The “Just One Extra Vote Fallacy:” Why we’re trying to compromise with the wrong people

tug of war

Quick quiz:  Who said this?

“We don’t need to work with the other party.  We control the Congress, White House and the Senate.  We can do whatever we want.”

Was it:
A) Democrats in 2020
B) Republicans in 2016
C) Democrats in 2008
D) Republicans in 2000
E) … You see the point.

Alright, then let’s instead turn to how this worked out for those that said it.

Second quiz: On which of the following issues has the US made lasting any progress since 2000?

A) Climate Change
B) Middle Class economic opportunity
C) Immigration and/or border security
D) Gun Violence
E) … You see the point.

There is this conception that if one’s side can simply win elected “control” of government, one’s side can then accomplish the things it feels to be important, and that will solve the nation’s problems.  I call this the “Just One Extra Vote Fallacy.”   “If we won just that one extra seat in the Senate, we’d have our way …

History shows us it doesn’t work that way.  If the “winning” party holds but a slim majority, such that the sides remain closely split, say 50/50 in the Senate,  Or 51/48 in the Congress (as has been roughly the case for thirty years), the minority party in that situation retains sufficient power to frustrate meaningful progress, and/or completely overturn progress in subsequent election cycles.

So why do we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that,  metaphorically, “just that one extra vote” will solve our problems?

Well, it turns out there’s an explanation for that.

In 2014 political scientist Francis E. Lee, now Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton, wrote a piece in The Monkey Cage arguing that a key contributor to our then (and now worse) national partisanship is simply that the nation is so evenly politically divided.  Sharing data that illustrate the nation’s electorate has been, since 1980, continuously more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans than at any other time since The Civil War, she observed that such a situation decreases incentives for compromise and increases those for partisanship.  It’s a simple, well-reasoned case you can review here: American politics is more competitive than ever. That’s making partisanship worse.

Sadly I only got around to reading her piece recently (crazy long reading list, sorry) but found this explanation stunning in its (obvious?) simplicity, though admittedly it leaves a couple of key questions unanswered.  Such as why the nation has become so evenly split.  I can with great authority assure you that I do not know.  (But am curiously researching.)

However, her assertion is actually kind of fascinating in its potential implications.

First, it explains the whole, patently doomed “Just One Extra Vote” aspiration.  Because both parties have remained for thirty years never more than millimeters away from fully controlling the government, they have viewed the path of least resistance as conquering those last few millimeters, as opposed to seeking common ground legislation with the other party.  Why (a) work with them, when you can (b) defeat them?  The sad part of that is of course that, in their obsessive fight over these millimeters, the parties have distracted themselves from the responsibility of actually getting things done.  In a sufficiently broadly-supported manner that will “stay done.”

But second, it suggests an interesting solution.  The parties need to aspire to more than “just one extra vote.”  More than 52% national support.  They need to capture 60-70% national support.  I know, of course, ridiculously simplistic.  But the point is, rather than delude oneself into thinking that fighting for thirty years of “just one extra vote” actually accomplishes anything, and rather than seeking compromise within a 50/50 government and then blaming the other side for failing to go along, one might instead step back and ask, “How might we rally a coalition sufficiently broad to allow us to actually get things done?”  And the answer is by fine-tuning one’s positions to steal the other party’s voters.  Broaden the tent.

Of course, I realize, understandable objection: “You’re proposing we simply compromise our values and abandon important policy goals before even engaging with opponents.

So, first, exactly which important policy accomplishments of the last thirty years of 50/50 government are we afraid we wouldn’t achieve?  The only meaningful accomplishment since 2000 has been the Affordable Care Act, and guess what?  That one has over 60% support among the voters.  Broad support matters.

Second, the proposal is not to abandon any goals.  It is to make policy proposals more palatable by compromising directly with the electorate, such that it elects more of your team than the other team, such that you can now advance legislation that (a) actually passes because you have a super-majority and (b) remains passed, because — look at that! — the public broadly supports it. This approach does not preclude one from achieving “bold” policy evolution. It just acknowledges that in order to do so, one has to build sufficient support for such bold change within the country over time (or the country will just unproductively argue with itself for thirty years).

This is just compromise you are proposing,” you dismiss.  “How is it different from the compromise attempted in the Congress right now?

The difference is one would be negotiating compromise with the electorate, rather than with elected officials.  In today’s environment, an elected official finds it much more difficult to compromise — if at all — because s/he fears backlash from diehards in the subsequent primary and election.  But if in that same general election, Candidate A’s opponent, Candidate “B”, attracts away from “Candidate A” those voters who would support a compromise proposal, that leaves Candidate A with only the diehards supporting them.  And Candidate B wins.

So if you compromise with the electorate, you obviate the need to compromise with opponents in the Congress.  And you move policy forward.

Therefore it is with the electorate that we should be discussing compromise.

One could view this proposal as simply the same old, “tack to the center just enough to win the election” argument.  But it’s notably different.  I’m not proposing “just enough” to win the election and still have a 51/49 split electorate.  I’m proposing to adjust policy positions sufficiently to attract an overwhelming majority — 60% plus.

Abandon the aspiration toward 50/50 gridlock.  It hasn’t worked for thirty years.

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