Making America Competitive Again

Can election reforms end the crippling gridlock in American politics?

An illustration showing a donkey and an elephant, representing the Democratic and Republican parties, wrestling.

Illustration by Morten Moreland

Racial unrest, crumbling infrastructure, and a failing public education system are just a few of the many serious problems the United States government can’t seem to fix. Political gridlock, the cause, is so deep-set that some business leaders worry it will threaten the country’s economic growth.

Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School Michael Porter calls this dysfunctional political system “arguably our single greatest problem in America, because we just can’t get anything done” (see “Can America Compete,” September-October 2012, page 26.) In his work to understand the factors contributing to a decline in U.S. competitiveness, Porter teamed up with former food-company CEO Katherine Gehl, who proposed that they look at politics as an industry. Using Porter’s Five-Forces Framework, which he designed to analyze the dynamics of any industry, they sought to understand how competition plays out between the Republican and Democratic parties.

In a business context, healthy competition pushes companies to deliver goods and services that satisfy customer needs. But Porter and Gehl’s analysis found that instead of promoting healthy competition and solutions, the two-party political system functions as a duopoly, in which Republicans and Democrats compete against one another to divide voters into mutually exclusive camps based on highly partisan ideology, while blocking entry to third parties and discouraging innovative policies that would appeal to a majority of voters.

“The parties get to set whatever rules they want, and they set rules that benefit themselves.”

“Many of us think of politics as a public institution and believe that our founders created a set of rules in the Constitution that determine how it all works,” Porter explains. The reality is that the Constitution does not even mention political parties, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the political system’s sole regulator, lacks independence. The six-person commission is often made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, making deadlock common and preventing changes to the current system, which, for example, limits the size of donations to third-party candidates. “The parties get to set whatever rules they want,” Porter says, “and they set rules that benefit themselves.”

Porter and Gehl’s research, described in The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020), led them to conclude that “the parties don’t want to compete head-to-head” for independent or moderate voters, he says. “They want to compete for their partisan camps.” He maintains that Republicans focus their energies on pleasing far-right voters, and the Democrats on addressing the concerns of constituents on the far left, which “means that they’re competing mostly on ideology.” That, he says, leads to black-and-white thinking that ignores complexity and nuance: “It’s not what I would call really sound public policy.” Porter offers entrenched congressional positions on the Affordable Care Act as an example. Instead of working to improve the program, legislators were overly focused on how their respective bases would respond in the next election, so “the Republicans spent every second trying to repeal it, and the other side spent every second trying to defend it at all costs,” he says. “We couldn’t have a good dialogue about the issues and come to a consensus about policy that would make health care work best.”

The current party-primaries system reinforces such problems, serving to “strengthen ideological purity and enforce party loyalty,” Porter and Gehl write. In many states, registered Democrats can vote only for a Democrat, registered Republicans only for Republicans, and unenrolled voters must choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot or not cast a primary vote at all. This is especially problematic in districts that are gerrymandered to be safe for one party, where the winner of a party primary is all but guaranteed to win the general election.

In place of party primaries, Porter and Gehl propose single, open, nonpartisan primaries in which voters are permitted to choose any candidate, regardless of party. This approach would benefit candidates whose policies appeal to large swaths of voters, and the top five finishers—a number that “allow[s] a broader slate” of ideas—would move on to the general election.

Porter and Gehl also say the United States should eliminate plurality voting, the current system in which all the winner must do is receive the most votes, not a majority of them. They advocate instead for ranked-choice voting, also known as the “instant runoff.” In the voting booth, the citizen ranks those five candidates in order of preference. When the votes are counted, a candidate who receives a majority—more than 50 percent—of the votes wins. But if none of the five receives a majority, the fifth-place finisher is eliminated, and the counting process begins again. This time, voters who selected the fifth-place finisher as their top pick have their second-place votes counted. This process continues until one candidate wins a majority.

One benefit of the instant runoff, Porter explains, is that it eliminates the “spoiler effect,” in which voters are discouraged from voting for third-party candidates out of fear that doing so could hand victory to the candidate they least want to win. Voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein ’72, M.D. ’79, in 2016, for example, was said to have diverted votes that would likely have gone to Hillary Clinton, helping secure a win for Donald Trump.

Nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting have already been adopted by voters in Alaska, led, Porter says, by “a strong core of independent moderates.” Maine voters recently opted for ranked-choice voting as well, and New York City is deploying the instant-runoff system in its June mayoral primaries. Porter hopes to continue to build grass-roots enthusiasm for these ways to overcome political dysfunction, particularly among younger voters. He sees education as key, and wants to encourage schools of business and government to incorporate information about election reforms in their curricula. “We have to keep talking about this, and not just two months before the election,” he says. “People need to understand that it’s our government. It’s not going to change unless we change it.”

Read more articles by: Erin O'Donnell

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