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Why competition in the politics industry is failing America [pdf] (hbs.edu)
94 points by gpvos on Sept 20, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments

This paper outlines the problem (capture of our democratic process by a business/political elite) quite well. Most of the solutions (fixing gerrymandering, money in politics, primary access) presume a reasonable amount political leverage in order to enact. The paper proposes http://www.centristproject.org/2018plan/ as a fulcrum.

The Centrist Project’s plan includes strategically identifying a small number of states with a political climate favorable to candidates from “the sensible center,” recruiting promising candidates, and supporting them with a campaign infrastructure, as we discuss further on. The genius of this plan is that, while challenging, it is eminently doable because the number of seats required to deny either party a majority is small.

I'm not sure "centrist" is really a thing because I'm not sure voters fall on a simple left/right spectrum. I thought this was especially clear in 2016 with strong populist sentiments giving strong showings in both the Republican (Trump) and Democratic (Sanders) parties.

In other words, many forms of populism are neither Republican nor Democrat, does that make them part of the "sensible center"?

EDIT: Do downvoters care to explain their objections?

I think of "Centrists" the non-negotiable principle is cooperation and successful operation of government for the dignity of the most people, and other policy principles have to compete within that framework. As opposed to the Republican and Democratic parties, which have identified no-compromise principles that divide people as effectively as sporting alliances or religions.

Example (of my own, not from any Centrist literature): charging a commensurate fee to pollute a river rather than strictly allowing or outlawing it. The business would prefer to be allowed to pollute for free (Republican Party principle) while the environmentalists would prefer that the pollution not be emitted under any circumstances (Democratic Party principle). But a structure that accurately prices the impacts and externalities of the pollution respects the environmental and health values, and the business can choose the most beneficial option for them: prevention, change of product or process, or just paying the fee.

But it adds bureaucracy, instead of either nothing or some policemen.

There is a cost, regardless.

If you do nothing and allow anyone to pollute anywhere they want, then you get a public health crisis and many people die and many more get sick.

If you prohibit the pollution and heavily police the people who try to pollute anyway, then you have to pay for all the efforts to enforce the prohibition plus you have the possibility of job loss as those companies go somewhere else that does allow them to pollute freely.

If you allow the pollution but charge a cleanup fee, then you have the increased beauracracy, etc....

There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Can you pay a fee for murder?

It's a label trying to simplify a large group of complex people with complex political opinions. I personally like ideas from both parties on different topics, and my preferences change over time. The whole concept of a group of independently thinking and informed people liking all or nearly all of what a particular political party of two choices stands for is illogical (and probably statistically impossible).

Many people vote against a party rather than for because of the barrage of negativity each party pushes out against the other. That's why attack ads are both prevalent and distasteful: they work.

> I'm not sure "centrist" is really a thing because I'm not sure voters fall on a simple left/right spectrum

"Centrist" is simply the idea of focusing on agreements, areas where there exists broad consensus, and leaving the other issues for later. Americans agree on many issues, but Congress focuses on where we disagree (job security I guess).

I'm not sure why you think there isn't a center in American politics... the media oversimplifies political discourse, but the center still exists in higher dimensions.

More like the lack of competition. See the recent lawsuit by Gary Johnson that was dismissed against the CPD, which is essentially a monopoly on voter information.

Even with the Internet making alternative views increasingly accessible to younger generations, the real flaw lies in our voting system, the biggest oversight of the founding fathers. First Past the Post inevitably leads to a duopoly / 'team' mentality, whereas approval voting could possibly solve many of our nation's woes.

More generally speaking, it seems that the faster society in general changes, the shorter its institutions last - it's like too much baggage and cruft accumulate up to the point of breaking. The new generations demand a different way of life, and they want it faster than the old ones.

The Roman empire lasted a couple of thousand years, the medieval empires up to a half a century, the British empire a bit more than a a quarter, the American, well, almost a quarter (with a violent change about right about the middle of the period, so...). Interesting times, and all that.

I've sometimes thought that the rigidity of the US Constitution (i.e. it's not revised completely ever 50 years) is both its biggest benefit and its weakest side. If only the founding fathers made a clause like "and thou shall revise whatever we've written every 50 years in the light of new facts, because we are just men, and fallible."

The common failing of these reforms, as admirable as they may be, is their reliance on the very same people who depend on the current rules for their position.

IOW, politicians don't change the rules because they suddenly grow a conscience. It has to be presented as an existential choice.

The only other bone I have to pick is with the term "centrist." Meaning what, exactly? Predisposed towards compromise? Absolute neutral in the D&D sense? Unabashedly quantitative utilitarianist?

The way HBR defines it, to be a centrist, one would have to know the extreme positions on a topic and programmatically move towards a middle or compromise position.

> The duopoly controlling today’s political competition has no accountability for results.

Sums it up perfectly...

Not really, it's that the country as a whole can't decide on the results it wants. Both parties are roughly equally split between moderate and more extreme wings, so even within each party they can't agree, and then when the two parties are pitted against each other in campaigns or in the practice of governing, they again can't agree. Double whammy. It shouldn't be any surprise that under these conditions not much gets done.

Also, controversial opinion here I'm sure, but imho that gridlock is mostly good thing. The less the government is able to do, the more of a stable and predictable state the country is in, making forecasting and planning more reliable. The one exception is the government's inability to reign in deficit spending, and perhaps their longer term inability to ensure solvency of social programs.

I think it may be true that the country can't decide on what it wants, but instead because the public wants something it isn't getting, something it can't get.

Obviously people don't want to feel uncertain because of volatility in government. The gridlock is intended to curtail legislative havoc a single party might cause if it got too big.

The problem is partisan gridlock only staggers when party interests conflict. Even then, that type of legislation is likely less unreasonable because of its partisan origins - the originating party has to make it palatable through willingness to include concessions, listen to the other party's concerns, address them in modifications and reattempt getting it passed.

The thing is both parties share much in common, and much of what they'd both agree to expand is concerning if not disenfranchising.

- uncritical fealty to institutional authority

- endless war

- the disregard for our privacy in their approval of expanding surveillance

- their disavowal in the strongest terms of any obstacle to their right to secrecy because national security

- deregulating campaign funding

- complicating a law, legislating it, and then relying upon that expertise to guarantee a cushy retirement in the private sector

- a worsening addiction to defense spending

If anything, I'd say the gridlock actually makes it easier for government to grant itself inadequately-justified powers and broaden its scope beyond deemed appropriate. Voters in this political climate see more of its potential going towards negating a vote for the other guy rather than signaling which problems need most attention.

We have a situation where Congressmen/women ignore their constituents and avoid their own town-hall meetings. And when in Washington (to the voter's frustration) much time is wasted, and bitterly. I guess it makes sense that they exhibit the ability to agree mostly on measures that make the government more ruthless, but it's disappointing nonetheless.

>Both parties are roughly equally split between moderate and more extreme wings

This is simply untrue and false equivalence.

What? You have the Bernie socialists vs the Clinton centrists on one side, and the Trump MAGA warbirds vs the McCain moderates on the other. It sure looks fractured to me.

Agree. Also, see the DW Nominate scores for congress. https://voteview.com/parties/all

Liberals are at 0.38, and the most extreme they've ever been was 0.39. They have been somewhat more liberal than they were in the 40s, but they've generally been within the same band of scores for the last 100+ years.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are at 0.49, which is the most conservative they've been in the last 200 years. They've basically doubled since the 1970s.

So, objectively, conservatives are more extreme (0.49) than liberals (0.38) today. Also, the most extreme conservatives are more extreme than the most extreme liberals.

This method is explained a little bit at


I think this may be the first time I've seen this, but I'm quite confused about the claim to be able to make comparisons across time by simple statistical methods. The model has a clear statistical meaning about the similarity of different members of the same Congress, who have all voted on the same set of questions. But surely the issues that the Congress is actually voting on are radically different from decade to decade? Slavery, the Federal income tax, alcohol prohibition, the New Deal?

Most Trump supporters would suggest they are the moderates when it comes to military intervention, and the McCain traditionalists are the hawks.

Absolutely. Bannon was an anti-interventionist force within the campaign/admin. But he's gone now, so we might see the WH turn towards neo-conservatism.

To add to the other comments, it's a false equivalence because, while there certainly are factions within both parties, they aren't equally divided. For example, there's simply nothing comparable, in terms of power, effect, and influence, to the Tea Party/"Freedom Caucus" of the Republicans on the Democrat side, at least not yet. Sanders or Warren might prefigure a major shift or break in the party, but it hasn't happened yet. On the Republican side it has happened several times in the past 10 years, first with the "Tea Party" wave and now with Trump.

Doesn't the amount of votes that Sanders got in the primary indicate that there is a farther-left (and maybe even insurgent) Democratic wing that has at least as much "power, effect, and influence" as the Tea Party? Or do you need to see it actually unseat senators in primaries, instead of almost unseat presidential candidates?

Yes, we'd generally want to see evidence of something before talking about whether it exists. The Tea Party unseated incumbent Senators and Congressmen and forced (or enforced) policy changes in the Republican Party. While they have fallen from their 2010 height, they still wield some power, especially in the House via the "Freedom Caucus".

Meanwhile, thus far the "farther-left (and maybe even insurgent) Democratic wing" for all the noise it seems to make has had little effect on the party. They aren't electing people, they aren't even really challenging incumbents very much.

Contrast this to the steady rightward march of the Republicans over the last 30 years: the rise of the Evangelicals in the 70s, Gingrich's 1994 "Republican Revolution", and more recently the Tea Party wave of 2010 and the explosion of an apparent Trump faction. All of these lead to not only actual electoral victories, if not dominance in the Republican Party in some cases, for the more extreme factions, but were coupled with real threats of incumbents who didn't play ball being "primaried" by more extreme challengers.

As I said, it's possible that the surprising performance of Sanders and the popularity of people like Warren may be the beginning of similar change in the Democratic Party, but until that actually happens it's just not comparable to what's happened to the Republicans.

Not so; on many issues, the country as a whole (its citizens) knows what it wants but the parties and duopoly can't deliver it because of how they're structured.

For example there are improvements to healthcare, taxation and financial regulation which a supermajority of citizens would agree with, but the current system cannot/will not deliver. These improvements do not particularly align with either party's agenda.

Another example, closer to people here on HN; merit-based immigration. Support among citizens is broad and I am guessing it would be a supermajority; however more politically active and powerful people in the US on the left and right oppose it.

The supermajority of Americans would decrease or keep the same the level of legal immigration. So you’d be talking about shifting more of the existing immigration quotas to merit away from family reunification. Americans don’t like that either.

> The supermajority of Americans would decrease or keep the same the level of legal immigration


> merit-based immigration

Isn't this what the green card system already is?

God no.

> the country as a whole can't decide on the results it wants

Which will always be true of sufficiently large groups of humans. The more we insist that we all share common goals, the wider the schism between us becomes.

The system of federalism is helpful on this front, as it allows a higher degree of self-governance, since policy decisions can be made more locally.

This last election is a poster child for the gridlock system being a good one. When things go your way, they never move fast enough, when they go against your wishes, it’s always too fast.

No, there's definitely accountability for results. It's just that the results are delivered to the donors rather than the voters. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/26/koch-network...

It's more complex than that. Trump ran against better funded opponents throughout the campaign. Sanders put on a very good showing despite worse funding.

I guess you could argue that it's a winner-take-all system for donors, but maybe that's better phrased as "the winning donors" or "the donors in power" instead of "the donors" to show that it's not just some monolithic group playing I-win-you-lose with American elections.

The problem is not that there are two parties, the problem is that there are two brands that most Americans have an unquestioning loyalty to, like a sports team. If the parties were strong, they would be able to use their influence to make legislation happen and govern effectively. This was how things used to work in the LBJ era. Powerful people in either party could get members with diverse opinions to vote to get things done. They could even offer favors to members of the opposing party and get them to come along. Bi-partisanship was always transactional. But because we oppose "deals" and favor ideological purity (on both sides) nothing gets done. Now the power is with donors, not parties.

Which is why I'm looking forward to seeing how this pans out: https://ivn.us/2017/03/08/breaking-fec-wont-appeal-ruling-de...

Of course, we'll eventually have to change the voting system to an automatic runoff, to prevent the least popular of three candidates from winning due to the other two splitting the vote. And I'm sure there are other electoral specifics that maintains the two party equilibrium.

All things said, like other commenters here, I'm not entirely displeased with the current gridlock.

Edit: see dforrestwilson's comment below to see the update

Seems the problem may be a lack of competition.

In the past presidential election in the U.S., there were 22 candidates, including a socialist, a libertarian, borderline theocrats, establishment politicians, and whatever you classify Trump as.

There's usually a ton of competition, but most people simply don't care. Ask people who they voted for in the last primary for state legislator, and the reasons they voted for them over their opponents. In my experience, people often have a hard time remembering who they voted for the next day, and it's extremely rare for someone to have a good reason why they voted for them.

I've seen a lot of reformist candidates run against corrupt incumbents and lose. It's depressing, but even more so when you see that almost no one bothered paying attention to the race. And then you see the same people complain later - "Why's the government so bad? How come there's no choice and all candidates are the same?"

it's because in a winner-takes-all system like we have, voting for anything but the top two parties is a waste of a vote.

Voting third party in our system just means that the opposing side has a better chance of gaining office

That's a fallacy. If neither party is on your side, then voting third party is absolutely the correct decision. Both parties believe that a third part vote is a vote for their opposite number, but it really, genuinely isn't. Winner take all doesn't change that. Third party votes harm both major parties equally, by showing visibly a reduced voter confidence in them in the polls, and the only way to escape the deadlock is to erode their support over time.

If you're staunchly Democrat, and you vote that way in an overwhelmingly red state, is that also a wasted vote?

>If you're staunchly Democrat, and you vote that way in an overwhelmingly red state, is that also a wasted vote?

Well yeah. That's why we need proportional representation. People should vote, not land.

But land does matter! We aren't nearly so homogeneous a country as we like to pretend. We've lost sight of the fact that each state should be its own experiment in democracy, and each state has a unique culture, economy, and climate, requiring a unique set of laws.

The problem is that people feel so helpless in politics that getting them to care about their mostly invisible state legislature, never mind the Federal, is a Sisyphian task.

>But land does matter!

It really, really, really doesn't. If you can gerrymander Congressional districts and split North Dakota from South to get the electoral results you want, then "land matters" is just a way of saying, "I want power and I'm willing to rig elections to get it."

>We've lost sight of the fact that each state should be its own experiment in democracy

Rubbish: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/john-kennedy-single-paye... . Democracy is the principle that people affected by decisions should, by degrees, get a voice in those decisions. Electoral rituals are not democracy, and in fact, when an election in Louisiana or Texas can determine that people in Massachusetts and California don't get to make our own public policy choices, that's undemocratic.

How is an article about a Federalist attempting to overstep the bounds of power supposed to convince me that state level decision making is wrong? I'm not Republican. Additionally, most states I've lived in harbor a grudge against the disproportionate power of California in their own daily management.

Pretty sure that's why a bill has to pass the house and the senate. One is proportional and the other is a nod to each state as a representative in the 50 state 'republic'

The House of Representatives isn't remotely proportional; it's still land-based. It divides the land into little districts, and then runs a FPTP election in each.

It's supposed to divide the land into areas such that each has about the same population.

It's not even remotely close, and that's why the system is so broken.


Would you please stop using HN for political battle?


>Ask people who they voted for in the last primary for state legislator, and the reasons they voted for them over their opponents.

As a matter of fact, in the last case where a state legislator's seat was contested in the primary at all, I believe I voted for Pat Jehlen, who has a progressive record on economic issues I care about (health-care, wages) and helped pass a bill labeling transgender people (I know some) as a protected class for antidiscrimination purposes. Plus there was pizza at the phone-banks for that bill, and I can always appreciate that.

> borderline theocrats

Who was a theocrat?

I think we can take it to mean that more competition would lead to even less individual accountability for results.

But perhaps if there was a parliamentary system where one party wins leadership, then they would have to take the blame for bad results.

Bi-partisan does not mean non-partisan.

The problem is our obsolete voting system which effectively prohibits a third party from winning. Range voting does not have this problem.

I just have to say, this issue is one I have thought quite a bit about, and I'm not convinced the voting system itself is so bad. Don't get me wrong, I see the major downsides of a first past the post system, and I'm open to change, but in looking at the actual problem what I see is a different issue, namely, gerrymandering, at both federal and state level. My primary proposition as a systematic fix for gerrymandering is to increase the number of districts and reduce existing ones size.

Of course the other primary factor in all this is a fourth estate failing to do its job.

Also, duvergers law is not so concrete a truism as people like to think.

What do you think about removing the cap on the House of Representatives at 435? I think Democrats should really support this completely Constitutional fix to the electoral college instead of advocating that it be removed.

Interestingly US initially had much lower person per representative ratio. If that ratio was maintained, we would have thousands of representatives in the House, and so would be more representative.

I wanted to look it up and this is what I found:

>With the compromise constitutional ratio (1:30,000) in mind and given that the U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are currently about 313.9 million inhabitants of the United States, if the Constitution were being followed, there would be approximately 10,463 members of the House of Representatives.


I'd be okay with this. It would really change the make up of our government. Senators would seem far more powerful in comparison.

The electoral college would be completely different as well. Using the population data on Wikipedia, at 1:30,000 California would have 1309 representatives and Wyoming would have 20. That would mean in the electoral college California would be worth 1311 points and Wyoming 22 vs 55 and 3 today.

This is so overwhelmingly the root problem that I almost can't believe the authors would spend so much time on anything else.

In a more modern electoral system, most of their other points would fall into place naturally.

I always thought so, but then I look at Australia, which has instant runoff voting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant-runoff_voting#Australi...). And we too have almost a two party system (Labor vs Liberals), the other parties get a seat here and there, but the big two don't show any signs of going away.

That's strange. Here in Germany it works out quite well. Sure, we do have two large parties as well (SPD and CDU), but there are several smaller parties which do have significant results, and hence significant influence.

The classic example was the smaller party FDP some decades ago. Although SPD and CDU each had many more seats than FDP, both needed the FDP to have more than 50% of the seats. So whoever the FDP joined with, that party became part of the government, while the other became opposition. Some people even subjected that this was too much power/influence for such a small party. (Then, more smaller parties received a significant amount of votes, and things became even more complicated, but also more interesting!)

One difference might be that those two parties now use parts of other minor parties' platforms as a way to convince voters to consider them. If that were the case then at least there's greater breadth of political opinion/discourse.

You also have compulsory voting, yes?

Can you explicitly vote for nobody?


Our compulsory voting is really "compulsory voting". It's "compulsory turn up to a polling station and get your name marked off". You can drop an empty ballot in the box, draw penises on it, or even just turn and walk out of the polling place.

Also, the OP underestimates the impact of the minor parties. While there are two major parties, one of them is a coalition between two parties (Liberals and the Nationals), and there's a significant block of smaller parties and independents that are big enough that when they vote together they can have a deciding vote on legislation.

> The problem is our obsolete voting system which effectively prohibits a third party from winning.


Multiple lawsuits have been filed by third-party candidates challenging the CPD's policy of requiring a candidate to have 15% support in national polls to be included in presidential debates. While the lawsuits have challenged the requirement on a number of grounds, including claims that it violates Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules and that it violates anti-trust laws, none of the lawsuits has been successful.

No, it's definitely our electoral system. FPTP fundamentally shifts a system toward two major parties, and no amount of tinkering with debates or other reforms at the margins will make third parties competitive.

Further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duverger%27s_law

Why is it a competition for a singular explanation? Why can't both be necessary but not independently sufficient conditions? I sense a middle being excluded somewhere.

I'd still say FPTP is like 80% of the reason why third-parties can't rise to power in the U.S. and elsewhere, but yes, the two main parties have added further obstacles to make the rise of third-parties in the U.S. from almost impossible to virtually impossible (save for a country-wide "wake up" and a huge rally behind a "surprise" new party, etc)

Want to see it rid itself of first-past-the-post? Support and donate to these folks:


They are — as best as I can tell — the only group aiming to reform the electoral formulas used across the country.

The U.S. can't keep kicking its defective cans down the road. Duverger's Law will hold it hostage otherwise: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duverger%27s_law

> The U.S. can't keep kicking its defective cans down the road.

Of course we can. Especially if they happen to primarily benefit the people already in power and in charge; especially if nobody runs on an election reform platform; especially if most of the electorate doesn't understand or can't/doesn't want to make the mental effort to understand what's wrong with FPTP; and especially if people keep getting distracted by other (admittedly very important) issues during campaigns.

Condorcet Voting and multi-member district representation would go much further toward a more egalitarian political system than the stuff FairVote focuses on.

None of these things, however, is as effective as sustained, direct action. Even with our broken one-party-two-factions system this is so.

Wow. What a joke of a ruling.

“Every four years, we suffer through the celebration of democracy (and national nightmare) that is a presidential election,” Brown wrote in her opinion. “And, in the end, one person is selected to occupy our nation’s highest office. But in every hard-fought presidential election there are losers. And, with quadrennial regularity, those losers turn to the courts.”

They turn to the courts because they're systematically excluded from the debate stage.

There's not enough debate time in the world to make Jill Stein poll above 15%.

Yeah, and if she got up on a debate stage, her party would be forced to ditch her and form a real left-wing party.

Given that they actually try running a candidate every four years rather than focusing locally, they're not a very serious party

Daily Caller is worse than a rag. I don't want to insult useful pieces of fabric.

The voting system is not the problem. The logistics of running a successful campaign are. The amount of advertising, canvassing, fundraising, and other effort that goes into American politics is insane - and unless you have the backing of a party, you are quite literally fighting an uphill battle.

Recall the republican voter list leaks last year. Now, consider how much money it would take to gather that much information, at that level of fidelity. Now, consider how much of an advantage a sanctioned party candidate has, when you run against them.

That's not really true. There are plenty of places where the voting system wouldn't hurt third parties (districts where one part or the other is practically non-existent, districts where the incumbent doesn't face a challenger, non-partisan races), but you largely don't see them making any progress there either.

The VPP is the most successful third party (most state reps), and it's only active in one state. The complete inability for other third parties to make almost any progress underscores the problems with the parties themselves (independents have been more successful than third party candidates).

Paper: DISCLAIMER The views expressed in the paper are the sole responsibility of the authors and are not meant to represent views of Harvard Business School or Harvard University.

Title: Harvard Business School: The U.S. Political System Has Been 'Hijacked'

Thanks for fixing the misattributed title, it comes across as sensationalist.

I just copied the title of the original article at themaven.net that I submitted ( https://www.themaven.net/theintellectualist/news/harvard-bus... ). I see the URL has been changed to the paper, which is probably better indeed.

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