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Are We on the Verge of a New Era of Political Reform?

Americans are deeply frustrated with how democracy is working in the United States and that could lead to a change in the status quo.
Storm clouds fill the sky over the U.S. Capitol Building.

Storm clouds fill the sky over the U.S. Capitol Building.

"Bold, ambitious ideas need a hearing right now."

That was Pete Buttigieg, the wunderkind mayor-turned-presidential candidate who has made a strong case that structural democracy reform issues need to come first. There are many ways to interpret Mayor Pete's unlikely rise in the crowded Democratic primary field. But one way is to see him as connecting to a diffuse but growing sense that the rules of our democracy are broken, as well as a hunger for some new ones.

In other words, we're likely on the verge of a new era of political reform, one in which possibilities expand and big changes become more likely. This is the time when imagination grows—but also when we have to be careful, lest we get too carried away.

The clearest sign we're approaching a new era is the widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. You don't need to be a pollster to see which way the wind is blowing. Americans are deeply frustrated with how democracy is working in the United States.

A few recent polling nuggets will suffice to tell you what you may already know.

  • Just 38 percent of Americans say that they're satisfied with the U.S. system of government and how well it works. Since 2012, the percentage has fluctuated between 35 and 40 percent, but is down considerably from a recent high of 76 percent in 2002.
  • Just 28 percent of Americans say that they're satisfied with the "way the nation is being governed," which is also near a record low. That share was 37 percent in 1971 and 55 percent in 1984. It has hovered between 26 and 33 percent since 2008.
  • More than two in three (71 percent) Americans believe that politics has reached a dangerous new low point, and 39 percent of Americans believe that this dangerous new low point is the new normal.

But this dissatisfaction goes deeper still. Americans are also unhappy with their political parties. "Independent" has been the most popular political identification in the U.S. for almost all of the last three decades, but since 2010, it has pulled away further from both of the two major parties. Even if independents vote like partisans, they are expressing frustration and disengagement with their choice to stand apart from partisan politics.

Given the levels of dissatisfaction with the two parties, it's not surprising that Americans want more parties. The share of Americans saying "A third party is needed" hit an all-time high in 2018: 68 percent. Solid majorities of both Democrats and Republicans agree.

As with the desire for more parties, more Americans are open to structural changes now than have been in a long time—probably in at least 100 years, since the Progressive Era. In a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, only 15 percent of Americans said that the U.S. political system is the "best in the world" (way down from earlier polling), while another 26 percent said that it was above average, 28 percent said that it was merely average, and 29 percent (almost three in 10) said that it was below average. In the same poll, 61 percent of Americans agreed that "significant changes" are needed in the fundamental "design and structure" of American government—a high openness to change.

We're not only seeing this craving for change in polls. We're also seeing it on the ballots. In 2018, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to use ranked-choice voting in state-wide elections, re-affirming a 2016 statewide referendum supporting the innovative new voting method, which guarantees majority support for winning candidates, avoids spoiler effects, and can help incentivize compromise and civility in our divisive politics. Now, ranked-choice voting is spreading, with campaigns building in states and cities across the country.

Indeed, wherever political reform was on the ballot in 2018, it was wildly popular. Four states passed independent redistricting commissions, and three passed voter enfranchisement reforms.

Momentum is only growing, and part of it is generational. The new younger political leaders, like Buttigieg, have no nostalgia for an old system that may have once worked, but no longer does. They understand that, despite whatever once existed, there's no going back. Only forward.

History suggests that we're at an inflection point on the cusp of a new era of reform. In one sense, it's right on schedule. As Samuel Huntington notes in his 1981 classic, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, the U.S. goes through periods of reform politics about every 60 years or so: the 1960s, the Progressive Era, Jacksonian Democracy, and the Revolutionary War. In these years, Americans grew disillusioned and discontented with the corrupt status quo, and reform movements spread. New media and expanding participation upended traditional power politics. The parallels of today with earlier eras are striking.

An era of reform creates opportunities. But, of course, it also creates challenges. The history of political reform is littered with utopianism and unintended consequences. Too often, American reformers have crashed on the shoals of unrealistic expectations, working against, rather than with, the grain of the U.S.'s political institutions, denying the realities of both politics and human psychology, and being unwilling to learn from experience and experiment. And reform skeptics, for their part, have frequently defended the status quo reflexively and unthinkingly, arguing tradition for tradition's sake without engaging with reforms or acknowledging the flaws of the existing system.

This, then, is the charge of the years ahead. Now is indeed the time to be bold and ambitious; new ideas indeed demand a hearing. But we must also be realistic and stay connected to deeper traditions that have worked well, but can use some updating. We can't ignore history and its lessons, and we must innovate within the confines of familiar truths, including those about human nature itself.

This is no easy balancing act. And as with each era of reform, we'll get some things right and some things wrong. We'll over-correct for some past mistakes, and make some new ones in the process. But democracy isn't something to perfect or solve. It's an ongoing struggle in the still-improbable task of self-governance at a scale and complexity never before known.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.