We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.
Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off. Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.
That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.
In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like. Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:
This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.
The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:
Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.
That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.
That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:
This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.
Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.
Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.
If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.