🎧 Are America's Institutions Broken?
Yascha Mounk and Sam Koppelman discuss what kinds of reforms are (and aren't) necessary to fix American democracy.
Sam Koppelman is a Democratic strategist who served as director of surrogate speechwriting on the Biden campaign. He is the author, with former Attorney General Eric Holder, of Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote—a History, a Crisis, a Plan.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Sam Koppelman discuss the history of voting rights, how and whether to reform institutions from the electoral college to primary elections, and why Democrats are in such a weak position as they head into the midterms and 2024.
Yascha Mounk: You just published a book with Eric Holder on the history of voting rights. You cover not just the history, but also a description of the crisis and a plan.
First of all, why should people be worried about voting rights? This is not the 1960s. It's not 1870. Why is this something that readers should really worry about today?
Sam Koppelman: One of the things we did with this book was look back at the history of America, all the way to the first laws and presidential elections. In the first presidential election, something like 6% of the American public was eligible to vote. Ultimately, the Electoral College decided without even caring what the popular vote was.
If you look at the sweep of American history—more than two hundred years—there's about 50 where we're an actual multicultural, representative democracy where everyone has the right to vote, up to Shelby County v. Holder, which essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act, after which Texas started passing voter suppression bills along with a bunch of other states. We're at risk of returning our elections to how they looked throughout most of American history, excluding a huge percentage of the public and ultimately not representing all of the people.
Mounk: When you look at the founding documents, the founders explicitly distinguish the institutions of the United States as a republic from a democracy. Now, over time, our understanding about that has changed. But I always think this is just a difference in preference for vocabulary, right? Conservatives, for instance, tend to prefer calling it a “constitutional republic.”
Koppelman: I think, fundamentally, it is true that the founders did not intend for America to be a representative democracy. They thought the idea of a representative democracy where everyone votes, and everyone's votes are counted, was the stuff of Philistines. And then even after that, there were generations and generations that excluded huge swaths of the public from our democracy. I think, in many ways, people catastrophize and fearmonger to get folks less engaged in our democracy and make people feel like elections are a fait accompli. But it's also pretty clear to me that when there are people who are pushing for America to become less representative, to roll back some of that progress, that you have to take that seriously.
Mounk: Take us through what the actual threats to voting rights are. What are the things that are not catastrophizing, not talking points, but reasons to be seriously worried about a rollback of civil and voting rights today?
Koppelman: Since the start of the Biden presidency, dozens of states have put forward bills that are characterized as suppressing voting rights. Right around the time of the Shelby County case, Alabama decided to mandate an official government-issued ID to vote, while at the same time defunding DMVs and closing a whole bunch of them around the state. Bills of that kind have taken place across the country. There's also bills that make it easier to purge voter rolls based on not voting. There have been studies, including in Ohio, where someone decided to spend their weekends auditing everyone who was purged from the voter rolls, and a huge percentage of those people—something like half—still lived in the state and should be eligible to vote. But they didn't use the right to vote in the last elections, so they're taken off the rolls. And the thing is, with these laws, it's not necessarily convincing to me that they actually effectively help one party or another. When you look at voter ID laws, they also lead to a lot of organizing against them and extra registration efforts. People get motivated to fight back against these attacks to their right to vote.
Mounk: This seems to be like an area where these laws are clearly wrong. But they're actually wrong for slightly different reasons than people tend to think. I think they are often motivated by either racial animus or at least strategic considerations: black people tend to vote for the Democratic Party, we want to win against Democrats, so we're going to try to stop black people from coming to the polls. That is morally heinous. They are also morally wrong because they have the effect of making it harder to vote, and we shouldn't make it harder, for people who can legitimately vote, to vote.
But I think what's interesting is that some of the scholarly literature on this actually suggests that the partisan effects that both Republicans and Democrats think these laws have, don't tend to happen. Voter ID laws, for example, don't discriminate against Democrats as cleanly as you might think. It's a case in which Republicans are passing laws that really are deeply morally objectionable, and they’re not even serving their intended purpose, which is sort of absurd.
Koppelman: My favorite example of this is vote by mail, which, especially after the pandemic, Democrats have hugely favored. Trump said if these laws were passed enabling vote by mail, Republicans would never win another election again. But if you look at vote by mail, it just makes sense who that helps: older voters, who tend to be Republicans. So it's one of those weirdly partisan debates that might be organized to the opposite of how it should be. But I think it’s the intention that’s the scary thing, that there are people who are trying to make it harder to vote, thinking that that's going to make them more likely to win.
Right now, when Texas passed their voter ID law, if you didn't have your birth certificate at the time, for whatever reason (which is true of hundreds of thousands of people in Texas) you'd need another form of ID, which could cost you something like $80. We all recognize that poll taxes are just completely immoral; you shouldn't have to pay any money to vote. What we should do is have the government send everybody an ID, to their mailboxes. If you don't have a stable home or mailbox, you should be able to go to any government office—a post office, a DMV, or wherever else—and pick it up. This should be the lowest barrier to entry possible, because then you could actually pass laws that mandate ID and can snuff out fraud, should there be any (even though the statistics say it's pretty unlikely). But I think that this is a clear case where it would serve Democrats well, and it would serve Republicans well, to just talk about this as a sensible, good governance solution. Most Americans think you should have some form of ID, they also think that it should be free to get the ID.
Mounk: And it would be good for Americans to have an ID to be able to go about their lives and enjoy the access it gives them.
You're obviously concerned about the motivation behind many of these voter suppression laws. You are worried about the barrier to voting that it creates, as am I, but ultimately, that is not where the action is. You think the action is on the structural stuff. What do you mean by that?
Koppelman: If you just look at America right now and evaluate it as a democracy—five of the nine Supreme Court justices were appointed by presidents who won having lost the popular vote. You look at the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans have the same number of seats, but Democrats won 40 million more votes in 2020. You then look at the state legislatures, that are passing some of the most extreme anti-democratic laws across the country, and laws that are just hated by the public, like the laws that ban all abortions, including in cases of rape and incest. And they're passing in state legislatures because each of the representatives is more worried about facing a primary than actually having a serious competitive election, because of gerrymandering. And then, of course, the House of Representatives at the national level is also gerrymandered. So you look at all these structural factors, and it's clear that every American's voice and vote is not equally represented in our government. That just feels fundamentally wrong, if you believe in democracy in the sense of each person having the same say in what their country is going to ultimately do and how they're going to be represented. I think these structural things are kind of calamitous. It's obvious that people would then be upset that the government isn't reflecting their interests and lose faith and then get less involved politically. It seems like the kind of death spiral that really hurts democracy across the board.
Mounk: Let's start with gerrymandering. So first of all, gerrymandering is obviously wrong. The classic line, “voters should choose the politicians, and politicians shouldn't choose the voters,” seems evidently right. I wonder, though, what the impact of gerrymandering on the American political system is right now, because it seems to me like we may be misdescribing the nature of the problem. For a long time, Republicans got just an advantage from that gerrymandering because they gerrymandered more aggressively, and even more so because they had control of more state legislatures around the country.
For the 2022 electoral map, it looks like that is going to cease being the case, according to a number of very serious analyses. It looks likely that the partisan lean of gerrymandering is going to mostly disappear, in part because Democrats now have more power at the state level, in part because they've started to gerrymander more aggressively as well. I nevertheless worry about it, because it's wrong in itself and shouldn't be happening, but also because it gives the extremists within the Republican Party (and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic party) an advantage over moderates. Then whoever wins the primary has a safe seat, and 70 to 80% of Congress just worries about their own internal party pressures rather than having to reach the median American. Do you agree with that analysis?
Koppelman: Yes, I do. What happened is that in 2010, Democrats were high off the victory of President Obama, and let Republicans—there's this great book called Ratf**cked about this—invest sums of money that had never been invested before in state legislative seats. And because gerrymandering redistricting takes place every ten years, that was a critical election and Democrats were completely asleep at the wheel. It was also a normal midterm election wave against an incumbent president. Republicans essentially got to draw all of the districts that they wanted to draw in 2010.
It does seem that for the next 10 years the house is going to be more fairly balanced on the macro level. But the people who are going to be in elected office are, as you said, the ones are going to be more worried about primaries than general elections. But I'm really much more worried about it at the state legislative level, where there's even lower turnout, and where, because the barrier to entry is even lower, the people are even more fucking insane. That just poisons our democracy, in terms of having the wrong people in elected office and making it much harder to reach compromises and much harder for elected officials to represent the median voter. One key false equivalency that is worth pointing out is that Democrats did put a bill on the floor of Congress that would have banned partisan gerrymandering. Put it completely in the hands of independent commissions and let them run with it. And then Republicans filibustered that bill and wouldn't vote for it or support it.
Mounk: We've talked about gerrymandering and primaries. Next on our agenda is the Electoral College. What's the case for abolishing the Electoral College, or what kind of alternative reform do you suggest?
Koppelman: The Electoral College is, I think, the most laughable American institution. It was created because when America was founded, we didn't believe in the popular vote at all. Each state could just send its slate of electors to the convention, and then they could just decide to vote for whomever they wanted. Eventually, different states passed laws that essentially said, “We're going to give all of our state's electoral votes to the candidate that wins the popular vote in our state,” which makes more sense. If the Electoral College advantaged Democrats, as it did during President Obama's time, by the way, Republicans would support getting rid of the Electoral College. Because it advantages Republicans right now, Democrats are the ones who want to get rid of the Electoral College, though, in polls, 60-70% of Americans oppose it.
There's two solutions, one of which is a constitutional amendment, which is not going to happen. But there is actually a really interesting way to do this, which is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, where states agree to give their electors to whomever wins the national popular vote.
Mounk: As most listeners will know, changing the US Constitution is incredibly hard, so it's just sort of a non-starter. The idea here is that states can, in theory, decide on their own how to choose the people that are sent into the Electoral College. And so the law that a bunch of states have passed is to say, “Once enough other states also pass this, then we are bound by the winner of the national popular vote.” That, essentially, would result in an end-around with the Electoral College, where it continues to formally exist, but the majority of people in the Electoral College will always agree with the winner of the national popular vote.
How close are we to passing this, and is there a risk that the Supreme Court might strike this down, potentially in the middle of a contentious election, which could lead to a real constitutional mess?
Koppelman: The way it works is that once enough states agree to this compact, that's the trigger that makes it happen. It's one of those things that in the next 10 or so years could really happen, and would significantly change American democracy for the better.
Mounk: I think it would have a lot of positive impact, especially in presidents finding it harder to “slice and dice” the American population, as Obama said. I think it would be much healthier for our national politics if every vote counts, wherever it comes from. You have to speak to Americans as a whole.
One of the reasons why I don't see the point of engaging in the Senate reform debate is that statehood for DC or statehood for Puerto Rico is constitutionally complicated, but we can imagine what it would look like. There's a relatively straightforward path. But the political prospects for reforming the Senate are so low, and I think it excuses Democrats in particular. Democrats, like many left wing parties around the world, have chosen to become the party of highly educated urban elites, so they rack up votes in the state of New York and California, but have ceased being competitive in places like Iowa and Ohio and elsewhere. And so we can sit around and fantasize about the wonderful things reform will do to the Senate, or we can think about how the Democratic Party—which under a black leader, Barack Obama, was competitive—might go back to actually being able to win senatorial elections in those territories. That seems to me like, at least politically speaking, a far more sensible thing to focus our energies on.
Koppelman: I agree. A friend of mine who's long worked in American politics said, “It's easier for Democrats to imagine losing our democracy entirely, or fundamentally changing all of our institutions, than it is to imagine winning a Senate race in Indiana.” The way the Democrats talk about politics right now, the issues that we choose to focus on—it's not what you do if you recognize just how far you are from having equal representation in your government. Democrats need form a broader coalition than the other party because of these systematic imbalances. And if you want to change any of these things, if you want to make D.C. and Puerto Rico states—those policies could be passed with 50 votes, if you got rid of the filibuster. Those are genuinely worth pursuing. They're morally right and they're strategically right.
Mounk: Here's another concern about the fact that states can decide on their own who to send to the Electoral College, because it also means that there's actually very few federal controls over a Secretary of State in Arizona, or some other place, certifying that the person who won fewer votes in that state somehow should be the winner because of alleged voter fraud. And when I think about the 2024 or 2028 presidential elections, the thing I worry about, far and away the most, more than any of the other thing we've talked about, is some of the attempts by Republicans to place loyalists rather than small ‘d’-democrats into influential positions—Secretary of State and so on—around the country, and some of the laws that state legislatures have pushed which give those elected officials much more discretion of who to ultimately send to the Electoral College.
If I imagine a true constitutional crisis, or I imagine a true way in which an election is stolen in the United States, that is the path. Is there anything that most of us who want an orderly transition of power in 2024, in 2028, can do to avoid such an outcome, and what would that look like?
Koppelman: The key thing you want is that in all 50 states, the certification of election is conducted by nonpartisans. What you want is for every election to be certified by a group of people who are neither partisan themselves, nor appointed by partisans. The problem is that in states like Georgia, they flipped certification so that the state legislature is ultimately in charge, or at least in charge of who gets appointed to do this. I wish I had a better, more programmatic set of policies for what to do to prevent this at the federal level, but fundamentally, election administration in America has long been conducted by the states themselves. And what you need to fight to make sure that it continues to be independently run in as many places as possible. This is just one of those situations where I'm fundamentally pessimistic. My biggest concern about 2024 is Donald Trump winning fair and square. I think that's the most likely bad outcome for America—that he just happens to win more votes than Joe Biden. But it's very easy to imagine just a slightly different version of what happened in 2020, but this time, it succeeds.
The biggest check against the last coup was that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, which ultimately has to certify the outcome of the election. If you look at the midterm polls, it definitely seems like it's possible that Republicans are going to be in control of the House and the Senate in 2024. So that huge protection, that final step in the process, is gone. We're just counting on the states to actually certify the elections, as they did last time. You look at what happened last time: in Michigan, one of the major certification crises, Republicans ended up flipping and joining the Democrats, refusing to decertify the results of the election in Michigan. But that guy's gone. In Georgia, all the people who led the movement to respect the results of the election—Raffensperger and whoever else— they’re being primary challenged, and really might not win.In a bunch of states, the certification of elections is being transferred from a nonpartisan process to a partisan process. This is something to be genuinely worried about. And if 2020 happened in 2024—a very similar election, where four states were decided by fewer than 40,000 votes or something crazy like that—it's not obvious to me that the outcome would be the same as in 2020. In terms of what you can do about it, you can try to vote out elected officials who are doing this absolutely crazy shit. You can volunteer to be an election worker or a poll worker. You also can run for election administration positions yourself. These are pretty uncontested elections. We talked about primaries, but these are elections that have such low turnout, if you go run and have all your friends vote for you, you'll probably win. You can put yourself in powerful positions here. But in the states that have already changed their structure of government such that partisans can certify or not certify elections, we're kind of screwed. Democrats have to win by a big enough number that Republicans aren't within cheating distance of a victory. But I wish I had a more programmatic positive answer here. Fundamentally, it's just electing better representatives who are not trying to literally undermine our entire democracy.
Mounk: At the moment, Donald Trump and the Republican Party are both way outside the American cultural mainstream. But Americans also perceive Democrats as being way outside the American cultural mainstream. And so the way to minimize the likelihood of Donald Trump regaining power in 2024—which I continue to regard as a clear and present danger to American democracy—is to get back into the American cultural mainstream. As you're pointing out, the American cultural mainstream, today, is not bigoted, it is not racist, it is not attempting to turn the clock back to Jim Crow, which has not always been the case in American history.
If you could write a short verbal memo to Democrats to maximize their chances of winning in 2024, what would it say?
Koppelman: The American people are actually supportive of a pretty progressive agenda, in terms of making America a place with more equal opportunity: increasing taxes on the wealthy, raising the minimum wage—all sorts of programs that Democrats theoretically could be talking about. And instead, we're focusing on the very issues that are most divisive to Americans. You can do a ton of good, and instead, we've done absolutely nothing. With the Biden legacy, what we wanted to prove to Americans was, “If Democrats win, we will deliver for you.” Biden became president and passed one big bill, which expired. The child tax credits were pretty great. They cut child poverty in half, that's genuinely an astounding achievement. That’s gone. Their theory was that they would pass these bills, and they would be so popular that they would obviously be able to pass another, even bigger bill. Then inflation happens, and the appetite goes away. Chuck Schumer then breaks his deal with Joe Manchin, and Joe Biden, who ran as the guy who could go over to Congress and make deals with Republicans, takes Schumer’s side in fighting for this giant package. And so instead of the $3.5 trillion dollar package, instead of a $1.7 trillion package, we’re at $0. We pass one kind of milquetoast infrastructure package with roads and bridges and electrical charging stations that are going to be significant—it's a pretty good bill. But all of the hallmark legislative achievements from Joe Biden are gone. He promised Americans that they would be paid more, but functionally, with inflation, we’ve faced the biggest pay cut we have seen in generations. Instead of raising the minimum wage we essentially cut it by 8%.
If you ask Americans, “Are you better off than you were two years ago?” It's a pretty tricky answer. Here's what I'd say to Democrats: forget the messaging. You have power, you have control of the government from now till November. We could pass an agenda, reconciliation bills, we could pass popular shit. Not the wedge issues that you'd like to focus on, or what Twitter says you should focus on. And then once you've done that, campaign on that agenda. Keep building power, and keep wielding the power that you've been using to deliver for the American people. It'll be much easier for Democrats to convince the public to admit D.C. and Puerto Rico as states, if we demonstrated a modicum of competence or ability to actually have state capacity. You have power right now, wield it and do some good shit.
Mounk: I can agree with all of that. But often with politics, if you watch Fox News or MSNBC, what people are talking about is culture. If you look at what are the most read articles in newspapers and magazines, they don't tend to be about the inflation rate, they don't tend to be about economic policy, they tend to be about the big cultural dividing lines. What is it that Democrats need to do on culture in order to appeal to most Americans, and what would that look like?
Koppelman: It's all about issue prioritization, right? One of the things Donald Trump was really good at is deciding what Americans were going to talk about. Americans may not have agreed with him on immigration—he was more extreme than the average American—but the 2016 election was about immigration. He was on comfortable footing. He wanted to talk about terrorism coming over the border, and that ended up being what everyone was debating. It's all about whose turf you’re playing on. That's why I think passing an agenda, enacting actual reforms and change, matters. So I agree with you that this is a problem. But I don't think the issue is that Democrats, by and large, have the wrong take on these issues. The problem is that we're talking about all the issues where there are voices in our party that are the most extreme, and are easiest to paint as radical and outside of the American mainstream, as you said.
Mounk: That makes me quite pessimistic about the ability of Democrats to turn around their fortunes. If they simply don't speak to those cultural issues, that essentially means that in the public perception, it’s the New York Times editorial board and MSNBC which sets the understanding of where Democrats are. And the consensus in the New York Times opinion pages and in MSNBC is way to the left, culturally, of the average American voter.
Let's say Biden manages to strike a deal with Manchin on the $1.7 trillion spending bill, which has some good things for Americans. It's still unclear to what extent that will be outweighed by other negative developments—like a possible recession and ongoing inflation—that just aren't under the control, or not entirely under the control, of the president. That doesn't sound like enough for me to have any amount of confidence in Joe Biden beating Donald Trump in 2024.
Koppelman: Americans are probably going to be voting based on whether they feel better off than they were four years ago. That's just generally how Americans vote. And that's why my priority would be substantively making people's lives better, and then communicating that you're going to continue to make their lives better—promising that over the next four years, you're going respond to their actual concerns, the actual difficulties that they face, and not some wedge cultural issues. Polls show that Americans are genuinely really worried about inflation and crime. Whenever you think about that, on its merits, that's what Americans say. In general, that's really what politicians have to communicate. Be responsive to the actual needs of the American people: the price of oil and the price of milk. They're worried about their neighborhood being dangerous, the quality of their kids' schools. If you believe in democracy, if you believe that the American people know best and the government should reflect their interests, then trust them. Fundamentally, if that's your starting place when you're figuring out your politics—how we can actually serve the people who elect us—I think you'd get a much better set of outcomes than what we've gotten. So while I am pessimistic about the short term prospects of the Democratic Party, in the long run, I do have faith. There's more people who agree with our set of priorities than disagree with them. That's our agenda. And I really hope for the sake of our democracy, and for the sake of the American people, that we follow a different path and actually start delivering for them.
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