Are We Doing Democracy Wrong?

This past week revealed that our democracy works–but barely.

Regular readers know that I spend a lot of time thinking about systems — technology, teams, and organizations.

This week has got me thinking about the American political system writ large.

In 1997, Donella Meadows published an essay called “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” Though the piece doesn’t focus on politics, it’s a remarkable guide to the current state of our modern political situation.

In it, Meadows, a biophysicist with a PhD from Harvard, lays out the ways that we can influence the systems around us. Our American democracy, it turns out, is a quintessential example of a complex system.

The core of Meadows’s argument is that changing parameters–essentially the strength of different connections–has the least impact on our systems. Yet parameters are the focus of the majority of our discussions about our democracy. We focus on ideas like voter turnout and suppression, campaign finance reform, the role of lobbyists, and how we draw voting districts.

These sound like huge issues, but in the context of democracy as a system, they’re small potatoes. That’s because in a complex system, as Meadows argues, we have the most impact when we think about the rules and dynamics of the system itself.

In other words, the effect of changing voter turnout pales in comparison to the ability to change how the different parts of our system interact.

The good news is that, in recent years, a discussion is emerging with an explicit focus on democracy as a system. John Dickerson’s Atlantic piece
(“ The Hardest Job in the World”) and his subsequent book argue that the fundamental structure of our national elections selects for presidents ill-suited to govern. And, in 2018, The Economist published an insightful analysis of how population migration and the electoral college bias elections in favor of Republican candidates. And my friend (and upcoming podcast guest) Roger Martin argues that part of the issue is America’s unbalanced obsession with growth and efficiency.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a partisan issue. Before the 2016 election, for example, a Gallup poll showed that only 18% of people approved of the job Congress was doing. Yet, for the House of Representatives, 97% of incumbents won reelection. In the Senate, the number was 93%. This inertia comes from systemic factors–our primary process, winner-take-all voting, and the import of fundraising–that arise from the organization of the political system itself. And it’s only by understanding these factors that we can start the critical conversation about the structure and outcomes that we want from our modern democracy.

One of the insights of behavioral economics is the importance of choice architecture: the context of a choice can matter more than the content of the choice.

The classic example of this is making employees opt out of 401(k) plans rather than having them opt in. By defaulting employees to participants, savings rates (and retirement preparedness) increase dramatically.

In the US, we haven’t had enough conversations about the choice architecture of our democracy. We take the two-party system, the primary process, and the electoral college as givens.

But they’re not. They’re features of the system chosen by people. Features, I would argue, that impose far more costs than they provide benefits.

The current incarnation of our system pushes us into increasingly polarized camps. The electoral college creates opportunities for contests to be decided by incredibly small margins–even in the face of large margins in the popular vote. The two-party system and winner-take-all voting doesn’t serve our citizenry; it serves those who already hold political power.

The content matters: people have different beliefs and that should be reflected in their electoral choices. But the context matters even more.

Context shapes the conversation. It restricts our choices without our noticing. And it creates far too many opportunities for small differences to have massive effects.

America needs democratic progress–but that progress won’t come from new party platforms or business as usual. Talking about context is the first step toward a more civil and unified country.

What about you — what parts of your work (or life!) have you been thinking about in terms of parameters? And how could you shift to thinking about the structure of the system instead?

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Originally published at on November 12, 2020.



Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out.

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Chris Clearfield

Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out.