Why Has the System Gotten Worse?


Why have the outcomes and nature of competition of our political system worsened over the last decades, especially since the 1960s? While partisanship at some level has existed since our governmental system was created, the structure of the politics industry has changed significantly—for the worse.

Figure 1 identifies some of the most significant industry structural shifts starting in the 20th century.1 This analysis is not meant to be exhaustive, but to highlight the many important changes that have moved competition in the direction of increased partisanship, gridlock rather than practical solutions, and substantially higher barriers to entry for new competition. (See the sidebar “Milestones in Political Competition and Polarization” for a brief overview of some of the important changes that have led to today’s industry structure.)

Of these changes, some were well-intentioned refinements to rules and practices that had unintended consequences. Many other “reforms” were driven by political actors to expand their influence and ensure their growth.2 Some existing practices were optimized over time to benefit the duopoly. For example, through the use of much more detailed and precise voter data and better technology, gerrymandering has become far more sophisticated and effective. Finally, broader shifts in American culture, institutions, and demographics have also played a role.3

An example of a well-meaning reform with unintended negative consequences was the establishment of partisan primaries, which were intended to give citizens greater influence. The idea was that voters would democratically select the parties’ candidates, instead of the parties doing so in “smoke-filled back rooms” or caucuses. However, as we have discussed, an unfortunate effect of partisan primaries has been to foster more extreme candidates and to leave many general election voters with what they perceive to be unacceptable choices.

More recent congressional reforms with unintended consequences include the elimination of earmarks* and rules and norms discouraging closed-door, anonymous votes in committees.4 These would seem to be clearly positive steps. But, in a polarizing system in which the parties were more and more partisan and entrenched, these changes removed some of the last remaining ways to secure compromise. Earmarks served two purposes: They were a “currency” to get deals done, and they allowed legislators to get credit in their districts for benefits they delivered which could help offset the political cost of compromise. Closed-door, secret votes also helped insulate compromises from attack by partisan extremes. While we do not advocate a return to these particular practices, it will be necessary to change the industry structure in other ways to shift competition towards finding common ground and delivering practical solutions.

*Definitions of earmarks vary, but a good basic definition comes from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics: Earmarks are “allocations of revenue in a bill that are directed to a specific project or recipient typically in a legislator’s home state or district. […] They are often slipped into bills without the review typically given to pending legislation.” See Annenberg Classroom, “Earmarks,” http://www. annenbergclassroom.org/term/earmarks, accessed March 2017.

Outside factors and changes in related institutions also played a part in creating more partisan competition and less solutions-orientation over time. For example, the decline of major newspapers and the once-dominant big three TV networks has contributed to making independent media less influential. The advent of 24/7 media coverage and more partisan media has made any compromise visible and subject to instant attack, as media increasingly thrive on controversy. The rise of social media has proved to be a powerful tool to bombard voters with divisive and sometimes misleading messages that have reinforced partisanship and made divisions worse.5

As is common in complex systems, the collective effect of these changes has become increasingly self- reinforcing. Election changes helped encourage media evolution, which increased politicians’ attacks on the media. The consequences of shifts that led to fewer moderates being elected emboldened the partisanship of winners. And so on. The degradation of the system has sped up over time.

As this historical evolution highlights, transforming political competition will require a comprehensive strategy rather than isolated steps. Structural reforms will be needed in multiple areas to alter incentives now embedded in today’s system and shift the nature of competition. Our challenge is to trigger a new set of self- reinforcing changes that will bring political competition back into alignment with the public interest and not the duopoly’s partisan interests.


Has the election of Donald Trump changed the structure of our political system, or our analysis, conclusions, or recommendations?

On the contrary, it is a direct reflection of them. The Trump election and presidency only reinforce our conclusion that political competition is dysfunctional, and fail to deliver the outcomes that advance the public interest. The election provides a striking indication of the level of public dissatisfaction with the status quo, as the voters clearly tried to reject the political industrial complex by electing someone from “outside the system.”

In the end, they were not successful. Trump ran within the existing duopoly, correctly recognizing that a truly independent bid would not be successful, due to the very high barriers to entry facing an independent. This, not coincidentally, is the same conclusion Michael Bloomberg is said to have reached as he considered his own run as an independent.6

Does Trump’s election signal a shift in the nature of rivalry and the end of party influence? We do not think so. In fact, partisan rivalry and division are likely to increase. Despite initial skepticism by the Republican party establishment, the Trump election became a victory for the Republican side of the duopoly—not for new competition.

President Trump can be understood as a hybrid substitute to the traditional party system, but, not truly new competition. He ran as a Republican, albeit with mixed party support, and utilized the party system and its advantages to campaign, get on the primary and general election ballots, and win.
Trump’s ability to win reflected a very specific personal and political context. His high brand recognition provided two key benefits: 1) unprecedented free media access because his campaign style attracted viewers7 and 2) his ability to go directly to the public using social media (which was a new innovation as well). These lowered the cost of his campaign and, combined with his self-financing ability, lowered his barriers to entry.

Running as an “outsider” within a party may emerge as a strategy others may imitate. However, the Trump success is likely to be more an anomaly due to his unique personal circumstances. Having said that, it is likely that Trump’s election and presidency will cause adjustments and disruption within both the Republican and Democratic Parties which may be significant.

But neither the structure of the politics industry nor its incentives have fundamentally changed. In fact, it is probable that the specter of the 2018 partisan primaries will increase congressional dysfunction, because Republicans who speak up for anything contrary to the Trump administration’s line will fear primary challenges (unless and until Trump’s support among Republican primary voters drops significantly from current levels).

The same will be true for Democrats who are seen to be anything less than completely obstructionist—no matter what the administration proposes.8

The Trump presidency provides striking support for our belief that the current political industrial complex is dysfunctional. Washington, D.C. has been unable to so far get much if anything done, despite one-party control. Gridlock continues. The duopoly and the broader political industrial complex remain intact.

Finally, the parties will likely be better prepared in the future for such “outsider” contenders, and will likely find ways to restore greater party control. The need to reform our political system to create healthier competition and better outcomes remains unchanged.