American democracy faces alarming risks from extremist forces that have rapidly gained ground in our politics. The most urgent focus of political reform must be to marginalize, to the extent possible, these destabilizing forces.
Every reform proposal must be judged through this lens: Is it likely to fuel or to weaken the power of extremist politics and candidates?
In healthy democracies, they are rewarded for appealing to the broadest forces in politics, not the narrowest. This is precisely why American elections take place in a “first past the post” system rather than the proportional representation system many other democracies use.
What structural changes would reward politicians whose appeal is broadest? We should start with a focus on four areas.
Reform the presidential nomination process
Until the 1970s, presidential nominees were selected through a convention-based system, which means that a candidate had to obtain a broad consensus among the various interests and factions in the party. “Brokered conventions” — which required several rounds of balloting to choose a nominee — offered a vivid demonstration of how the sausage of consensus was made. In 1952, for example, the Republican Party convention selected the more moderate Dwight D. Eisenhower over Robert A. Taft, the popular leader of the more extreme wing of the party, who opposed the creation of NATO.
Our current primary system shifted control from party insiders to voters. Now, in a primary with several credible contenders, a candidate can “win” with 35 percent of the vote. This allows polarizing candidates to win the nomination even if many party members find them objectionable. (In 2016, Donald Trump won many primaries with less than 40 percent of the vote.)
How can we restore some of the party-wide consensus the convention system required? The parties can use ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. This rewards candidates with broad appeal to a party’s voters, even if they have fewer passionate supporters. In this system, a candidate intensely popular with 35 percent of the party’s voters but intensely disliked by much of the rest would not prevail. A candidate who is the first choice of only 35 percent but the second choice of another 50 percent would do better. Ranked-choice voting reduces the prospects of factional party candidates. Presidents with a broad base of support can institute major reforms, as Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan demonstrated.” . . .