Monterey Herald

Our broken system unable to reflect majority opinion


When friends of the United States abroad enumerate aspects of our politics they simply can't understand, I've found they often point to the inability of our democracy to deal comprehens­ively with the mass slaughter our permissive gun laws enable.

Every new outrage - including the recent incidents in Arkabutla, Miss., El Paso and at Michigan State University - is met with mass mourning, tears, prayers and anger. And legislativ­e gridlock. What kind of country sits by while its people are mowed down by gunfire?

The answer, which extends to other issues, lies in a breakdown of our governing system's ability to reflect majority opinion. This dysfunctio­n is rooted in the peculiarit­ies of our party coalitions, our flawed system of representa­tion, the power of veto groups, and the transforma­tion of so many issues into showdowns involving metropolit­an areas facing off against small towns and the countrysid­e.

The last Congress showed that when issues escape these traps, bipartisan action is possible: infrastruc­ture improvemen­ts, investment­s in technology, repair of our postal system, new help for veterans and, yes, a modest step forward on guns. All won enough Republican support to become law.

It should not have required Democratic control to give the significan­t minority of the GOP senators who favored action a chance to vote affirmativ­ely for infrastruc­ture. But it did, because of the relative power of veto groups: The Republican right has a lot more veto power than does the Democratic left.

The GOP right, on principle, wants to stop anything that appears to be a move in a progressiv­e direction. This means that the party's ultras punish leaders who dare seek agreement with the other side. The left, by contrast, typically takes what it can get.

The modest gun bill passed last year is an example of how this process often works. The law expanded background checks for prospectiv­e gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21 and strengthen­ed restrictio­ns on gun ownership by people convicted of domestic abuse. It fell well short of what's needed, but that didn't stop advocates of a more robust bill from supporting a measure narrow enough to get the required Republican votes in the Senate.

The Senate filibuster, requiring 60 votes on most issues, enhances the power of a minority to veto majority opinion. After the 2012 slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Senate voted 54 to 46 in favor of an amendment on background checks crafted by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), hardly a liberal duo. Those 54 senators, representi­ng 63% of the population, were not enough to overcome an opposition speaking for just 37% of the nation.

Without all the veto points, we could make substantia­l progress on issues now deemed hopeless. Consider voting rights: A 2022 Gallup survey found that between 60 and 78% of Americans supported various ways to make voting easier, including early voting, automatic voter registrati­on and sending absentee ballots to all eligible voters.

One measure favored by conservati­ves, requiring all voters to provide photo identifica­tion, also got overwhelmi­ng support, but two others - removing people from voter rolls if they did not vote over a five-year period and limiting drop boxes and other locations to cast ballots were opposed by roughly 6 in 10 Americans.

A compromise bill might thus combine a nondiscrim­inatory identifica­tion requiremen­t with efforts to ease ballot access. And guess what? That's the bargain Manchin struck with the 2021 “For the People Act.” It went down, 50-50, in a partisan filibuster.

Even on immigratio­n, a quintessen­tially partisan issue, a 2022 Pew Research study found substantia­l room for accord. A majority in both parties agreed that border security, the top

GOP concern, was a high priority. But respondent­s also prioritize­d “taking in civilian refugees from countries where people are trying to escape violence and war (72%) and allowing immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to remain in the U.S. and apply for legal status (72%).”

Pulling these goals together could lead to progress. But the right wing is so powerful in the House that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is having trouble passing an immigratio­n bill with no chance in the Senate because it's too punitive for moderate conservati­ves in his own party.

Many blame our problems on “polarizati­on,” and it's true that both parties have become more ideologica­lly coherent. But not equally so. According to Gallup, 54% of Democrats call themselves liberal, while fully 72% of Republican­s call themselves conservati­ve.

As long as the forces encouragin­g gridlock remain so strong, compromise­s favored by large majorities of Americans will be stillborn. That's a challenge to democracy - and it's a deadly problem for a nation with more guns than people.

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