How to Quarantine a Political Virus: Stopping the Sedition Caucus by Improving Democracy

January 12, 2021 | 2:24 pm
The US Capitol seen through a fence with flowers and a US flag inserted in itErin Scott/Reuters
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

One of the attackers who breached the Capitol building last week in an attempt to halt our democracy’s peaceful transition of power left a note for House Speaker Pelosi after breaking into her office: “We will not back down.” We must take these people at their word and take seriously the prospect that a coalition of voters and elected leaders are committed to undermining free and fair elections and our democratic government.

I was as shocked as anyone to see how easily seditionists breached the cordon at the Capitol building, but many of their enablers were already inside, objecting to the procedural count of Electoral College votes. Our political parties have a long history of enabling authoritarian factions, and we will continue to be vulnerable until we cordon them off to build a truly multi-racial, multi-party democracy.

For months, the President of the United States has been attempting to overturn the election by disenfranchising millions, focusing his efforts on largely Black voting centers like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. He’s deluded followers into believing that the election was “stolen.” Then he encouraged followers to protest Congress fulfilling its constitutional obligation, aided by loyalists who promised to object to the count. Even after the president incited a mob to march on the Capitol, and the whole world watched as protest turned to insurrection, 147 Republican Members of Congress still voted to overturn the election. How can this Sedition Caucus be contained politically?

I’ve written extensively on the need for Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act and implement national election standards such as those contained in the For the People Act. If Republicans who gave speeches Wednesday night about the importance of defending democracy are serious, they will take up this legislation with Democratic partners in the new Congress and engage the public in a fact-based discussion about the integrity of our elections. Even then, protecting the right to vote and adopting best practices for election administration is not enough.

Leaders from both parties should complete work on the Fair Representation Act, which will move us toward a system of proportional representation in Congress through multi-member districts, giving voters more power to elect a broad and diverse set of representatives. Our “first past the post” system tends to result in two polarized parties with an inherently adversarial relationship. We need to give voters and communities the chance to explore better methods. As House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) recently observed, proportional electoral systems are “fairer and more representational” because they don’t require voters, including voters of color, to have an absolute majority of votes to achieve representation. In a three-seat district, for example, any candidate with 25% of the vote is assured a seat, and even in lopsidedly partisan districts, the minority party is likely to win a seat, which also reduces the incentive for gerrymandering.

To rebuild a conservative party and break free from the grip of a seditionist base, as Evan McMullin and others have suggested, you need an electoral system that will give it the oxygen needed to build party support. A center-right party competing in multi-seat districts could win seats without needing to pander to extremists or seditionists, providing conservative voters with a legitimate alternative. Opening up party competition will also mean more competition on the left. Rather than having to fight each other for control of one party, centrists and progressives can make their case directly to the voters, and be in less danger of being locked out of power entirely. Multi-member districts could introduce a more diverse set of candidates, ideas, and parties to government.

There are several ways to facilitate more parties competing for votes. Among the easiest for voters to adjust to would be an “open list” system (OLPR), where parties provide lists of candidates and voters choose more or less as they already do. Ranked choice (STV) systems offer a more candidate-centered option, while mixed-member proportional (MMP) systems retain single-seat districts, but provide compensatory seats that allow smaller parties to be represented. Any of these options would invigorate competition, bring new ideas into the political process, and help build governing coalitions that don’t rely on extremists.

A more representative government will feature a diverse set of parties that aren’t stuck in zero-sum opposition, opening new paths for progress on issues. Imagine, for instance, if elected officials could craft climate policy without worrying about intra-party challenges from ideological climate-change deniers funded by powerful industries. And as former Republican operative Steve Schmidt noted in conversation with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when freed from the effective veto of extremists, even leaders with policy differences can “hold the line together” as “the side opposed to autocracy.” That’s the key to the “cordon sanitaire”: extreme factions can’t impose their demands when there are less abusive coalition partners ready to take their place in government.

The Trump presidency is ending, but the events of recent days suggest that we may be at the beginning of an insurgency dedicated to subverting democratic government in the United States. We must immediately bring together policymakers, political scientists and reformers to address these systemic vulnerabilities and strengthen our institutional resilience. I believe that containing this threat will require the political energy that only a broad-based, multi-racial, multi-party coalition can deliver.

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Michael Latner is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems, including redistricting and gerrymandering in the US, and the impact of electoral administrative law on political participation.