at-large Democrat, who would again be more moderate than your typical Democrat.
Replicate this all over the country and what happens? You have a chance at having maybe 15 or more Republicans who would play some legislative ball with Democrats at budget time. Fifteen may not sound like much, but when we’re talking congressional votes, 15 is a lot—maybe enough to swing an outcome. Concomitantly you’d have that many fewer very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats from ultra-safe districts, many of which would be eliminated.
Expand—Yes!—the House of Representatives (Under One Condition)
While I’m tossing pies in the sky, here’s another thought. The House of Representatives has been at 435 members since after the 1910 census. The population in 1910 was 92 million. Today it’s 320 million. A congressman in 1910 represented about 260,000 people. Today, one represents more than 700,000. The founders intended the lower House to be close to the people. It’s awfully hard for a representative to be close to 730,000 people.
Compare our House to the UK’s House of Commons. It holds 650 members, each representing around 100,000 constituents. The 577 members of the French Assembly each represent around 115,000 people. The 150 members of Australia’s House of Representatives each represent on average around 160,000 people. At those sizes, a legislator can know his or her district very intimately, which is just what our founders intended.
We can’t go that small—going down to 100,000 constituents per district would give us a lower house with 3,200 members! And mind you, I would never favor increasing the size of Congress if the new members were elected on the same single-member basis. Any increase in size would absolutely have to be tied to and predicated upon de-mandating single-member districts. If new members could be elected according to a scheme like the one I laid out above, I think expansion should merit the most serious consideration. If we could add, say, 65 seats, up to a nice round 500, and if we could ensure that the bulk of those 65, or indeed all of them, would not be elected from ultra-safe conservative or liberal districts but from ideologically heterogeneous districts or regions or whole states, the very nature of the House of Representatives would change for the better. You’d have a critical mass of compromisers.
Revive Moderate Republicanism
There is no project in American politics more important, none that could do more to reduce polarization, than reviving moderate Republicanism. I say that as a liberal and an enrolled Democrat. That’s the precise inflection point at which the system is really broken. If some person or group of people will put money—and serious money; billions, not millions—into this project, that person or persons can help rescue the republic. A Club for Growth of the center can save this country.
Why? Imagine a typical conservative Republican House member. Not a radical, just a typical conservative. When he got to Congress—say, back in the early days of the Bush administration—he was a right-wing freak. Now things have shifted enough that he’s just a run-of-the-mill conservative. And the only pressure he ever gets back home is from his right. The district is cut in such a way that he doesn’t really have to pursue Democratic or independent votes. The voters he does care about take instruction from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and the local Christian broadcaster. The local newspaper is right-wing. There are four or five ambitious people eyeing his seat—a few state legislators, a rich businessman or two. Each of them is more right-wing than the last. It’s unrelenting, and it’s why these people vote the way they do.
Now imagine that some of that machinery existed in moderate form. Some of the above machinery could not be recreated—the media, for example. But some could. Suppose this organization identified more moderate voters, organized them, turned them into a bloc. And suppose this organization also recruited candidates and supported them financially. Given time, this organization would make a difference.
This would be a massive and perhaps impossible undertaking. But surely there are some rich moderate Republicans out there who could fund such a pressure group. It would take a long time to have an impact. Some people I’ve discussed this idea with say they don’t think there even are many moderate Republicans anymore. They may be right. But atrophied muscles can be brought back to strength. I suspect that millions of Republicans might choose moderation over extremism if someone just placed it on the menu for them. The problem is that for decades, no one has.
When ideas like this are proposed—ideas that try in some measure to conjure back to life a lost past—the wise cynics always say two things. First, that the past can’t be recreated; second, that even if it does work, its success will be quite limited. On the first point, I agree that the past can’t be recreated. It will never be like it was in the 1950s through the 1970s. There aren’t going to be any more Jacob Javitses or Charles Mathiases or Lowell Weickers, to name three old Republican senators who were genuine liberals. But here’s my response: The country doesn’t need liberal Republicans. It needs Republicans who are basically conservative but who harbor a few moderate instincts and who—this is the key thing—actually want to come to Congress to compromise and get a few things done. Surely those Republicans exist. And on the second point: Again, critics are correct—this project wouldn’t work in a lot of districts, which are too right-wing to bother with. But it doesn’t need to work in a lot of districts. It needs to work only in a handful. A half-dozen such wins in House races begins to alter the nature of Republican caucus. A dozen constitutes a real voting bloc.
All of these ideas I’m mentioning are long-term projects, the work of 10 or 20 years. But imagine a Congress a generation from now in which are seated 12 to 15 moderate Republicans in the House, and three or four in the Senate. They would vote with Democrats for a tax increase. Next would come the crucial step: They’d have to survive reelection after so voting, because the right will come after them with everything. But if they did survive, it would send a loud and clear signal to other Republicans. It would break the back of Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, and Congress could start governing again.
We also need to think a lot more broadly than electoral-system reforms. We need to look at the whole society, and we need to look to the whole society and demand engagement and commitment to reviving our civic health from leaders in other walks of life. We need more and better and more courageous leadership from prominent people in every realm.
I think back to the Age of Consensus, that time of depression and war, and how that consensus didn’t just happen but was forged. It was created by leaders in the corporate and business world, in organized labor, in our religious life, in our civic organizations and the nonprofit world, and in our universities. There was a lot they disagreed on; obviously, the corporate-business version of the American Dream was more conservative and individualistic than the other ones. But all of them made an attempt to say to the American people that we were one nation conceived around certain noble principles and that people had to pay heed to those principles.
We need that kind of effort now. And we have to start it by thinking not about Congress or our political system, but our society. A nearly ironclad rule of history: Politics changes after social conditions and expectations change. A clamor is raised about working conditions, a terrible shirtwaist factory fire claims many lives, there is an outcry; only then does politics respond. That’s the normal pattern. So, since politicians won’t lead this effort, we need to demand something we haven’t been demanding much in these recent years: We need our non-political leaders to take very seriously the job of trying to pull the country together. We need them to be visionary and forward-thinking. We need them to see—and, crucially, to say, and say and say—that they will all benefit, even and especially the corporate leaders, from a less divided, and I would add less unequal, country.
We are in trouble. Our political culture is broken, but it is not broken for the reasons you often read that it’s broken—because “Washington” is “dysfunctional,” or because politicians have no “will.” No. It’s broken because some people broke it. It was broken by the people who pushed an economic theory on the rest of us that has driven trillions of dollars that were once in middle class people’s pockets to a comparative few at the very top. Who refused to invest in the country anymore. Who will not even negotiate real investment. Who have been telling us for years that the market will take care of all our needs, while the market has in fact left thousands of towns and communities strafed and full of people addicted to drugs—the drugs, by the way, that that same free market is pumping out in vastly greater quantities, and for vastly greater profit, than it did 20 years ago. And who have built up a parallel media universe in which any of these common-sense assertions is dismissed as socialist, and in which anyone who doesn’t endorse the thesis of Donald Trump’s greatness is immediately dismissed.
They broke it. They broke it to gain power and to remake society in a way that was less communitarian, explicitly less equal, than the society we were building from 1945 to 1980. Yes, there were errors and excesses aplenty on the other side, my side, that required correction; on matters like welfare and crime, on which liberalism did surely fail (not that conservatism has succeeded: the war on drugs has been one of the great moral calamities of the last 50 years—imagine if we’d spent on treatment over all these decades what we’ve been spending locking up poor men caught with an ounce of weed or a gram of coke). But here’s the thing: They weren’t out merely to correct the errors and excesses. They used the errors and excesses as an excuse—which liberalism gave them, I admit—to import an entirely new ideology. And don’t think they’re finished. Ask Charles Koch how “finished” he thinks they are. If he’s being honest, he’ll say they’re just getting their boots on.
They broke it. They broke it with the thought only of winning in the moment; no concern for the long-term health of the republic. First it was some fairly mild anti-immigrant rhetoric; then it got bolder, flashier, because that’s how these things progress. First it was relatively subtle racial dog-whistling; then, by degrees, a bit less so. First it was a stretching of the truth on this, on that; then, a real-live war mounted on false pretenses, complete with the accusation that those who didn’t support the war were enemies of the government, of America, and of freedom itself. Each act and utterance of hatred, each lie, seemed I suppose defensible in the moment. But we see now what they’ve given us, drip by drip: a citizenry so inured to hatred and lies that is was willing to elect (even though a majority of them did not) exactly the kind of demagogue the Founding Fathers warned against.
We live today in the Age of Fracture, to borrow the phrase of the Princeton political scientist Daniel T. Rodgers. It seems inescapable, but eventually, this Age of Fracture will end, and a fifth age will loom before us. What will we call that age? We might be able to call it the Age of Repair, if we act to repair things. And if we don’t…I don’t wish to sound melodramatic, but there is no law of the universe or heaven that says democratic republics have to last forever. They must be kept alive. Ours is dying. And a young generation is coming of age that doesn’t have much faith in the American dream, capitalism, or democracy. And based on what they’ve seen, why should they? All their lives, they’ve seen only growing inequality and increasing dysfunction.
We know what the problems are. And we know what the solutions are. We know what it will take to keep the republic. The only thing we don’t know is whether the people who have the power to keep it will decide it’s finally time to do so.