Opinion America is now a tyranny of the minority

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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By Fareed Zakaria
Columnist |
October 27, 2022 at 6:52 p.m. EDT


History and current polling both tell us that the House of Representatives will likely flip over to Republican control in the November midterms. What happens then? Actual governance will come to a standstill. There will be a flurry of investigations on everything from the Justice Department to Hunter Biden to the border crisis. The Jan. 6 committee will almost certainly be disbanded. And it’s not implausible to imagine that President Biden will be impeached.


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How did we get here? There are, of course, many reasons. But the central facilitating factor is surely the way that U.S. politics has, over the past few decades, increasingly empowered the extremes of political parties at the expense of the mainstream.
The primary system American parties use to choose their candidates is extremely unusual; no other major democracy has one quite like it. Primaries ensure that the candidates chosen are selected by slivers of the parties — around 20 percent of all eligible voters. And this selection is not at all representative — these are the most intense, agitated activists, often far more extreme in their views than run-of-the-mill registered Republicans or Democrats. Add to this decades of sophisticated, computer-enabled gerrymandering, and you get extreme candidates who run in safe districts where the only threat to them is a primary candidate who is even more extreme.






The Washington Post has analyzed Republicans running for the Senate, House and certain statewide offices and found that a majority could be classified as “election deniers” — people who have in some way questioned, challenged or refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Of these 291 candidates, 171 are running in safe Republican districts. So what began as a fringe theory, promoted by Donald Trump but (initially) rejected by most of the Republican Party’s leaders, has now become the majority view of the party.


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Election denial is not a majority view in the United States. In an NBC poll, 57 percent of those asked said that they would be less likely to vote for someone who claims Trump won the 2020 election, while only 21 percent said they would be more likely to support an election denier. But between primaries and gerrymandering, the majority view gets drowned out. Catering to the right-wing base means constantly ratcheting up the rhetoric: Nancy Pelosi is a would-be dictator, Biden is a communist, Democrats are pro-criminal. “Democrats want Republicans dead,” says Marjorie Taylor Greene, “and they have already started the killings.”
The alternative system of candidate selection, used in the United States before the era of primaries and in most other major democracies, is what is often called the “smoke-filled room” (a pejorative description even before we knew that smoking kills you). In this system, candidates are selected by party bosses. But consider who these “bosses” have traditionally been: aldermen, mayors, governors and legislators. These are people who have won general elections by appealing to the entire electorate, people who have a feel for the broader public. (No group of party elders would ever choose a candidate like Herschel Walker.) Primaries, by contrast, entrust candidate selection to the most radical section of the party. Social media has added fuel to the fire by amplifying the noisiest and angriest voices within the party, who are themselves an even smaller group than primary voters.







While the problem is far worse and much more dangerous on the Republican side, these pressures also affect Democrats. Many of the issues where Biden is constrained in his actions — in particular immigration and energy — are ones where the activist base of the party has much more extreme views than the mainstream. And pivoting to the center, as Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman did on fracking in recent months, is increasingly difficult in today’s world, where you can instantly and easily play old clips of a politician before he changed his mind.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, Max Fisher describes how the recent dysfunctions of British politics can be attributed to the two main parties choosing — over the past two decades — to adopt more of a primary-type system to select their leaders. The Labour Party ended up with an unelectable, far-left leader like Jeremy Corbyn and rejected a charismatic moderate like David Miliband. The recent Conservative Party travails illustrate the problem perfectly. Liz Truss, with her totally impractical, warmed-over Thatcherism, almost always came third in votes from elected members of Parliament (the old system of party “bosses”). But she was the darling of the party membership — which is highly unrepresentative of the British public — and they were the ones who made the final decision.
It is not an accident that Germany and France have both been run largely by solid centrists in a time of populism. They have chosen to keep to the old system of democracy based on the principle of majority rule. In the United States, and to an extent in Britain, democracy has become minority rule, and the minority holding power is unrepresentative, angry and increasingly radical.

 
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