November 2, 2021
Once one party totally controls the government in a state or city, it should be easy for that party to pass all the laws it wants to, right? Well, wrong. Single party rule can actually make it harder to enact policy. On the show this week, UC Riverside’s professor Stan Oklobdzija explains why.
129 — Why Single Party Rule is Bad For Democracy with Stan Oklobdzija
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello everyone, and welcome to Factually. I’m Adam Conover, thank you for joining me once again as I talk to an incredible expert about all the amazing things they know, that I don’t know and that you might not know. My mind is going to be blown. Your mind is going to be blown. We’re both going to have a great time together. That’s the intro I’ve been doing on this show for a couple of months now. Maybe I should change it up; come up with a different way to introduce this show, but I do enjoy saying it and that is what we are here to do. I don’t know, if you have thoughts on a new intro then send me an email it email@example.com. That is the show’s email inbox, I do read those emails and I do occasionally even reply to them. I love to hear from you, the listener. But let’s talk about what we are doing on this show today. Today we are going to talk about political science, once again. We have just two political parties in America, and they’re locked in permanent combat; they’re constantly fighting for control of political institutions and to enact their preferred policies. A lot of people in those parties believe, deep down, that if they could only defeat their nemesis (if they could finally wipe out those assholes who are standing in their way) they could put in place the programs that America really needs and everything would be great. Get rid of those pesky Democrats, get rid of those pesky Republicans, and we could build a utopia in America without the meddling of the other side. Well, here’s the weird thing about that deep down assumption: see, one party rule actually happens all the time in this country, not nationally, but in our states and cities. States in which a single party controls both chambers of the Legislature and the governorship are all over the place. There are 23 states with the Republican trifecta and 13 states with a Democratic one. In Mississippi, every statewide office is held by a Republican, and in California (where I live) every major statewide office is occupied by a Democrat. Now, contrary to what you sometimes hear, that’s not because there are no Republicans in California. In fact, there are millions of Republicans here, way more than there are in a Republican state like Wyoming, for instance. But because they are not in the majority, the Republican Party here doesn’t have much power. This is a somewhat historical anomaly, California used to go back and forth between Republican and Democratic administrations. This is the state that gave America Nixon, Reagan and Breitbart.com. Yet now it is completely controlled by Democrats. In fact, a lot of the time when you go to the polls in California, even though it’s a general election, you’ll be looking at two ballot lines and choosing between two Democrats because no Republican at all is running for the seat. It is pretty wild. So you would think that with that total of a Democratic victory in this state, that Democrats would be able to enact their will, right? Put all those progressive programs that they want to put in place nationally in place, locally: paid family leave, affordable housing, reforming policing, all those big ticket objectives. Well, they should be able to get them done here in California, right? Well, that doesn’t actually seem to be happening at all. What if I told you, that contrary to what a lot of partizans believe, that single party rule can actually be a bad thing for enacting that party’s stated goals. That when you control all of government, it actually makes it harder to get the shit you want to do done. It sounds like a paradox, but it appears to be true, especially in America’s cities. In fact, one party rule can literally end up unmooring democracy. But why? Why does this happen and what can we do about it? To discuss, our guest today is Stan Oklobdzija. He’s a visiting professor at UC Riverside School of Public Policy, and he recently wrote a fantastic essay about this topic called ‘America’s Cities Need Multi-Party Democracy.’ This was a fascinating conversation, I know you’re going to love it. Please welcome Stan Oklobdzija. Stan, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:04:29] Hey, cool, thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Speaker 1 [00:04:30] So you wrote a fantastic piece in the newsletter, ‘Slow Boring,’ a while back about why it is so hard for cities like Los Angeles (where I live and where you live, but also cities across the country) to enact the kind of policies that their citizens actually want. You got citizens saying, ‘We want to end housing segregation,’ just to take one example and then the people in charge end up putting in policies that either perpetuate or further those problems. Why is that? What is this systemic problem in our cities?
Speaker 2 [00:05:00] Well, I mean, there’s really no one singular answer to this. But in cities, we have a different electoral system that’s evolved over the decades. Since a lot of the reforms around the turn of the century, leading up until now. We’ve gone on this path of dependency; of really using antiquated institutions that don’t really reflect the modern realities on the ground. When people end up in the voting booth, the way they vote (and the way politicians sort of look to their preferences to try to translate those into policy) is a bit discombobulated. And I think we all see the results.
Speaker 1 [00:05:34] So you’re saying that the literal structure of the election system: you’re talking about stuff like the number of seats there are, who they represent, stuff like what day the election is on. Those sorts of structural issues?
Speaker 2 [00:05:49] Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, these are the sort of things we in academia call ‘political institutions,’ these rules and norms that govern our governing bodies and such. You brought up the idea of the day the election is on. Me and you live in Los Angeles, and we just recently changed over to what’s called ‘on cycle’ elections. This means that our elections time up with the presidential calendar, and previously these elections were in off years. People weren’t really paying attention to them.
Speaker 1 [00:06:19] It would be the year that there wasn’t a presidential or congressional election. It would be like 2013, when people are like, ‘I don’t even have to think about voting for another two years.’ And on some random day in October or whatever, there’s an election for one of the most important offices in your city.
Speaker 2 [00:06:37] No, and that’s exactly right. Everyone’s busy. Everyone has their life to live, and then all of a sudden there’s an election. People with crammed schedules are expected to become experts in a whole slew of candidates, without really any cues to guide their vote. So what happens is, just the most high propensity voters; the people with the most interest in the system
Speaker 1 [00:07:04] You’re talking about cranky old people.
Speaker 2 [00:07:06] Well, you said it, not me.
Speaker 1 [00:07:10] Yeah, people are like, [in old man voice] ‘There’s a new building going up, but I don’t like it like it.’ Those sorts of people, the ‘I saw a man walking his dog and I’ve never seen him before.’ These sort of people?
Speaker 2 [00:07:23] Yeah, the sort of ‘neighborhood character block,’ right? That wanna encase their neighborhood like those of mosquitoes in Jurassic Park in the amber just sort of live forever in perpetuity. I mean, it’s one such constituency, but there’s a lot of special interest groups and a lot of people that are really highly motivated to keep government a certain way. Those are the people that make the time to turn out.
Speaker 1 [00:07:46] In Los Angeles, we moved to on cycle, which meant that now our local city council elections are always lined up with either the presidential election or the big midterm election. So that means that’s the election that everybody is normally keyed in to, it’s still less people than we’d like in America. But still, at least 50 percent of the voting public is really energized. They are a lot easier to reach and they’re more likely to show up, and that’s a way that the elections have become more democratic in Los Angeles. But there’s still a lot of structures that are opposed to that direction, that are still anti-democratic?
Speaker 2 [00:08:23] Yeah, absolutely. So that’s just one big example in California, as a state has moved towards putting things on cycle. So when the news media is talking about elections, when you’re seeing things about Congress and the presidency and stuff, you’re in the voting frame of mind. You’re also voting in municipal elections here. It’s not the case in every state but here in California, we’ve made that switch. But there’s other structures, too. In the United States, we form our idea of what is a faction or what is an interest around geography. So it comes to this idea from the founding of the country that a person’s largest identity and greatest loyalty is to their state and to their town and such. So we really structure our politics in this fashion. But a lot has changed in America since then, right? Someone’s interest and someone’s identity; the people they identify with and the causes they champion could have to do with someone across ton, or even someone in a different city. But here in Los Angeles (and in most other American cities), you’re drawn into a district and that district is supposed to represent all your interests. But in a multiethnic city like Los Angeles, so many different people are living next to each other that there’s really not that common identity. So this type of situation kind of it kind of muddies the pot a bit.
Speaker 1 [00:09:54] Yeah, I mean, you’re right, especially because we so often look at politics through the lens of national politics: red states, blue states, red counties, blue cities. We assume everybody in a single place: everybody in New York City, everybody in Chicago, everybody in the rural part of North Dakota, those people must all have the same interests. But that’s just not true. In the neighborhood where I live, there’s 5 million dollar mansions and there are extremely dense apartments where you got working class people renting within 3 or 4 miles of each other, and certainly within the same districts. Those people to a certain extent have different (if not competing) interests the rich homeowner says, ‘I don’t want any new buildings built,’ whereas the poor folks say, ‘Please, for the love of God, we need affordable housing,’ and they’re being represented by the same person.
Speaker 2 [00:10:54] That’s exactly right. That’s a perfect example of this conflict of interest within one little piece of ground. To a certain other extent, people live in the city as a whole. You probably don’t work in the same district where you live. Your friends don’t all live in whatever council district you’re at. We experience a city like Los Angeles as a series of places. I myself, I live in Los Angeles, I work in Riverside. So I’m traveling through all sorts of different spaces on my way to the office every day.
Speaker 1 [00:11:25] What about in New York? I lived in Brooklyn, I worked in Manhattan. I spent literally 12 hours a day in Manhattan, because I would go work then I would do comedy. I took the subway there. And those things were not things I could affect. I guess I got to vote for mayor, too. But my local election was only for the place where I basically went to sleep, which is a little weird.
Speaker 2 [00:11:48] Yeah, that’s absolutely right. You probably had a lot of interest in this part of Manhattan where you were working, maybe where you did your shows, where you went out to eat, where your friends lived. But you can cast one vote, and that’s where you lay your head at night. Even if it’s not where you’re spending the majority of your time.
Speaker 1 [00:12:06] That’s a very fundamental part of American democracy to unravel, though, because it is just built in. Yeah, you vote where you live and that’s all that you vote for. But that’s true. That’s a really unexamined assumption of the system that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Speaker 2 [00:12:27] I mean, this is sort of a big philosophical point. Eventually you have to organize your political institutions around something, but there are other ways that are done around the world that take this location based system (everyone generally does it on that sort of principle) and expands the type of commonalities and common interests that bring people together and let people organize their politics and their interests.
Speaker 1 [00:12:53] So what are the harms of the way that we do it? How do some of these institutions result in – Before we talk about some of those better examples, or all these different examples. I don’t know if we want to call them better yet. But how do these institutions prevent us from seeing outcomes that we might want to see in our own cities?
Speaker 2 [00:13:15] Yeah. Let’s do an example of here in Los Angeles: I used to live in Koreatown, which is split into several council districts. I lived in a block that was primarily Spanish speakers. But if you walk a couple of blocks to the south, it became a primarily Korean speaking neighborhood. But these people were represented by one single person. There wasn’t a way for each community to have someone representing them at the city council level. You can see how this could be problematic in certain instances. These people have no one to address complaints to. There’s no one that has an intimate familiarity with this community to raise issues within the larger polity and it leaves a lot of people unrepresented. If we’re thinking about how we want to improve our democracy, this is something we should be working on.
Speaker 1 [00:14:12] So what is the solution to that? You’ve got a minority in this larger district that presumably can’t get anybody elected all by themselves. So the City Council person barely knows that they exist, like the Spanish speakers in Koreatown. So how do we get those people representation?
Speaker 2 [00:14:31] Right. What a lot of other countries have done, is move towards a system called ‘multi-member districts.’ I should probably back up and explain how things work in the United States. In America, we have (generally, there are some exceptions but generally in the overwhelming instances of cases) a system based on single member districts. There is a single representative for each piece of geography. It doesn’t matter, really, if there is a multitude of different peoples in your district. You get one person, and that person is elected on (there’s a variety of names for this, but the most common is called) ‘first past the post’ voting. Whoever wins the plurality of votes, not a majority but a plurality of votes, whoever gets the most.
Speaker 1 [00:15:19] If there’s three people running and you get thirty four percent, then you win.
Speaker 2 [00:15:23] Exactly correct. Then you’re the winner. So it leaves us with this problem of wasted votes. We’re in a redistricting cycle right now, both congressionally and at the state level. Here in Los Angeles, redistricting has become this hugely contentious issue. The problem with this redistricting, is that you’re trying to work around this system of single member districts and this ‘first past the post’ voting. You’re trying to create coherent communities by drawing a line. A lot of other countries have gotten around this by just electing more than one person per district. Rather than a single member, you can have 3 or 4 or 5 members, all in the same piece of ground.
Speaker 1 [00:16:08] This is mind blowing. This is another basic assumption of American democracy that, ‘Yeah, you vote for one person.’ You could, instead, have three or four people who would represent you. Kind of like how you get two senators for a state? Yeah, OK. Got it. So how does that help the folks in Koreatown?
Speaker 2 [00:16:33] Well, sure. So let’s go back to Koreatown. A slice of Koreatown is involved in this is really, really contentious debate. For the listeners that aren’t in Los Angeles, there was a woman (Nithya Raman is her name) and she was one of the first people to unseat an incumbent in a Los Angeles election.
Speaker 1 [00:16:53] She was actually a guest on this podcast while she was running, and she did eventually win. Yes.
Speaker 2 [00:16:59] Oh, very cool. She unseated an incumbent for the first time since 2003. Hers was one of the first elections that was done on cycle in Los Angeles. So 130,000 people voted in her election, compared to just 24,000 the last time that that seat was open. There are groups fighting like hell right now because her district is being broken up. It’s just this weird v shape that cuts through Los Angeles
Speaker 1 [00:17:36] It’s already gerrymandered to hell. Or maybe gerrymandering is not the technical term for what happened. It’s a very weird looking district. When you look at gerrymandered congressional districts, this kind of looks like that; where it’s all spread out in this crazy shape.
Speaker 2 [00:17:49] Yeah, exactly right. I mean, like, it’s one of the pitfalls of having just 15 members in a city as large and as diverse as Los Angeles. In Nithya Raman’s district, you have some Los Feliz hipsters and such, a big slice of Koreatown and then it kind of jumps up into the the Sherman Oaks area, which are single family homes.
Speaker 1 [00:18:15] A much more conservative area. Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:18:17] Extremely, extremely conservative area. Not conservative on the national scale, but very ‘We like things the way they are.’ Very status quo.
Speaker 1 [00:18:27] It’s also where folks who are conservative on the national scale, that’s where they live in Los Angeles. It’s both conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans up there.
Speaker 2 [00:18:37] Yeah, true. I guess conservative for Los Angeles. Yeah, everything’s on a spectrum, right?
Speaker 1 [00:18:44] They’re like conservatives who have a couple of gay friends, you know what I mean? One of the problems with talking about this is that our language, in our political culture in America is so focused on the national that we always feel the need to say, ‘Oh, well, they’re conservatives, not in this sense though.’ These are people in city politics, they vote conservatively. But it’s difficult for us to say that, because we are so wedded to this national view. They’re like conservatives locally, even though they voted for Joe Biden, or whoever else. But on city politics, that’s what they are. Sorry, go on. I cut you off.
Speaker 2 [00:19:25] No, no, no. That’s a really good point to bring up. So Nithya Roberts district is being broken up, and a lot of it is trying to redraw this old base that she had of renters, of progressive activists. I know a lot of my friends in a group called ‘The Ground Game L.A.’ are working really hard against this redistricting because they were the people that got Council Member Raman into office in the first place. But this is sort of illustrating this folly of the land based system of voting. Because you have to draw a line around certain constituencies in order to get some sort of representation, you can disenfranchie these people just simply by shifting a border up or down.
Speaker 1 [00:20:12] Yeah, that’s the same thing that happens on the congressional level with gerrymandering, and it happens in our cities, too. By the way, if you’re listening, I know we’re talking about Los Angeles a lot. This is probably happening in the city that you live in, you probably just don’t know about it because your local newspaper was closed because of Facebook and you’re very busy and you don’t have a lot of time in your hands and nobody’s writing about this. It is a weird perversity that this happens. So how would multi-member districts solve this problem?
Speaker 2 [00:20:44] Yeah, so the big thing to think about is that people’s primary allegiance isn’t just to some piece of ground. There are stronger identities that cut across geography and unite people that might be living in disparate parts of the city. So one of the ways in which moving to multi-member districts and electing people along a system of proportional representation (which we haven’t talked about yet but is the way of a lot of European democracies), is how they allocate seats in a legislative body. So one of the advantages of this system, of allocating a number of seats based on the proportion of votes you get in an election, is that it breaks this stranglehold that two parties have on legislative contests. Given a system that allows more parties to flourish, people have these better voting cues and can sort of form these larger slates. To attract voters given different bsnts and different interests and that sort of thing. For example, you could start to have a slate of candidates all organizing around renters rights in Los Angeles, the rights for the renter party. Renter is an identity that cuts across not just one little piece of land. These sort of people can look at a ballot, see the renters party and say, ‘Oh, this is the party for me’ and check it. And depending on if they get over a certain threshold, they can have a person representing them within their district. There is a person that they could turn to to redress their most basic complaints.
Speaker 1 [00:22:33] I see. So maybe in a big district like CD4 (that’s the one that I live in, the one that Nithya Raman represents) where you’ve got the rich homeowners and you’ve got the hipsters and then you’ve got the folks in Koreatown; you have an ethnic enclave that has its own interests and concerns. These are very different places, physically. Across the district, you’ve got the rich mansions in the hills, you’ve got the folks in Silverlake and Koreatown is a totally different sort of physical area with a different economic profile. Each of those areas would get a thing: there could be the renter party, there could be the hipster party and there could be the rich fucko party. If each of them gets X percentage of the vote, they each get one representative for the district and they can form a coalition. Maybe the hipster and the Korean representative get together on a particular issue they both like, I don’t know. A little bit closer to what? The way parliamentary democracies work, or no?
Speaker 2 [00:23:41] That’s exactly right. It creates a system in which you really are forced to have compromise between these parties. What we have in Los Angeles right now is just single party dominance. Everyone in Los Angeles is a Democrat. I know John Lee, a representative up in the valley, is a no party preference. He was previously a Republican, but I guess that’s not cool anymore. So he is no party listed, but you really just have one party in in Los Angeles politics, and you can see this kind of creates a problem, right? Because our system of electoral accountability is precipiced on this idea that, when the party in power isn’t doing well and it isn’t working for you, then you throw the bums out. You put the other party in power. But you don’t have this in Los Angeles. Everyone’s a Democrat by default. As a result, you really don’t have a cue except for learning about a certain candidate, becoming encyclopedic. Which a lot of people don’t have the capacity for.
Speaker 1 [00:24:40] There’s so many problems with that. First of all, let’s just acknowledge there’s Republicans in Los Angeles, and perhaps those folks could have some representation as well. If you’re a Democrat in Los Angeles, you’re like, ‘Yeah, fuck them.’ But in reality, I think we would want some amount of representation for them. Having minority representation of all types is important in democracy. That’s one thing. But then for another, you end up with this weird belief (or this weird artifice) that all the candidates are somehow identical because they’re all Democrats. Every single politician in Los Angeles, who are all Democrats and are all members of the Democratic Party, they all said, ‘Yes, Joe Biden is so good and I support gay rights’ and all of that. On all those national issues, they’re basically claiming to be identical. But when in reality, their actual positions on things that affect the city: things like homelessness, things like construction, things like transportation, they have wildly different positions but nobody has the tools to talk about that. They literally don’t even bring up their positions. They’re just like, ‘I’m a Democrat. I love Democratic shit,.’ But it’s all national. They’re like, ‘I’m for gun control.’ Yeah, who gives a shit? We’re talking about whether or not affordable housing should be constructed, which is not part of the National Democratic Party platform. So you end up with this weird situation, where a Democrat runs against a Democrat and they have trouble even though they’re like, ‘I’m the progressive.’ ‘No, I’m the progressive.’ The one that actually is progressive or conservative on a city level has trouble even explaining how different they are, because nobody even has the vocabulary and there’s no party apparatus. There’s no block of people who’s saying, ‘OK, we’re going to pick the best affordable housing person for the affordable housing party’ because there’s just one party, there’s only one apparatus. So it means that we end up with no choice at all.
Speaker 2 [00:26:47] No, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. It really puts this sort of undue burden (and I think anti-democratic burden) on voters, right? In order to figure out how to best vote your preferences, you need to become encyclopedic about a certain candidate. You need to know their positions on this, what they said five years ago, et cetera, et cetera. Then you have to do this for every single candidate for office: your assembly member, your member of the state Senate, and on and on and on.
Speaker 1 [00:27:16] Oh yeah. It’s impossible to do that. I follow local politics. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become encyclopedic about it. The problem is, it’s something I can’t expect other people to do. I was talking to a friend who lives in a different district than me, and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, we have a really good councilwoman. I saw an ad for her,’ and I was like, ‘No, actually, she’s really bad. I know your values and I know that your council person does not agree with your values, but it’s going to take me half an hour to explain to you why.’ Because it’s not covered in any paper. There’s no party running against her. I just have to go through and go, ‘OK, so 6 months ago, she did this thing and then she said she was going to do that thing, but she did this thing instead. And then, she betrayed this constituency, and all these people got really mad at her and blah blah blah.’ It’s overwhelming to have to explain this, individually, to every single voter when this person is just in their district going, ‘Hey, I’m a good Democrat’ and everyone goes, ‘OK, well, that seems good to me.’
Speaker 2 [00:28:20] No, that’s exactly right. It’s a very inefficient way of doing things too. You only have so much time in your day. You can’t go and explain to every single person in Los Angeles everything there is to know. There was a really important study on this, done about 30 years ago by a political scientist (then at the University of California, San Diego) named Arthur LaPierre. The paper was called ‘Shortcuts Versus Encyclopedias.’ Dr.LaPierre looked at a series of competing ballot initiatives for insurance reform in California, something really esoteric that no one really has much idea about. What he showed was that (and I’m kind of summarizing the paper) people could vote their deepest held preference. If you surveyed them, asked them about their positions on everything. They could vote almost perfectly accurate just by looking at which group endorsed, or which politician endorsed which position on this insurance reform versus actually sitting down with the text of the law and a legal expert there explaining all the minutia and jargon to them, and becoming this encyclopedia about it. This shortcut is just about as efficient. This is where I think parties can step in, I think party cues are an extremely valuable shortcut for voters. It helps them sort of organize their preferences and it helps them sort of see, ‘OK, I can just look at a ballot and see renter party,’ or rich fucko party if you happen to be a rich fucko. And then, look, this is me. This is my person here. Bang, you hit him with the vote and you’re good.
Speaker 1 [00:29:59] But OK, so why don’t we have’ parties like that on a local scale? I mean, I understand why. I’ve done television about it before: about how, on a national level, when you have first past the post’ voting, it creates an incentive to have just two parties – sort of mathematically, game theoretically speaking. Everything boils down and you end up with two parties. It’s very hard for a third party to get a foothold. Is the same true locally? Is that the deal?
Speaker 2 [00:30:28] Yeah, that’s that’s exactly it.
Speaker 1 [00:30:30] I always love it when one of my guests says (as you say, often), ‘That’s exactly right.’ That’s why I have the podcast. In fact, I should rename the podcast ‘That’s Exactly Right, Adam.’ I’m sorry, please go on. Explain it to me.
Speaker 2 [00:30:48] The system works like this: there’s an axiom in political science called ‘Doverger’s Law,’ and it’s named after this French sociologist; Maurice Doverger. It’s not exactly a law. I know the five political scientists that are listening to this right now are going to quibble about how actually set in concrete it is. But that’s for our personal conflicts, and that’s why we’re so much fun. But having ‘first past the post’ voting, where the plurality winner wins the election, having these winner take all elections and having these single member districts really penalizes third parties; because third parties become vote wasters. Right. So if you vote for one of these parties and they have no shot of getting in, then essentially you’re just throwing your vote away. It doesn’t really matter. You could be voting a sincerely held preference, there’s a lot of other reasons to vote. But most people are voting in their interests, right? You want someone in there that shares your beliefs about something.
Speaker 1 [00:31:47] Talk about the Green Party in the 2000 election (and the 2004 election, obviously) about what happened to that party? There was a real desire among a lot of people to have a more left wing party, especially because the Democratic Party was much more of a right wing party at the time. But I mean, it’s exactly the dialog that you saw happen where people said, ‘Well, vote for Ralph Nader.’ ‘No, if you vote for Ralph Nader, you’re throwing away your vote.’ And then Ralph Nader gets blamed for George W. Bush being elected. Whether you agree with that blame or don’t agree with that blame, the fact that people are having that argument and saying, ‘No, you have to vote strategically and vote for Gore instead,’ that is making it less possible for a Green Party to flourish, and that would happen basically any time you have a third party.
Speaker 2 [00:32:30] Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, there was a similar sort of thing around the Tea Party movement of 2010 with libertarian Republicans, right? Do you vote for the libertarian or should you not throw your vote away and just kind of give it to a Republican candidate, even though their beliefs about whatever libertarian things don’t really mesh with your beliefs? Right? But there’s sort of a flip side to that as well. In this system, it makes sense for parties to sort of expand their platform to swallow up these voters. So the Democratic Party loses all these green votes in 2000, and to a lesser extent in 2004. But at the same time, the Democratic Party expands what is acceptably Democrat. If you look at the Democratic Party’s positions on immigration in the 90’s, they’re almost analogous to a lot of conservative Republican positions on immigration right now. It’s completely changed. I mean, look at Hillary Clinton’s speech on immigration, the 2016 Democratic Convention. It’s strategic; parties exist to win elections and get partizans into office. These parties expand their issue platforms until they can grab up those third party voters, and that leads to this two party stasis. That’s the essence of Doverger’s law.
Speaker 1 [00:33:50] Got it. OK, I’m sorry. We have to take a quick break, because I really want to find out if there’s a way to break this law when it comes to our local cities. But we got to take a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more Stan Oklobazija. We’re back with Stan Oklobazija. You’ve been explaining how multi-member districts and proportional elections would be much better for our cities. But I got to say, I’ve been around for a while. I’ve heard a lot of ‘Hey, it sure would be better to vote this or that way.’ A lot of pie in the sky election theorizing. I always worry that if I go to school for political science, this is what I would do: I would just find out about a lot of theoretically great voting systems. How the hell do we implement any of this?
Speaker 2 [00:34:50] Well, there are a lot of different ways that you can push reform. It’d be a little bit naive to think that the incumbents that benefit from our current system which just voluntarily cede their grip on power and just do the right thing for America. It’s a very West Wing vision of politics. But here in California, we do have an initiative process. A city can change its charter if a majority of voters wish to see it done, so that’s one avenue if you’re in a state with this sort of progressive (progressive in the turn of the 20th century version) political institutions where you can put a thing on a ballot and make big structural reform that way
Speaker 1 [00:35:37] And their initiatives in states other than California. California is famous for having the initiative process. But there’s initiatives in (I know) Michigan. Do you know how many states have initiative or ballot measures like that?
Speaker 2 [00:35:48] Oh, I believe it’s about 23 of the 50 states.
Speaker 1 [00:35:55] That’s almost half, that’s not bad. There’s 50, right? Yeah. Twenty three. So yes, almost half
Speaker 2 [00:36:01] Yeah. California is the real big initiative machine. But Colorado, Oregon and Washington are all big initiative states. Nevada has it and a lot of big legislation, really consequential legislation in a lot of these states have come via the ballot box.
Speaker 1 [00:36:15] Got it. So we could potentially (if we want, if we build support for multi-member districts) put that on a ballot initiative and really try to get the public to have their say on it. But I don’t know. I still have the concern that so much of the time, our political system is driven by the folks who are trying to keep everything the same. The wealthy folks who don’t want to see affordable housing be built are still in control of so many of our local governments, across the country. Right. Those people are a lot better at organizing and they’re able to get a lot defeated and they might not like this proposal. Because it reduces their power. They’re like ‘Hold on a second. I don’t want multi-member districts because currently our single member is the white wealthy homeowner, like me. So I don’t want multi member districts. I don’t want those folks in Koreatown getting their candidate in,’ and they can mobilize against it and raise money to run ads against it. Those folks are powerful. We had a ton of really great ballot initiatives defeated in California just last year. How do we overcome that?
Speaker 2 [00:37:28] Yes. There is a history of voters and large coalitions overcoming these really entrenched structural biases. So I’m a political scientist, and I have to say that these are a very bad thing and we should do away with them. But a great example of this is term limits, right? Term limits was an extremely anti-incumbent movement. It was very unpopular among entrenched interest groups and it passed; and it passed not just in California, but via the initiative process around the West.
Speaker 1 [00:37:59] Oh, OK. I actually never thought of this. There’s a time at which there were no term limits, and then people were like, ‘This is fucking bullshit. We’ve got Mr. Bill Fucko’ – I’m sorry, I keep going for the same stupid name. ‘Bill Fucko has been in there 50 years, and he’s a pawn of the whatever interests and we got to institute term limits.’ And then what? There was just a populist uprising on term limits?
Speaker 2 [00:38:26] Yes, sort of. I mean, populist with big quotes. There was a kind of conservative under swell or overtone of this movement. But yeah, I personally think term limits are a horrible idea.
Speaker 1 [00:38:40] Oh, really?
Speaker 2 [00:38:41] Yeah, I think they empower lobbyists and special interests. Really prevent the development of experte among elected officials and their staff.
Speaker 1 [00:38:48] Whoa. Wait, that’s really interesting. Little parenthetical. I just want to hear a little bit more about that because, yeah, the vision that I just laid out: where you’ve got someone running something for way too long, I would think that would be a problem that is real. But you actually find the other – What is this other problem that you think is worse?
Speaker 2 [00:39:07] Yeah. There’s a lot of empirical research on this, but essentially a member of an elected body never really has the chance to develop expertise. So all expertise has to be farmed out, and those places where it’s farmed out are lobbying groups, their interest groups. You can’t learn about the minutia of, I don’t know, tax policy or something like that, in just a couple of years. It’s impossible. Your staff absolutely cannot develop the sort of expertie. So you just call up some group, or a lobbyist shows up in your office and says, ‘Hey, let me explain for you, let me break it down for you, right? Here is an analysis of this bill. We’re doing this out of the goodness of our heart.’ That sort of structure kind of overwhelms the legislative process.
Speaker 1 [00:39:55] That’s really interesting, but I can really see it both ways because I’ve been getting more and more involved in union democracy. I’m in two unions; one of the unions I’m a member of, I’m actually on the board of directors now. I should say. I won an election for it and the term limit for the presidency of the union is four years, which is a short. I can totally see that problem that the president is only there for four years before a new president has to come in, and they have to learn the ropes. And that empowers people like the staff members of the union who are there for decades and decades. So, maybe, now the elected representative of the membership doesn’t get their say. So I understand your argument there. But on the other hand, there’s another union in town called IATSE. That’s the union that represents the camera crews, and basically all the crews: makeup and hair and costumes and the grips and all those people. Right? The president of that union, I’m actually not sure – I don’t believe there’s term limits, because I believe the same dude’s been running it since 2008 or 2009. So I’m looking at that and I’m hearing a lot of members of that union saying, ‘Hold on a second. How do we create change? This guy is so entrenched that we are having trouble changing the leadership of the union. That we don’t feel represented. Yet this dude is so entrenched that we can’t get him out of there, because he’s just been working the levers of power for so long.’ I can see that as being the opposite problem; where you get the boss of Tammany Hall effect, where you just get this person who’s a king and can never be removed. Is that not a concern?
Speaker 2 [00:41:25] Well, sure. Yeah, you do have this ‘Boss Tweed’ thing, but I think the solution to that (and it’s the reason I’ve become so in favor of multi-member districts and proportional representation, not just in cities like Los Angeles, but across the country) is to make better election rules; make democratic accountability stronger, such that if a person does want to stay in office, they have more to fear from voters throwing them out. They can’t just manipulate rules. They can’t rely on this incumbency effect and this overwhelming information bias that prevents people from seeing that their interests aren’t being represented and taking appropriate action to kick them out of office.
Speaker 1 [00:42:06] So we come up with other methods to make sure that they’re being responsive: no term limits, but we make it a lot easier to kick them out so that they are really incentivized to keep their ear to the ground and be representing their their constituents.
Speaker 2 [00:42:24] No, that’s exactly right. I think creating conditions where you can have more parties allows for better democracy.These shifting coalitions that have to form in order for government to function in these sort of systems, it creates a better system of democratic accountability. There’s a political scientist at Drexel University whose name is Jack Santucci. He has a book coming out about this showing that electoral systems producing more parties have these better outcomes on democracy.
Speaker 1 [00:42:56] Yeah. So let’s say that I agree with you that that more parties are better for democracy. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t like parties or politicians. There’s a gut reaction that people have: ‘I don’t like politicians. I don’t like political parties. Less would be better.’ And that seems like that would be a barrier to us doing a ballot initiative that says, ‘Hey, we need more political power.’ If I go to people in California and go, ‘Hey, vote yes or no. Create a system with more political parties and three times as many politicians. Oh no, wait. Hold on, I’ll explain to you. Explain to you why this is good. No, no. I know. I know. It sounds like I’m telling you to create more lawyers in the world or something like that. But no, in fact, this would be good for you.’ It seems like a tough sell.
Speaker 2 [00:43:43] Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know what the latest approval figures are on Congress, but I think cockroaches and communism had a higher approval rating than Congress the last time I looked. But there is something for everybody in this system. If you were to expand a city council like Los Angeles (or wherever you live, Los Angeles is just particularly bad in the number of constituents per representative) and if you expanded the number of elected officials, you created a system where more than one person represents a piece of geography and you allocated those seats by proportional representation via a whole variety of systems. There could be, and there probably would be (if you have like sort of a semi mainstream political bent to you), someone – or there could be an entire party – representing you and your interests on a city council.
Speaker 1 [00:44:36] You mean literally just me, Adam, like the Adam party, and they just represent me personally.
Speaker 2 [00:44:41] I don’t know the tenants of the Adam party, but you seem like a pretty normal guy so I’m willing to go out on a limb.
Speaker 1 [00:44:46] Oh no, you don’t know. If you give me power, you don’t know what I would put in place, man. I don’t know if you want to see that situation, we’d all be wearing pants on our heads, OK? You mean that could be more directly represented by someone who that really fits. There’d be an urbanism party that’s all about building bike lanes, that I could join. You’re talking about that kind of thing.
Speaker 2 [00:45:12] No, absolutely. Right. I got into this, electoral systems aren’t really my forte, they weren’t really the thing that kind of got me into academia. This came from doing housing activism for a while. It came from trying to fix the housing crisis in Los Angeles and across California, and we would keep butting up against the exact same thing: that these political institutions constrain progress. But you don’t have to just be a housing activist. You don’t have to just be someone that’s into housing. If you’re, for example, a democratic socialist. There’s a reason why left parties don’t really exist to the extent that they do in Europe, here in the United States. It has to do a lot with how people concentrate in areas, and the fact that it’s unviable for a small group of people representing an interest that is real and it’s held by many people, but will never win a plurality. There is a reason why these people never get any representation. There’s a really great book by a professor of political science from Stanford, named Jonathan Rodden, called ‘Why Cities Lose,’ which I encourage everyone in one of these left movements to read. To see just how the geography of where factories are located and how it just compacts workers together into one area. How that created two separate political realities in Europe versus the United States, just based on the rules of elections.
Speaker 1 [00:46:41] OK. Look, I don’t know that much about European politics. I do know that there are left wing parties, but I also know that there’s right wing racist, just like avowedly racist parties, just parties like ‘We are for white people and we want to kick out anybody who is not white and we want to kill them all.’ When I hear political news out of Europe, it’s always like, ‘Oh, no. One of those parties is winning.’ It’s never like, ‘Oh, the idealistic left wingers who want to build on the bike lanes won’ It’s always like, ‘Oh, here comes Hitler II in France,’ or whatever. Is that not a little bit of a concern? Because I got to say, the two party system in America did sort of squelch out a lot of like avowedly racist people, like David Duke didn’t have a party to represent him for a long time. He’s couldn’t buy an endorsement, as a result of our two party system. Is that a concern at all from systems like this?
Speaker 2 [00:47:44] Well, I have to shout out a friend of mine, Lee Drutman at the New America Institute, who wrote a great book called ‘The Two Party Doom Loop,’ which everyone should really check out. It’s a fantastic book, and if you’re interested in proportional representation and these reforms, nationally, it’s a fantastic place to start.
Speaker 1 [00:48:01] You seem like a guy who reads a lot faster than me. You’re like, ‘And you should read this one and read this one and this one. They’re really great.’ I’m like, ‘OK, man, you’ve already given me 9 months of assigned reading,’ but they sound great. They sound terrific. Please go on. Please go on.
Speaker 2 [00:48:13] It’s why you make the big bucks in academia, right? No. So the thing with the far right parties in Europe (and Lee writes about this a lot in this book and another in other venues) is that these far right parties do exist, and they exist with explicit platforms that are horrendous to the average American. But the way proportional representation works in these electoral systems, sort of relegates a lot of them to the fringe. One of the problems we have (and are currently having in the United States) is that we do have far right authoritarian white nationalist parties in America. They’re just subsumed within the current Republican Party. Given how you don’t need a majority of voters to win power in the United States, you can be a president with 3 million fewer votes. You can hold the Senate by representing 40 million fewer people. It gives a lot more agency to these elements that would be more fringe given a more representative system of government.
Speaker 1 [00:49:27] Wow. It’s basically the same way that in a city like L.A., where everyone is a Democrat or every elected official is a Democrat, you can have people who are actually very opposed to democratic values. But they’re running as a Democrat because they’re just under this label and there’s just subsumed within it. That’s how you end up with white nationalist Republicans. Whereas instead, if they had their own party, that everyone could just spit and throw tomatoes at… If that’s where the white nationalists were, then they would be perhaps a little more easily marginalized rather than just waltzing their way into Congress.
Speaker 2 [00:50:05] So if you live in rural Georgia, right, and you’re deciding who to vote for for Congress. Let’s say you’re a conservative voter, you’re a religious person. You have a set of traditional values or whatever. You don’t have to vote for someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, because there would be an alternative conservative party for you. She would be represented by this fringe white nationalist element and it inoculates the body politic, in that way.
Speaker 1 [00:50:34] Yeah, OK. All right. How do we get this instituted? And you said, ‘Well, hey, there’s something in there for everybody.’ But that’s once you explain it to them. How do we actually? If I want to (in my city, or the city of someone listening) have multi-member districts and I want some kind of structure that fosters multiple parties. What’s the next step to putting it in place?
Speaker 2 [00:51:08] Well, I mean, every city is going to be different. Every city has its own unique culture, its own unique rules and that sort of thing. But I think this discontent with the state of city politics is a really good place to start, because I don’t think there’s many people out there in the United States that look at their city or that look at like the homelessness crisis. That look at the skyrocketing cost of housing. They look at unaccountable police forces, who won’t even submit to the most basic health requirements. They don’t see this as something good and something really worth preserving. There is this growing appetite for reform in America, and I think if we realize that despite having different policy goals (maybe I’m a pro housing person and someone else wants to have a police force that doesn’t monopolize the entire city budget, maybe there is even a rich fuck0 who wants a good thing or two)
Speaker 1 [00:52:05] Yeah, I’m a rich fucko and I want some good stuff.
Speaker 2 [00:52:09] Yeah, sure. Our interests align and we realize we have more to gain helping each other out, and more to gain by having a more inclusive system than just this broken status quo.
Speaker 1 [00:52:23] OK. All right. I was gonna say that at the end of the day, it’s still the hearts and minds approach but I guess that’s what it has to be. There’s just going to be those people who are fighting against it, tooth and nail. Let me put it this way instead: sometimes there are thaws in our election structure – Actually, let me even take it further back than that. Something that I’ve come to realize, through talking to you and through talking to other folks like you, is that we really under appreciate how important political structure is in America. That we talk about a democracy like it’s ‘Hey just go vote, go vote your choice and that’s how things will get better.’ But we really neglect the degree to which our choices are pre made by the democratic structure that we live in and that we really could change the structure to one that’s better and that would be more representative. And until we do, we will never have representation. It doesn’t matter. Maybe we’ll have one good one for a term or two, but we’ll have (over and over again) people who don’t represent our values and we’ll be frustrated. So we need to make these changes, and yet it seems so difficult. But over the last year, there have been a couple of thaws in this. New York City, I believe, went for – What’s it called? ‘Instant runoff’ voting, right? Which allows people to express a preference beyond ‘first past the post.’ Actually, explain how that works.
Speaker 2 [00:53:52] Yeah. So ‘instant runoff’ voting is a way of ranking your preferences for a candidate. You’re still operating within a single member district, but it sort of helps get rid of this wasted vote problem. So you can say that I would want the Green Party candidate or whatever as my first choice. But even if you know that person has no chance of winning, you can still put the Democrat or whatever underneath. When a person becomes ineligible, and then their second choice moves up to first.
Speaker 1 [00:54:26] Yeah, so you can go ‘OK, I’m going to vote for Ralph Nader first, and then Hillary Clinton is second.’ Well, Ralph Nader didn’t run against Hillary Clinton, but let’s just imagine that he did. Then once Ralph Nader gets only 10 percent of the vote (or whatever) and he’s knocked off, and now they count your second vote. So it’s a way of being able to vote for who you really give a shit about, without having to strategically change your vote to somebody else.
Speaker 2 [00:54:56] Yeah, that’s exactly it. You can sort of modify ‘instant runoff’ voting for a proportional representation system. It’s a system called ‘single transferable’ vote. So you’re essentially doing the exact same thing: ranking candidates. But instead of just having one winner, you have multiple winners. Depending on the manner in which single transferable vote is implemented, either people become unviable or people take seats and then the second choices are distributed along some sort of formula to the other candidates.
Speaker 1 [00:55:27] So New York actually implemented ‘instant runoff’ voting and then in L.A. they actually did change the date of the election. From some weirdo day in an off off off year, where nobody showed up except for all the cranky olds and the rich fuckos. Instead they made it line up, which completely changed the electorate, and it actually resulted in an incumbent being unseated for the first time ever. I would have to say it’s made it more likely for incumbents to be unseated, overall, across Los Angeles. The people who are the incumbents actually decided to make that change. Why? I guess what I’m curious to know is, what caused (in both of these old sclerotic democratic systems, controlled by a single party in New York and L.A.) the people who run that system to go, ‘You know what? We should actually make a better change,’ even though it didn’t necessarily benefit those individual politicians to do so?
Speaker 2 [00:56:26] State preemption. A lot of these changes were forced on cities. I mean, not forced, but kind of maybe shoved along, but in some cases actually forced by state legislation. One of the benefits of American federalism is that we have these bodies that roll over other bodies to create a set of ground rules by which all local governments would have to exist. That’s why lot of housing activism is done at the state level; because you’re never going to go convince Santa Monica or Newport Beach or Cupertino that maybe it would be nice if you build housing that non millionaires could live in. I don’t know, it’s just a thought. So you sort of cudgel them along with state regulations. A lot of these reforms could also be implemented by state bodies as well. It creates a better system, and a more equitable and representative system for local governments. Which I think, personally, would be in the interests of the state to pursue. It’s another avenue for activists, is what I’m saying.
Speaker 1 [00:57:25] Are there any brewing movements to do any of these things in places? Are multi-member districts existing anywhere in America today?
Speaker 2 [00:57:33] Well, they do. There’s a system of At-Large representation. So many people will represent a city as a whole. I don’t know if that’s my preferred way, that would run afoul of the California Voter Rights Act. But what you could do, is have compromise systems where you create districts that incorporate communities of color (and certain other protected communities as defined by the California Voting Rights Act) and simply allow for more than one person to come from them.
Speaker 1 [00:58:03] Yeah, it’s just fascinating how much of our political lives is determined by structure this. For folks who are just getting turned on to this idea, and want to understand more about like, ‘Hey, maybe I should focus less on the candidates and more on the structure.’ What is a good place for them to start, to learn more about this stuff?
Speaker 2 [00:58:24] Well, if you want to learn a lot about election reform. Lee Druttmond’s book ‘Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop,’ is a fantastic place to start. There’s a book by a collection of political scientists called ‘A Different Democracy.’ Matthew Shugart from UC Davis and a whole host of others (whose names I forget off the top of my head, apologies to those folks). But there’s a lot of other movements brewing at the local level. None really taking the mantle as like ‘This is the leading champion of reforms.’ But there’s a lot of places out there, and I think just honestly connecting with people in your local community and trying to get these things implemented yourself. So that your place could be the example might be the way to go.
Speaker 1 [00:59:09] Yeah, amazing. Well, I’ll tell you what, we’ll put some of those books on our special bookshop at factuallypod.com/books if you want to pick them up. If you want to support the show and your local bookshop, that’ll help you do that. Stan, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been incredible to talk to you. This has been really cool.
Speaker 2 [00:59:24] Hey Adam, thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun. I appreciate it.
Speaker 1 [00:59:32] Well, thank you once again to Stan Oklobdzija for coming on the show. I hope you loved that conversation as much as I did. Once again, if you like the show, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I do love to read your emails all the time, and if you want to pick up any books from any of our incredible guests you’ve heard on the show, visit factuallypod.com/books. That’s factuallypod.com/books. I want to thank our producers; Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for doing our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest, for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. You can find me online @AdamConover wherever you get your social media or at adamconover.net. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you next week on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books