Stop the Bloodletting in Politics

Leaders of democracies aim to serve their citizens and improve lives through representative government. The United States and other countries try to reduce discontent by giving citizens more direct say through ballot initiatives, proportional representation and other means. In turn, these trends increase fragmentation and extremism, reducing accountability, weakening political parties and encouraging candidates who wreck political moderation, argue Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, professors of political science at Yale University. Shapiro is also the Henry R. Luce director of Yale’s MacMillan Center and the publisher of YaleGlobal Online. Rosenbluth and Shapiro explain that strong political parties for the United States would “have incentives to propose policies with broad appeal that most voters already prefer – sensible gun control, environmental legislation in line with the rest of the developed democratic world, workable and affordable health care, and reforms of K-12 education.” A model is the British Labour Party’s 1948 drive to create the popular National Health Service with the ideal that health care should be available to all regardless of wealth. Strong political parties can make tough decisions and unite electorates over the long term. – YaleGlobal

Stop the Bloodletting in Politics

Politicians try to ease popular discontent by bringing government closer to the people – weakening political parties in the process
Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro
Friday, May 10, 2019

Referendums and bloodletting: Curing popular discontent by giving voters more direct say is similar to the bloodletting remedies of the Middle Ages; the British National Health Service, created by a strong Labour Party in 1948, is more popular than the Queen

NEW HAVEN: The ancient medical practice of bloodletting used many techniques – such as lancing people’s veins or placing leeches on them – to accomplish a common purpose: curing a disease by draining out some blood, thus releasing “bad humors.” Many patients survived the procedure, but none were helped. Medical science has since given us better treatments.

Politics has its own version of bloodletting, but unlike medicine, it has not left these treatments in the past. Democracies around the world have tried to cure popular discontent by bringing government closer to the people – through referendums, plebiscites, proportional representation and other means – with the common purpose of making politicians better attuned to their constituents. When voters only grow angrier in response, the answer is often that we haven’t applied enough leeches and further decentralization is urgently needed.

Some commentators endorse the idea of multimember districts as a way to address America’s staggering over-representation of rural states. We agree with the diagnosis of the problem, but this remedy is likely to make things worse. Multimember electoral races require any party seeking a legislative majority to field multiple candidates simultaneously in many districts. The problem is that this would dilute the usefulness of party labels for voters who must choose between policy platforms.


But wouldn’t less partisanship be a good thing? Wouldn’t it promote legislation across the aisle? That argument confuses the vice of compromise with the virtue of moderation. Not all compromise is aimed at resolving differences between sincerely held positions. Some is simply logrolling, as each participant in a deal extracts his or her own price. Moreover, when everyone knows that the end result must be a compromise, they all have incentives to take more extreme positions so as to get points for appearing to make concessions later. In this way, the expectation of compromise undermines moderation and promotes polarization.

Multimember districts, in which candidates compete with one another to bring more bacon home to the district, only increase the incentives for logrolling and weaken the party leaders who should be fashioning programs that are good for the nation. We end up with spending that is good for people in a district or state but is not in the national interest. At worst, we get bridges to nowhere.

What we need are strong parties that have incentives to propose policies that most voters will prefer, and whose candidates have incentives to support those policies. In 1965, 70 House Republicans clambered aboard for the final vote to create Medicare, but only once it became clear that the House Democrats were going to pass the popular program whether they supported it or not. In 2010, Obamacare was enacted without any Republican support and, as with Medicare, in the face of fierce opposition from organized interests. Republicans have found these policies difficult to get rid of because in both cases Democrats found the sweet spot of public opinion and national benefit. The British Labour Party did the same when it created the National Health Service in 1948 in the face of Tory opposition, as well as great hostility from the British medical establishment. Today, 70 years later, the NHS is more popular than the Queen.

varied populations of US states
Fair representation? US state populations range from a few hundred thousand to tens of millions, but each has two senators (Source: US Census)

Parties are already weak in the United States. Candidates spend staggering amounts of money to differentiate themselves from fellow partisans in primaries and to advertise their personal virtues in general elections. In countries with programmatic parties, such as Britain and Germany, elections are cheap. Strong parties go hand in hand with less pervasive influence of money in elections.

There are ways to cure America’s malapportionment problem without killing the patient. We should reform the Senate by breaking the most populous states – like California, Texas, Florida and New York – into smaller ones and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. In the House of Representatives, independent redistricting commissions should be instructed to design “flower petal districts,” each one as much a microcosm of the whole country as possible. Politicians elected from such districts would no longer need to raise massive amounts of campaign money by appealing to special interest groups. Their incentives would be to choose party leaders who will forge policies that appeal to most of the people over the long run. We could finally get Congress to enact what most people want:  sensible gun control, environmental legislation in line with the rest of the developed democratic world, workable and affordable health care, and reforms of K-12 education.

Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, both professors of Political Science at Yale, have recently published Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy From Itself. Read an excerpt.

© 2019 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center