Moderation, Realignment, or Transformation? Evaluating Three Approaches to America’s Crisis of Democracy

Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterParties, Movements, and Democracy: Peril and Promise
158 ANNALS, AAPSS, 699, January 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221083494
Realignment, or
Trans formation?
Approaches to
America’s Crisis
of Democracy
1083494ANN The Annals of the American AcademyModeration, Realignment, or Transformation?
As American democracy remains in crisis, reform pro-
posals proliferate. I make two contributions to the
debate over how to respond to the current crisis. First,
I organize reform proposals into three main categories:
moderation, realignment, and transformation. I then
argue why transformation is necessary, given the deep
structural problems of American democracy. Only
reforms that fundamentally shake up the political coali-
tions and electoral incentives can break the escalating
two-party doom loop of hyperpartisanship that is
destroying the foundations of American democracy.
Keywords: polarization; electoral reform; political
transitions; democratic collapse
The crisis of American democracy” is no
longer a mere essay-opening cliche. Although
the crisis has been mounting for years (Mettler
and Lieberman 2020), the escalating partisan
fights over what counts as a free and fair elec-
tion and the rapid degeneration of the
Republican Party into an antipluralist illiberal
party both pose an existential risk to the con-
tinuation of U.S. democracy.1 More specifically,
most Republican politicians now refuse to
acknowledge that President Joe Biden was
elected fairly (despite the failure to substantiate
any claims of a stolen election) and no longer
treat Democrats as the legitimate opposition.
When a major party decides that it is no
longer committed to the basic foundations of
democracy—free and fair elections in which all
voters count equally; legitimacy of the opposi-
tion; peaceful transfer of power; renunciation of
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the political reform
program at New America. He is the author of Breaking
the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty
Democracy in America (Oxford University Press 2020)
and The Business of America is Lobbying (Oxford
University Press 2015), winner of the 2016 American
Political Science Association’s Robert A. Dahl Award.
violence—the shared legitimacy on which self-governance depends crumbles, and
the partisan rule of parties and men replaces the impartial rule of laws and institu-
tions (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018; Linz 1978; McCoy, Rahman, and Somer 2018).
Polarization has long been considered a risk to American democracy. But the
careening extremism of the Republican Party following the 2020 election has
marked a new phase, setting off alarms among a wide range of democracy
scholars.2 These two problems are related, of course. The Republican Party’s
radicalization would not have occurred without the same forces that drove parti-
san polarization—the sorting of the parties and the elevation of nationalized
culture war issues. But polarization has accelerated the radicalization because it
has both de-linked radicalization from electoral consequences (there appears to
be no real punishment for extremism; partisan loyalty is far more elastic than the
median voter theorem anticipates) and, worse, because polarization has elevated
the stakes of elections to a point where short-term victory is more important than
long-term commitment to democratic fairness. Two other factors are also crucial:
the growing economic inequality of the United States, both across and within
regions; and the racial reckoning and declining status of non-college-educated
whites as America transitions to a multiethnic democracy. Both of these have also
contributed importantly to the illiberal radicalization of the Republican Party
(Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck 2018; Hacker and Pierson 2020). Any sustainable
solution to the current crisis of democratic careening must confront all of these
factors—polarization, the radicalization of the Republican Party, economic ine-
quality, and racial reckoning.
In this article, I aim to make two contributions. The first is to develop a tripar-
tite classification of the proposed reform solutions to the current crisis of demo-
cratic careening into three broad approaches moderation, realignment, and
transformation. Very briefly:
Moderation emphasizes the need to elect more “moderates” as the solution.
— Realignment anticipates and hopes to accelerate a coming and semiperm-
anent period of Democratic Party dominance.
Transformation argues for a large-scale restructuring of the U.S. political
The second contribution is to explain why moderation and transformation are
unlikely to respond to the challenges facing U.S. democracy and, therefore, why
transformation is necessary. In brief: My argument is that the problems and chal-
lenges of American democracy at this moment are so deep that, at least in the
immediate term, only a major transformation can break through them.
The first approach is moderation. The basic narrative guiding this approach is
simple: American democracy worked better when we elected more moderates.
But the parties have pulled to the extremes, making bipartisan compromise

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT