Unraveling the Dysfunctional Nature of Competition in U.S. Politics

As Election Day approaches, an all-too-familiar sense of dread creeps into my mind. An underwhelming just over half of American voters are engaged in early voting or preparing to head to the polls, while my social media feeds overflow with anxious posts. Many people are filled with vitriolic hatred for President Trump while others are terrified of what might happen if he is removed from office. Activists, police departments, and businesses are preparing for mass protests and potential violence in the election’s aftermath. I find myself wondering: is there anything citizens like myself can do to help reverse our country’s accelerating slide into chaotic dysfunction?

Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter offer a comforting answer in their book The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy. Gehl (a former Democrat turned Independent) and Porter (a lifelong Republican economist) crossed paths in 2013 when Gehl asked Porter to consult on her food manufacturing company’s strategy. Their partnership led Gehl to the realization that Porter’s work on business competition could be used to demystify, and eventually fix American politics.

The duo demonstrate that Americans are not, in fact, powerless in the face of our broken political system. Seeking the root cause of our political system’s failure, they find that our problem is not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. It isn’t Donald Trump or Joe Biden. It is the fact that we’ve allowed a toxic duopoly to gain nearly complete control over the mechanisms of our government. The authors offer a clear roadmap with practical solutions — with innovative analytical frameworks, captivating history lessons, and a bold yet practical vision for reform. Overall, The Politics Industry provides a much-needed dose of optimism in troubling times.

The authors’ main focus is on fixing the electoral and legislative machinery of Congress — an area they consider to be at “the sweet spot of powerful and achievable.” The Founding Fathers designed Congress to be the first and most powerful branch of the US government, as clearly established in Article 1 of the Constitution. It therefore represents a more logical place to focus efforts for systemic reform than the Presidency. In their analysis, they apply Porter's Five Forces Framework to American politics. The framework was originally designed for analyzing business competition, but politics has become big business — about $100 billion per election cycle. The authors assess that American politics is effectively "a multi-billion dollar private industry within a public institution,” which is not good for democracy. Our two political parties have become a nearly untouchable duopoly — the root cause of our political dysfunction.

In any other industry, independent regulators would scrutinize such a powerful duopoly. Unfortunately, the duopoly controls the regulatory agencies (the FEC) and non-profit corporations (The Commission on Presidential Debates) tasked with oversight of key political processes. This makes politics “the only major industry in America where rivals write their own rules virtually unchecked.” The results are as follows:

  1. The two parties have crafted rules around elections and fundraising that make it nearly impossible for third parties and independents to compete.
  2. This duopoly forces voters into warring camps, leaving no room for the 42% of Americans who identify as independent.
  3. The winners of the duopoly are hyper-partisan primary voters, special interests, and donors.
  4. The two parties have managed to co-opt most of the key channels for information distribution.
  5. Suppliers of ideas have been similarly limited. Candidates, campaign managers, lobbyists, think tanks and academics must become aligned with one of the two parties in order to thrive in the politics industry.

Political parties work much like big business when it comes to competition

This system leaves out nearly half of American citizens. A silent majority doesn’t fit in with either party and has no reasonable means for influencing political outcomes. How can our “democratic” republic possibly be expected to function properly?

As political parties polarize, 42% of voters identify as Independent

Gehl and Porter suggest that looking to the past can offer valuable insights for addressing modern dysfunction. At the turn of the 20th century, a toxic duopoly left the government incapable of solving problems for average citizens. In response, a non-partisan, grassroots Progressive movement enacted significant systemic reforms over the course of a few decades. Election rules were changed so that reform-minded candidates could be elected. Progressives fought for ballot reform, direct primaries, direct democracy, and the direct election of senators. These electoral changes cleared the way for major reforms that made Congress more effective and established norms for regulating money in politics. Without these reforms, we likely would not have Social Security, Medicare, the Federal Trade Commission, or reporting requirements for political donors.

Though the era of Progressive reform resulted in a sharp decline in polarization within Congress, reaching historically low levels in the 1940s, the system has since regressed. A bipartisan dismantling of congressional rules and norms started in the 1970's under Democratic leadership and was finalized during Republican Newt Gingrich's reign as speaker of the house in the ‘90s. A century after the era of ambitious reform, we find ourselves paralytically polarized once again. We see the impact of excessive polarization every day on TV, social media, in our interactions with friends, loved ones, and political adversaries. Democracy is in decline as Congress can’t deliver compromise or meaningful solutions. The national debt skyrockets while our economic competitiveness deteriorates.

Political polarization poses a grave threat to our democracy

Three ambitious reforms, Gehl and Porter advocate, would break up the duopoly and give voters the power to put quality candidates into Congress, a body which is supposed to represent the public but currently has an abysmal 17% approval rating:

  1. Final Five voting would change the structure of the primary elections. In a "top-five" primary, there would no longer be separate Democratic or Republican primaries. Instead, voters of any political affiliation would be free to participate in a single non-partisan primary open to candidates from any party along with independents. This would create a broader, more competitive field in general elections. Reformers in Washington and California have already made small steps in this direction by implementing "top-two" voting.
  2. Ranked choice voting (RCV) would replace the current dominant system of "winner take all" voting. Instead of being forced to choose a single candidate, voters would instead rank every candidate on the ballot according to their personal preference. Rather than being able to win an election by simply getting the most votes, candidates would need a majority (>50%) of votes to be declared winner. RCV reduces the incentives for negative campaigning and dividing voters, and eliminates the possibility of undemocratic situations where a majority of voters do not support the winner. Maine has been using RCV for the U.S. House and Senate elections since 2018. Massachusetts voters will be given the option to adopt the system this November.
  3. An independent, non-partisan Legislative Machinery Innovation Commission can be established to reform Congress for the better. The commission would have a mandate of designing a "model modern legislature built to produce real results by adopting the best practices for state-of-the-state negotiation, communication, and problem solving.” Congress’ past successes in self-reform serve as proof that it could work in the future.

These solutions represent an important first step towards designing a healthier political system. They will give voters more choice, introduce incentives that allow for healthier competitive dynamics, and set up infrastructure that will help us implement the systemic reforms so desperately needed. Of course, there is more work to be done. News media, public education, and social media networks also need reform to meet the challenges of the 21st century. And electoral and legislative reform won't help in the absence of a well-informed public enlightened by a quality education.

Though it doesn’t offer a panacea, The Politics Industry is nonetheless a book that belongs in every American household. If you consider yourself a concerned citizen and want to find ways to address political dysfunction and toxic partisanship in the United States, it’s a must-read. We must stop fixating on personalities and specific policies and start engaging in systemic reform.