American Electoral Institutions Explained

Eric Levitz in New York Magazine on how political institutions keep American politics polarized between a median Democratic position and a right-of-median Republican position now that the urban/rural split between the two parties is entrenched:

By itself, the conservative movement’s apocalyptic paranoia might not constitute an existential threat to American democracy. The depths of the American right’s radicalism are formidable, but its breadth of popular support is not. The donors, activists, and primary voters who set the GOP’s agenda are more ideologically extreme than the Republican Party’s median general-election supporter. And so long as the GOP caters to the former, its national coalition is likely to be a minority one. Thus, if the United States were a majoritarian democracy — in which the Republican Party had to win a majority of the nation’s votes to have a hand in federal governance — then the party might soon find itself with sufficient incentive to marginalize its most extreme elements. But the U.S. is a very different kind of polity.

Every elected branch of the U.S. government structurally overrepresents low-density areas. And since America’s two parties are now polarized along urban-rural lines, the GOP has ballots to burn. Losing the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections hasn’t stopped Republicans from holding the White House for a majority of this millennium. Republican senators have represented a majority of America’s population for only two years in the last four decades — but Republicans have boasted Senate majorities for more than half of that period anyway. And many election forecasters expect the pro-Republican biases of the Senate and Electoral College to grow more pronounced in the years to come.

Those biases, combined with midterm elections that inherently favor the sitting president’s opposition — and a two-party system that ensures Republicans will always be the only option for “change” voters when a Democrat is in office — set a high floor beneath how far the GOP can realistically fall. One testament to this reality lies in the mounting evidence that Republicans have actually increased their support among nonwhite voters during the Trump era, even as the party has catered to white racial animus. With only two parties to choose from, socially conservative and/or disaffected nonwhite voters have proved willing to rally to the GOP banner even as Republicans have replaced their dog-whistle appeals to white grievance with foghorns. For these reasons, it is unlikely that Republicans will be consigned to the political wilderness long enough to make a break with the conservative movement thinkable.

-- Eric Levitz, "The RNC Has Made a Compelling Case for America’s Imminent Collapse," New York Magazine, August 25, 2020.

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