In his recent attack on partisan conflict, Sen. John McCain made a critical point about the need for elected officials to bridge their ideological differences. As he put it, “We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.” He’s right. It’s very difficult for elected officials to move the ball forward if they don’t work together as a team.
Why don’t we see more cooperation and less conflict? Partisan gerrymanders and lavish campaign spending are major problems, but they’re symptoms of a much deeper problem.
The main source of our political dysfunction lies in our “winner-take-all” elections. Whether candidates and parties win by a landslide or by the skin of their teeth, they get all of the power, and their opponents get none. Why work with the other side on a compromise policy when you might be able to impose your preferred policy?
Most Republicans think they’re better off right now trying to enact a conservative agenda by themselves, rather than a moderate agenda with Democrats. Most Democrats think they’re better off if Republicans fail on their own, so the public will put Democrats back in control. If we want elected officials to work together, we need to replace our system’s incentives for conflict with incentives for cooperation.
Switzerland provides an excellent model of a system that encourages collaboration among elected officials. The Swiss also suffered from a 19th century civil war, and the Swiss drew an important lesson from their internal conflict. They concluded that, to bridge social divides, it is important that the majority share its power with the minority, so all citizens have a voice in their government. With their broad sharing of power, the Swiss have been able to avoid the kind of political conflict that we experience, even though the country’s population also is socially diverse. Switzerland has effectively melded its French, German, Italian and Romansh citizens, as well as its Catholic and Protestant communities.
Shared power provides three key benefits. First, it addresses the representation problem of winner-take-all politics. With President Donald Trump in the White House, the views of Democrats are ignored. When Barack Obama occupied the Oval Office, Republicans had no voice. But all voters deserve a say in the decisions of their government. With shared power, conservatives and liberals alike could be sure that Washington takes into account their perspectives.
And that would respond to the problem of partisan polarization. When only one side of the political aisle can influence policymaking, the other side is disempowered, disaffected and prone to obstruction. After Democrats won control of the White House and Congress in 2008, conservatives formed the Tea Party. When Republicans won control in 2016, liberals created their Resistance. With ideological balance in Washington, neither side would be disaffected and inclined toward obstruction.
Finally, shared power makes for better government. Conservative and liberal officials bring different perspectives to their work, and the public benefits when policies reflect views on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Neither side has a monopoly on the truth; both sides have their blind spots. With partisan balance, government would find a valuable middle ground between conservative and liberal ideas.
What would shared power look like in the United States? For Congress, the Senate and House could adopt strict filibuster rules, so any legislative proposals, votes on presidential nominees or other important actions would require a super-majority for approval, say three-fifths or two-thirds. Under strict filibuster rules, the majority party always would have to work with the minority. Indeed, even the weaker filibuster rule in the Senate resulted in a number of productive working relationships between U.S. senators from the Democratic and Republican parties, as in the case of Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy.
While Congress could adopt a system of shared power on its own, we would need a constitutional amendment to provide for the sharing of power in the White House. The Swiss model for the executive branch provides a useful template.
In Switzerland, all major parties are represented in the executive branch, and executive officials operate by consensus. To implement that kind of approach, we could adopt an amendment providing for a bipartisan executive with two presidents who are true equals and who come from different sides of the political spectrum. The presidential partners would have to agree whether to sign legislation, whether to issue an executive order, or whom to appoint to a Cabinet position or judicial seat. Each voter would still cast a single ballot for president, but the top two vote-getters would be elected, together with their vice-presidential running mates. It also would make sense to replace the Electoral College with election by popular vote.
As occurs among Swiss elected officials, co-presidents or members of Congress would cooperate across the aisle under a system of shared power. Co-presidents would have a potent incentive to collaborate and find the middle ground. Having reached the pinnacle of political life, presidents care most about their legacies. If partners in a bipartisan executive spent their terms locking horns, they would not be able to implement meaningful policy changes and generate an impressive record of accomplishment.
Members of Congress would come to the same middle ground. If proposals emerged from a bipartisan White House, voters on both sides of the aisle would ask their senators and representatives to provide support. Both conservatives and liberals would want the co-president for whom they voted to succeed.
Sen. McCain was right to condemn our hyperpolarization. But we won’t solve the problem of partisan conflict simply by calling on elected officials to work with their ideological counterparts. Rather, we need to ensure that both sides are represented in the making of public policy. Shared power works in other countries, and it can work in the United States too.
David Orentlicher is Cobeaga law firm professor of law and co-director of the UNLV Health Law Program at UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law. He is the author of “Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch.”