Bridging Societal Divides through Governance Design

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"The U.S. system of governance seems to be in crisis. Public trust in the national government has plummeted, partisan conflict and gridlock have intensified, and extremist views are gaining traction. As political dysfunction increases, many observers fault the constitutional structure. Some argue that the constitutional design fails because of the many ways that a political minority can obstruct—or gain control of—the political process. The minority can employ filibusters in the U.S. Senate, field successful nominees in gerrymandered legislative districts, or spend vast amounts of money on candidates or ballot initiatives. The political minority also might suppress voter turnout or send its nominee to the White House by prevailing in the Electoral College. This paper discusses an important alternative view—the problem is not that the minority exercises too much power; rather the governance problem lies in giving too little power to the minority. The U.S. political system has many “winner-take-all” features that fuel partisan conflict. For example, whoever prevails in the battle for the presidency gains one hundred percent of the executive power even if the victor triumphs by the barest of margins. This denies meaningful representation to half of the public in the most important policymaking office in the world, and as a result, it invites levels of competition and conflict that are intense, excessive, and harmful to social welfare. Winner-take-all politics also dominates elections for Congress and a judiciary where major decisions can be decided by a conservative or liberal majority. To address winner-take-all politics, we should look across the Atlantic to countries where governance reflects the perspectives of all, particularly Switzerland, where power is shared across partisan lines, and elected officials from both sides of the political spectrum have a say in the making of governmental policy. If we want to bridge societal divides, we need to ensure that everyone’s voice is represented in the halls of power. Or to put it another way, a system based on winner-take-all politics is a system designed to maximize incentives for partisan conflict. A system built on the sharing of power across partisan lines, on the other hand, is a system designed to maximize incentives for cooperation."