The 2012 Republican Presidential Primary was particularly divisive, with groups supporting candidates of very different political viewpoints and serious questions concerning whether any one of them would be able to unite the party. This notion of uniting the party, though, points to the essential problem in the American political system, which is a problem precisely because most Americans are not aware of how the process works at the party level. Thus an explanation of coalition government, and how that applies in this country, seems useful.
This material originally appeared serialized scattered from mid July through the end of November 2012. Additional articles on the subject of coalition government appeared in subsequent years.
The divisiveness of the Republican primary surprised some. The very existence of the term "RINO", "Republican In Name Only", demonstrates the divisions within the party. Immediately after Romney emerged as the near-certain candidate, questions were raised concerning whether the Republicans themselves would support him.
This is not unique to Republicans; it happens with Democrats, too. It happens whenever a party believes that any candidate they field will win, but they do not have a clear candidate behind whom to rally. It happens because most Americans do not understand the concept of coalition government, or the way we reach it in America. Perhaps if we consider how it works in the parliamentary systems that dominate Europe, it will help.
In England, although the Prime Minister campaigns for office, the voters in the main don't vote for him. He is, like his colleagues, a member of parliament--something like being a member of the House of Representatives--elected by his constituents in one small constituency. He becomes Prime Minister the way we choose a Speaker of the House: a majority of the elected Members of Parliament vote for him. Thus when he campaigns, he tells the voters to support the members of his party, so that they can make him Prime Minister.
England has reached a relatively strong mostly two-party system; Israel has been very different. It is not uncommon for a half dozen political parties to be strongly represented in the Knesset, with no party holding more than a strong plurality. Thus to choose a Prime Minister a lot of political maneuvering occurs within the legislature itself--the two parties holding the strongest pluralities appeal to the minority parties, promising to support favored policies of each in exchange for support for their candidate. Thus the selection of a Prime Minister to be chief executive of the nation involves forming a coalition of separate parties which compromise with each other, agreeing to support each others' objectives in exchange for support for its own policies. Such coalitions can be fragile, as a critical minority party within the coalition can at any time withdraw its support, requiring new coalitions and a new Prime Minister.
This does not happen in America, primarily because of the nature of Presidential politics and the Electoral College. In order to elect a President, it is necessary to have a majority of votes in the Electoral College. It has happened in history that no candidate received a majority of the popular votes or a majority of the Electors, and the candidate ultimately elected was not the one with the highest support of either--Abraham Lincoln was elected thus. To guarantee that the President will be one supporting your views, you must win a majority of Electors for the first ballot.
In practice, that means forming a coalition of disparate groups willing to compromise to work together for each others' goals at the pre-election level. If you can get the majority of voters in the right states to support your candidate, you win. Thus to be a major political party, you must appeal to groups who do not agree about everything but are able to compromise sufficiently to agree on a platform they all can support, because it contains most of what they most want and little of what they most oppose. And since if one party is able to get near enough the majority that it can do this with only a bit of support from those outside its membership, the opposing party cannot win unless they can also do this. Thus the method of electing a President creates the two-party system, and whenever parties have dissolved to form three or more the resulting chaos was ultimately resolved by the emergence once more of two parties.
The Republicans have such a coalition. It contains fiscal conservatives (such as corporate interests), social conservatives (the religious right), governmental conservatives (Libertarians), Hawks, and a few other groups. (Democrats, similarly, have civil rights groups, labor unions, moderate socialists, and Doves, among others.) These groups do not agree about everything, but they overlap sufficiently to create something of a consensus. The difficulty is, without an awareness of the need for consensus at the party level, the members of these groups each see its own group embodying the "real" values of the party, and the other groups as baggage that pull the party away from what really matters. But the "real" core of any major political party is its moderates who manage to compromise and draw the groups together in common purpose, persuading the various factions within the party that their interests are better served by supporting a moderate platform that includes some of their hopes than by crippling the coalition and handing government to those who oppose most of what they seek.
That's why coalition parties are the political essence of this country.
So in America coalitions are formed at the party level, and the Republican party is a compromise between several "conservative" factions that are "conservative" about very different things but agree to work together against another compromise of several "liberal" factions who are equally diverse and divided but agree to work together against those "conservatives". Periodically someone attempts to launch a third party, and while there have been successful third parties who became second parties, as noted the Electoral College system eventually forces the all parties to attempt to reach 50.1% of the voting public, and thus squeezes us back to two main parties. Third parties usually fail, because there really are only three ways to create one, and all are largely doomed from the outset.
It should be understood that political opinions tend to follow a bell curve--most voters are more centrist. Extremist voters do not realize this because they tend to associate with each other and to regard those with whom they disagree as unreasonable minority groups. The reason that our President is sometimes a Republican and sometimes a Democrat is that both parties are constantly courting the centrist independent vote--voters who reject both the conservative and the liberal extremes, and so pick the party which at the moment seems most moderate. That means that both parties are in essence fighting over the middle--trying to persuade the majority of moderate independent voters that this party best represents their values.
The result of this is that the two parties begin to look the same. Each wants to persuade voters of every stripe that their interests are best supported by this party's policies. This causes many in the center to feel confused, to think there is no difference between the two candidates, and so not to vote for either; meanwhile, it causes the extremists of both parties to feel ignored, that the party does not care about their concerns. Most splinter parties are extremists of a particular type--the Libertarians, the Greens. They leech votes from the coalition nearest their views, and so tend to enable the opposing party. Such parties usually fail to recognize the need for compromise and coalition, and so do not gather the groups needed to begin working toward a majority.
It sometimes happens that one party or the other will move away from the center, and a candidate will attempt to create a third party in the middle. This was attempted by John Anderson in 1980, when the very conservative Ronald Reagan took the Republicans against moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter. The complications here are first that both sides are already fighting over the middle, so the number of voters truly disaffected toward both parties is relatively small, and since the larger parties have most of the extremists the centrist party lacks a "base" and is perceived as unable to win.
The third alternative is to attempt to form a new coalition by supporting policies of specific groups on both sides, attempting to get a new compromise. Such a party might, for example, push for a morally conservative agenda while also supporting strong welfare programs, a commitment to peace but support of big business. A well-organized selection of policies could potentially splinter both major parties sufficiently to create a three-way contest, and then the struggle begins for which two parties will emerge as the remaining parties attempt either to reclaim their lost supporters or redesign their compromises to draw from each other. You might accomplish this with careful opinion surveys. However, people do not generally launch third parties because they want a third party. They do so based on an error in logic, that runs like this: The major parties do not represent my interests well; most people agree that the major parties do not represent their interests well; therefore we must all agree and should form our own party. It should be obvious that the coalition nature of major parties prevents them from representing anyone's interest particularly well, because they have too many opinions to please. The fact that you and I both disagree with both major parties does not mean we agree with each other about anything at all beyond that.
Ultimately, the major obstacle to third parties is that most people do not take them seriously, and so third parties do not get enough votes precisely because voters believe that they won't get enough votes and that voting for them is worse than wasting your vote, because you could have voted for the major party that otherwise best supports your most important positions. The coalition party will always be stronger.
We discussed the Electoral College in connection with presidential candidates proving eligibility to be listed on ballots--voters technically are not voting for them, but for the people who will vote for them. The founding fathers wanted intelligent educated citizens to vote for people they knew personally, and it would not be possible for every voter to meet with every presidential candidate.
We can argue whether that's a better or worse idea; it's a moot point now, because citizens no longer know the electors, knowing only media images of the candidates. But there is another factor in the Electoral College system that we did not address, which in this election has been highlighted: it is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the election, thanks to the electoral college system. It has happened before; the Democrats are still stinging from the loss of Florida to George W. Bush which swung the election to the Republicans despite Al Gore's stronger vote count nationwide. Now Mitt Romney might take the popular vote but lose the election due to the electoral college. If it happens, if it can happen, should we not eliminate this dinosaur that prevents the people from choosing their President?
Some have suggested doing exactly that, by a shortcut method: have states individually pass laws that give all of their electors to whichever candidate takes the majority of the national vote. If even a few states did this, coming from each side or particularly from the controversial swing states, once the votes were counted nationally it would trigger an electoral boost to the man who took the majority that would guarantee him the office. Those touting it think it a wonderful idea. Yet the implications ought to be considered.
It means that Massachusetts voters might overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but if Republicans turned out in great numbers in the midwest and tipped the national count, Massachusetts would be sending Republican electors to the Electoral College. The same thing could happen to strongly Republican states. Do we care? Perhaps we should.
Part of the concept of the Electoral College is that the people do not pick the President. In a very real sense the President is picked not by the people but by the States. Each state is given a number of Electoral votes equal to the number of members it sends to the House of Representatives plus two for its Senators. Yet because the number of representatives sent to the House is based on population adding two (for the Senators) biases the system slightly in favor of smaller states: voters in Wyoming, with three Electors and a population of 563,626, have more impact individually than those in California, with fifty-five electors and a population of 37,253,956, because there are fewer voters per elector. But the original vision was that Congressmen were picked by the people, Senators by the States, and Electors by some blend of the two, and the States were given the power to determine how their electors would be picked. Originally many states had their own state legislatures appoint Electors, and there was no presidential ballot--you voted for the state legislators who picked the Electors who chose the President.
And in 1969 when Democratic Senator Birch Bayh proposed a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the Electoral College, the argument raised against it was that it took power away from the States. To our founding fathers, and still to many in this country particularly in southern states, a State is its own country joined by treaty to forty-nine other countries--very like the European Union, only further along toward unification. In this mindset, it is absolutely right for New Jersey to have a voice in the selection of the President, not as 8,791,894 individual citizens but as the unified State of New Jersey, one of the voting entities having its own existence within the United States.
So again, the founding fathers never intended that you would vote for the President of the United States. They intended that your state would decide how to pick the people who would choose him on behalf of the state. Today all fifty states hold popular elections for the electors, all but two in a winner-take-all election (Nebraska and Maine changed to voting district representation late in the twentieth century). Talk of "fixing" the system so that it more evenly represents the individual voters is doing exactly what the Constitution was attempting to avoid: stripping the States of their power as States.
Whether we still want States to be represented in this way is perhaps the issue, but we must understand that it is the issue if we are to discuss it.
So the system was designed so that States, not people, would pick the President. It actually was more complicated than that.
The Constitution did not specify how States ought to select electors; we noted that in many States originally the legislatures appointed people, and there was no presidential election at all. The framers reportedly had envisioned, but not mandated, something different--a district-by-district election of electors, so that for example New Jersey's Salem and Cumberland counties might send Republican Electors while Union and Hudson sent Democrats. (Again, Maine and Nebraska are the only states doing this today, all other states using a "winner take all" system.) The expectation of the framers was that the Electoral College would almost always be hopelessly deadlocked, and that Congress would then be given the job of breaking the deadlock by picking one of the candidates who had strong support, and appointing him to be "their" executive, to carry out their laws. They failed to envision an executive so independent of their control as the Presidency has become, but it never worked as they had hoped.
That illumines an important feature of the system: a candidate must have an absolute majority, fifty percent of the electors plus one, to become President. It is frequently complained that the system allows a candidate to win with fewer voter votes than his leading opponent. What is less recognized is that it allows a candidate to win with less than half of all the votes cast, even when he has the most votes. Now, as in the time of the framers, it is difficult to envision any candidate taking more than half of all votes cast--it is the exception as much as the rule, with many votes going to splinter groups and attempted third parties.
The two party system, which we noted was created in response to the existence of the Electoral College, causes most voters to support one of the two leading candidates, since to do otherwise is as useful as not voting. Yet absent the Electoral College the two-party system is likely to collapse, as voters support half a dozen or more leading candidates as they do in the primaries. With even three strong candidates the leader would probably have significantly fewer than half the voters on his side--a plurality, but not a majority.
Which leads to the problem. Do we want a President who won with perhaps only twenty percent of the voters supporting him, or do we want some kind of tie breaker system? If the latter, what--a second runoff election, selection by Congress? Or does the prize go to the highest score regardless of how low a score that is?
How we resolve this will impact the process. A candidate who knows he cannot win a majority might still run in the belief that he can force it to the secondary process and win there, and might succeed despite being roundly despised by the majority of Americans. In a broadly contested race, fifteen percent of the vote might be sufficient to make the finals, and from there possibly the vote no longer matters.
So by all means let's think of how to make the system more "democratic"; but before we eliminate the impact of the Electoral College let's be certain we have a viable alternative.
This was originally published on Election Day, 2012, your opportunity to help pick the people who will pick the President for the next four years.
Vote, or don't complain about the outcome.
Perhaps the ultimate joke of the Electoral College is how well it actually works at producing a President chosen by a majority of the voters, given that the framers did not intend for it to work at all, and to work less well the more democratically the process ran. Their expectation was that electors would be chosen from each district, supporting many different candidates for President, with the result that the Electoral College would always be hopelessly deadlocked and the choice of chief executive would default to Congress, who would choose someone from the list of those put forward in the College. We were never supposed to choose the President, and he was never supposed to work for us--he is the Executive, the person who executes whatever the legislature tells him, given very little power to oppose their directives. That power has proven much greater than envisioned, and that system short-circuited by the states and the political parties in a way that gives the office to the man with most of the popular votes most of the time.
But it should be remembered that this is incidental to its design. As we saw, it was never intended that the voters should select the President, but that the States, as States, would do so. Each State decides how it will select Electors. Originally, quite a few had their state legislatures choose these; today all but two have popular votes with a winner-take-all outcome. That indeed means that one party could win all the states it wins by massive majorities and lose all those it loses by slim margins, and lose the election because of winning the wrong states; it also means that in those states the system is working as intended: each State is voting for one candidate for President.
(Strictly by the numbers, a candidate who took California (55), Texas (38), Florida, New York (29 each), Illinois, Pennsylvania (20 each), Ohio (18), Georgia, Michigan (16 each), North Carolina (15), and New Jersey (14), and no others, would win with 270 electoral votes and only 11 states. He could easily lose the popular vote by a landslide, as long as he held slim majorities in these eleven.)
Is that how we want it?
Living in New Jersey, it is difficult to envision the State as a unified entity. The northern areas watch New York City television, root for their sports teams, and follow their news; in the south, Philadelphia Pennsylvania dominates in the same way. The perennial South Jersey secessionist movement shows just how divided we are--and the farther south you go, the farther south "North Jersey" begins, with some putting Cherry Hill and Camden in the "North". New York has similar problems, with what is by some reckonings the third largest city in the world and largest in the United States occupying a tiny corner of an otherwise mostly rural and wilderness area. The notion that we are like one country sending delegates to a multi-national convention to choose the leader of our treaty organization is alien to us. We are citizens of The United States of America, residents of New Jersey; the idea that we are citizens of New Jersey never enters our thoughts. Why should New Jersey be identified as a unit that has its own vote at the national level?
Yet at the national level we are treated as a unit. Federal funding and federal programs are frequently administered on a state-by-state basis, the money being funneled through the state governments to meet local needs. Under the federal system, states do have significant autonomy--passing and enforcing laws, maintaining independent penal systems, managing welfare and child protection programs. New Jersey does some things differently than any other state, and every state can make the same claim; and the federal system makes that possible in part by treating New Jersey as an independent unit within the union. It is on some level not sufficient that the citizens of New Jersey have a voice in the Federal decision making process; New Jersey itself, as an individual state, needs such a voice.
Our U. S. Senators are such a voice, representing the State of New Jersey as a whole, where our Congressmen represent it piecemeal, district by district. The selection of the President falls between the two, precisely because the states decide as states how to choose their own Electors, which are numbered based on the number of Congressmen plus Senators.
It is perhaps not so silly an idea as it first appears; but there is more to say about this.
It is easy to suggest alternatives to the Electoral College system. An Examiner author, in Time in the cycle to complain about the Electoral College, reported a suggestion:
...from Silvio Laccetti, a professor emeritus of social sciences at the Stevens Institute of Technology.A simpler solution would balance the demands of democracy with the importance of states in a federal republic, while eliminating the swing-state presidency: Each state could allocate its electoral votes proportionally based on each candidate's share of the state's popular vote. Individual voters in every state would be empowered, and the rights of states would be preserved. As a bonus, it would be possible to set a threshold at which third-party candidates might receive electoral votes. It's a solution that just might weather the storm.
This is close to what we saw was the original intent for the system, in which electors would represent districts within states. Could we do this? The Constitution gives States the power to decide how their Electors will be chosen, so in theory every State individually could change to this system. Nebraska and Maine already have a district-based system. All the States could follow suit, setting up either districts or other means of proportional representation.
However, they won't. It is disadvantageous to the States to do so, in one way or another.
There are in a sense two kinds of states--those that are considered "Red" or "Blue" because they reliably support one party or the other, and those that are "Swing States" because they break fairly evenly and could go either way.
In the former type, presumably the party which the state usually supports nationally is also the party that usually controls state government. Thus in New Jersey where we usually support the Democrat our state legislature is comprised predominantly of Democrats most of the time. With the winner take all system, they know that their party will usually take all the Electoral votes from our state. To change that would mean giving some--often a substantial number--of those votes to the Republicans. New Jersey Republicans might prefer that, but do not have sufficient power in the State to make that change, or to retain it once it is made. Thus in any state predominantly favoring one party, that party has the ability to control the Electoral votes of the State and so give all of them to its own candidate.
In the "Swing States" of course it is likely that control of the state government is as changeable as that of presidential preference, and so either party could change it to a proportional system. Thus Florida, with 29 Electors at stake, could have in the close Bush/Gore election given 15 to Bush and 14 to Gore instead of all 29 to Bush. But then, consider the money and attention poured into these states by candidates. Millions of dollars are spent on advertising, a sure boost to their economies during the election years. With the winner-take-all system it is worth it, because even a margin of a couple hundred votes will give a huge reward; that same margin in a proportional system is unlikely even to make the difference of one vote shifted, and is not worth the investment.
Thus the state legislatures of "Swing States" will not change to proportional representation because it would cost their constituents significant amounts of money coming into the state, and those of "committed" states will not do so because the controlling party would lose votes on the national level and has nothing to gain for doing so.
The same factors that make it unlikely that individual states would make this kind of change also make it unlikely for a Constitutional Amendment to pass accomplishing the same thing, because the States have to approve the amendments, and really no one in the political world wants it. Thus proportional election of Electors is an interesting idea (apart from the deadlock problem previously noted), but it won't happen.
In the wake of the failed Romney Republican Presidential bid, there is a lot of discussion about what Republicans must do to recover losses and become a viable national party again. Pundits and analysts couch it in terms of "appealing to the minority vote", that is, getting more Blacks, Hispanics, Asiatics, Women, and Youth to support the party's positions. This conception is essentially discriminatory and prejudicial, as demonstrated by remembering such people as Thomas Sowell, Marco Rubio, Michelle Malkin, Mia Love, Darrell Issa, Allen West, Herman Cain, Bobby Jindal, Carlos Gutierrez, and Nikki Haley, all of whom fit in one or more such group, and all conservatives who undoubtedly voted Republican. In any case, if we remember our understanding of coalitions at the party level, we should realize that it is not really about forming a new coalition of ethnic and demographic groups, but forming a coalition based on ideas and policies, putting forward a platform that will draw supporters because it supports what they most want and does not support what they most oppose.
This is not a matter of complete agreement of all factions within a party. Democrats appeal to those who favor relaxed immigration laws despite the fact that most of labor considers lax immigration policy a threat to American jobs (although whether union leaders share this concern in the face of the advantage of increasing union membership with immigrants, and thus increasing their power, is another question). It is possible for a party to thrive while supporting policies some of its members favor and some oppose, as long as each faction sees the party as the best supporter of its most important issues. When a party manages to persuade a group that previously supported a different party that the group's interests are better served by itself, the coalition changes.
This has been done before. In the wake of the Civil War, the Lincoln Republican Party was the party of civil rights. Even into the late sixties and early seventies, southern Democrats such as George Wallace were the bastion of discrimination. But northern Democrats including the Kennedys stole the issue from the Republicans, getting ahead of them in supporting the civil rights movement in the early sixties and so becoming the civil rights party. The coalition shifted as southern whites realized the Democrats no longer represented their interests, but now more blacks are Democrats, and more southern whites are Republican.
(This is not saying that the Republicans are the party of discrimination; rather, when the Democrats ceased to be the party of discrimination and spearheaded civil rights, they gained minorities from the Republicans while southern whites discovered that they were more in agreement with the Republican party on other issues.)
The question is what positions the Republicans can change. That sometimes means who they can afford to lose. For example, giving up their positions on abortion and marriage will cost them the "religious right", many of whom would support Democratic positions on unions or welfare but are more concerned with these issues they perceive as moral questions. On the other hand, sometimes parties retain policies because they always have, but which no longer are critical questions for their constituents. The party has to figure out who within it has what non-negotiables, and where it can change its views to take people from the Democrats without losing more than it gains. Will a change in immigration stance cost voters, or gain them? What about tax policy issues?
That's not something a column of this sort is likely to accomplish. However, if Republicans begin thinking in terms of issues instead of demographics, it might be able to create a stronger and larger coalition over the next four years and restore itself as a contender.