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Deep Political Rifts Often Have Led U.S. To Transformation, Researcher Says


America is sharply divided now, according to polls. And it has been in the past. The current divide makes Lee Drutman optimistic. He studies partisanship, polarization and the history of both with the nonpartisan group New America, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times this week and joins us in our studios now. Mr. Drutman, thanks so much for being with us.

LEE DRUTMAN: It's a great pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: So polls show Americans sharply divided on almost every significant issue - gun rights and regulation, abortion rights and regulation, impeachment. Republican, Democratic, what do you got to be optimistic about?

DRUTMAN: Well, we've been here before. And we've had moments in which our politics have seemed stuck and broken. And at each moment, we've pushed through. And I see people getting extremely engaged in politics in the last few years. I think the level of interest and passion is very high. And I think that will lead us to a new era of reform.

SIMON: Well, tell us about some of the history to which you look back.

DRUTMAN: Yeah. Well, I think the most similar era is the Progressive era in the 1890s. Inequality is out of control. Polarization is high. And the parties are both corrupt. And progressives came from all over the country and reformed American democratic institutions. And women got the right to vote. Concentrated power was brought under control. So I think we will see something similar happen in the 2020s.

SIMON: We could spend the rest of the time, obviously, pointing out differences between that era and this one. But one I think a lot of people would point to immediately is the whole industry of misinformation now.

DRUTMAN: Yeah. Well, there was a lot of misinformation then, too. But certainly there is tremendous divide in what Democrats and what Republicans think of as basic facts. And that is a fundamental challenge. However, I do think that there are areas of agreement. Most people on both sides of the aisle agree that the political system is broken. And they want American politics to work better. And, you know, I - one of the things that gives me hope, frankly, is that one of the reforms that is getting the most energy behind it is ranked-choice voting and...

SIMON: Tell us about ranked-choice voting. Most of the country...


SIMON: ...It doesn't exist.

DRUTMAN: Yeah. Ranked-choice voting is a voting system by which people can rank their candidates in order of preference. And then if somebody wins the most first preferences, they win a majority. If not, preferences are transferred as candidates are eliminated from the bottom up until somebody has a majority.

SIMON: So people get to vote for not only their favorite candidate but for people they would accept even if they're not their favorite.

DRUTMAN: Right. And so in the cities that it's been tried, it has led to more positive campaigning, more compromise-oriented politics. I think the real power of ranked-choice voting comes in the multi-winner form, which is used in Ireland and Australia, which would allow for more parties to enter American politics. I think one of the reasons that we're so divided is because Americans get one of two alternatives. And politics has become so much of a zero-sum, us versus them battle. And that is really driving us all crazy.

SIMON: Which is why I have to follow up with you this way. I rarely hear from people in a given week who say, oh, we want more compromise. Oh, we want to get together. Oh, we want to solve this. On the contrary, I think what you hear from people of all political opinions these days is they don't want to compromise at all. They want to win the next election and put in an ambitious series of what they see to be reforms and lock the other side off.

DRUTMAN: Yeah. Well, this is the danger of our zero-sum politics, is that we are a closely balanced country, and both sides are trying to get that elusive permanent majority. I make an argument that the way out of our current moment of hyper-partisanship is to expand the number of political parties so that not every election is this high-stakes battle for who is going to have some elusive permanent majority.

SIMON: What do we learn by looking at the way reforms have come to be in American history in the past?

DRUTMAN: I think we learn that when the status quo seems untolerable (ph), people stop tolerating it. I think another thing that we learn is that the path of reform is chaotic. And in the end, we keep doing it and putting in place new reforms that make our system work until those reforms then fail. And then another generation down the road has to fix the system again.

SIMON: Political scientist Lee Drutman, he's with New America's political reform program and has a forthcoming book called "Breaking The Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case For Multi-Party Democracy In America," thanks so much for being with us.

DRUTMAN: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.