A framework for thinking about democracy reform

August 17, 2022 by Sam Wang

This year, I’m highly focused on the preservation and improvement of democracy. (There will still be horserace coverage for longtime readers. That’s coming soon!)

My fundamental motivation is this: I think there’s hope for our democracy, and I want to deploy data and science to help understand the best way forward. For many of you, an optimistic sentiment may seem out of place. After all, we have a host of problems that include erosion of individual rights, an enormous gulf between the major parties, partisan gerrymandering, loss of faith in institutions, war, and climate change. Sounds bad, right?

Actually, there’s hope. I’ve been applying data analytics to study elections and campaigns here since 2004. Since 2013 I’ve been working to help reformers across the nation (the Princeton Gerrymandering Project). My conclusion is that achieving change is difficult but possible. For example, despite what you’ve heard, gerrymandering is actually on the decline in many places – and competition is higher than in 2012. To get effective and lasting change, it would help to understand what we’re doing and measure the effects accurately.

I’m a working scientist with an interest in using my craft to understand how and why our democracy has gone off track. Science and analysis can help in different ways: understanding how we got where we are today, finding the underlying reasons why the system isn’t working, and designing ways to get us on track.

In the weeks and months ahead I’ll pursue five major themes:

A unifying framework for understanding democracy’s breakdown. Modern conditions have overwhelmed the American system of democracy. For much of the 20th century, politics was complex, in a good way. It was possible to find a mixture of opinions within a geographic region or within a political party. Attitudes toward economic equality, the role of government, civil rights, abortion, guns, and other issues cut one another and across party lines, a quality that I will call “multidimensionality.” Differences were resolved by a variety of intra-party processes and general election mechanisms – and the civil rights movement expanded these mechanisms to encompass more and more people.

This complexity has largely become degraded into a single dimension. This is what we mean when we say that politics are “polarized.” Two poles define a line, and a line is one-dimensional. With the urban/rural divide, rapid long-distance social communication, and other forces has come a great coalescence of politics into a single political dimension of left-to-right. That collapse creates a recipe for political polarization and even instability. It can account for the growing presence of authoritarian and anti-democracy tendencies in the U.S. I’ll argue that the concept of low political dimensionality has explanatory power – and helps us think about solutions. I will use this framework to investigate reforms that have the potential to reduce the impact of these destabilizing forces.

What chokepoints make democracy unresponsive? The current system has many features that make government unresponsive to citizens. For example, if the only local election that matters is a party primary, and you’re not in that party, then you’re out of luck. Rules that used to be moderately problematic – legislators drawing their own districts, or first-past-the-post elections – are now bugs in our democracy, and make it harder to resolve political conflicts.

Reforms that work – and why. In the last decade, reform has started to pop up around the country. Some of those reforms can make a difference, as has occurred in redistricting. These reforms are real but incomplete. To address problems in democracy, can the next wave of reforms such as ranked-choice voting succeed? When might such an idea fail? What is the practical route for achieving the reforms? Understanding these successes and failures might shape our thinking about the next wave of change.

Optimizing your efforts. How can we give citizens more leverage, yet also maintain a political system that is stable and builds toward the long term? This is going to take varied efforts: local and national, short-term and long-term, by individuals and institutions. I’ll write about how to optimize your efforts, whether it’s choosing which local races give you the most leverage during a campaign season, or joining a years-long reform effort. In all cases the goals are nonpartisan, and are focused on what it takes to build a responsive, functional, and stable democracy.

Using science to get us there. In all of this, my contribution is based on data and science. In my day job, I analyze data and build conceptual models. This work requires data analysis, computer modeling, and a willingness to work between technical disciplines. It’s difficult work, I make mistakes, and I’m always learning. But I harbor a deep conviction that systems-level scientific thinking can help us understand and repair our national mess.

There will be plenty of data and technical analysis. Here at PEC, and over at the Gerrymandering Project we don’t shy away from math. The freedom to put the quantitative work in the foreground is one reason I am pursuing this means of communication, rather than newspapers and magazines. They have an essential role, but sometimes one wants to go deeper with data.



One Comment

ArcticStones says:

A most excellent newsletter!

Sam, first I must thank you for your excellent newsletter, which contains a lot of food for deep thought. For anyone not already subscribing, I heartily recommend that you consider doing so.

I look forward to the discussion of these and future topics here, as well as in other fora.

(a PEC reader since the very beginning)

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