Some ‘Rigging’ Is Necessary to Make Our Political System Work

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These animals cannot work together. Getting them to fight more isn't the solution.
Photo: Photo: John Lund/Corbis via Getty Images

All the talk of elections being “rigged” from Donald Trump and, before him, Bernie Sanders is in part just an excuse for politicians who fall short of victory. But there is an important and unsettling basis for this allegation that goes well beyond election rules and administration, and helps explain a hellish feedback loop between public dissatisfaction with “Washington” and “outsider” efforts to “fix” politics.

What Trump and Sanders have most in common is the claim that both parties in Washington are colluding to maintain the status quo, which means that some mind-bending new coalition must be created to overturn the tables and get something done.

This belief is stronger among Republicans than Democrats, which is probably why not one but two major 2016 GOP presidential candidates — Ted Cruz as well as Trump — made it the foundation of their campaign messages.

There’s only one problem with the bipartisan-collusion hypothesis: It’s not true, at least in any broad sense. The parties really do, by and large, hate each other, and the advent of extraordinary do-nothing Congresses does not represent bipartisan complacency with the status quo but an inability to make any progress on either party’s agenda. But the conviction that there’s not enough fighting and “outsider” radicalism in politics is only going to make matters worse. At FiveThirtyEight, the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman succinctly sums up the vicious circle we are in:

Every year, legions of candidates take to the airwaves with trite tropes about how “Washington is broken” and how they can fix it, in most cases by just fighting the other party harder. But most candidates end up contributing to the very problem they’re decrying. When no one gets anything they want and Congress can’t address basic problems, voters grow even more disillusioned with D.C. and hungrier for an outsider.

To the extent any “rigging” is going on, it usually involves emergency measures to get around gridlock, whether it’s via expanded use of executive powers, or filibuster reform, or bending the normal rules of what gets into a budget “reconciliation” bill that can evade filibusters, or what can get into an omnibus bill to evade roadblocks in one congressional chamber or the other. The federal courts offer a firewall against this sort of “rigging” getting out of hand. But at the moment, of course, the highest Court is gridlocked, too.

So, pick your poison, folks. Right now the trajectory in Washington is for more gridlock, almost no matter what happens in November (barring a top-to-bottom landslide in either direction). It’s true a Trump victory accompanied by a Republican maintenance of control in both the House and Senate could create a narrow path to some large conservative policy achievements if the routine filibuster is abolished and reconciliation is used broadly and aggressively. But it’s not especially certain a Republican congressional leadership would cooperate with a Trump administration on a broad front, either, and Democratic “collusion” with Trump is very unlikely.

Until voters get over the delusion that more fighting is the answer to our problems, Washington will continue to rely on measures to “rig” the system as the only possible way to make it work. There’s obviously a long-term risk in distorting a well-designed system in this manner. But barring true bipartisan “collusion,” it’s better than the alternative.