The centre cannot hold

[Warning: Politics Ahead.]

I just finished reading Drutman’s Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.

If you’re frustrated, or despondent, at the state of politics in America you should read it.

If you’re not frustrated at the state of American politics – because you’ve stopped paying attention – you should read it, too.

Drutman’s core argument is roughly that despite being two-party in name for the decades when American government was seen as being the most effective it was, practically speaking, a four party system. Factions of conservative-leaning Democrats and liberal-leaning Republicans enabled compromise.

Drutman presents a compelling argument that the breakdown of this “effectively four party” system into two well sorted parties leads directly to our current “lesser-of-two evils” state, and is the root cause of much of the fundamental dysfunction in American politics and government.

What makes his analysis different, and recommended reading, is that he proposes a plausible solution that doesn’t require a constitutional amendment and doesn’t immediately fail the sniff test.

Not to spoil the ending, but Drutman proposes abandoning winner-take-all elections and adopting single winner ranked choice voting for Senate seats and multi-winner ranked choice voting for House seats, while enlarging the house and expanding two-parties into between four and six.*

He supports this proposal with evidence from other countries that have done similar things, and with examples from America’s past where seemingly impossible electoral and political reform happened.

My read of his proposal is that it isn’t particularly partisan – it doesn’t help one party at the cost of the other. It fundamentally changes the election game and makes room for collaboration and compromise in a system that’s lost that ability by choice, accident, and design. He persuasively argues and presents evidence that this has worked in other countries, and that it can work in America.

I found the book well researched, considered and methodical in its approach, and focused on a concrete problem and a potential solution. I don’t know if what Drutman proposes will work, or can work, but I can’t find fault with his fundamental thesis: that American democracy is on a course to tear itself apart.

It’s up to America, and Americans, to find a way to fix it.

Next on the reading list: How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future.

* I’ve been supporting FairVote for several years, but honestly never saw it as part of a larger potential fix for American politics.


** For more thoughts on the subject of how the two party sorting contributes to the problem, consider Rethinking Polarization, by Rauch [].

All the news that’s fit … or something

I’ve been a bit remiss of late in publishing updates. Mea culpa. Things have been simultaneously tumultuous and incredibly mundane.

I started working from home the first week of March. I stood at the stair rail for a week or so – my computer propped on a desk made of a box and a book.

By the time we saw City of Angels on the 10th, it was clear the city – and especially the west end – were running on borrowed time.

We encouraged a friend of ours, whose sabbatical year in Europe was rapidly unraveling, to accelerate her planned transit from Spain by a week and offered up our guest room while she figured out her next move. She arrived on the 16th, the day the theaters closed, and we condensed her planned “London experience” into a meal at The Wilmington, nearly-deserted on the night of her arrival and shut down the following day, and breakfast at our favorite local cafe the next morning.

She managed to see a few sights as the city shut down around her, and by the end of the week on the advice of her University, and a little help from the same, had abandoned her booked accommodation and secured a flight back to the US.

Our cleaning service came the day she departed, right on schedule. It turned out that would be the last visit for a while.

All the local restaurants in our bit of London quickly closed – not having sufficient traffic to support themselves without the daily crowd commuting into The City.

After our guest had departed, Dawnise pointed out that the guest room wasn’t likely to see any guests for a while and encouraged me to make it my office. After dragging my feet for a few days I disassembled the guest bed and took her advice. I bought a “podium-cum-standing-desk” from Amazon and dragged the Poäng in from the master bedroom. I’ve strongly resisted buying anything I can’t easily stash once we can welcome visitors again.

The next few weeks were punctuated with emails informing of us canceled theater bookings and concerts, news about new transport closures, and reminders from Transport for London not to take the tube except for essential journeys.

We live around the corner from the Barbican Waitrose – I’d typically stop on my way home to pickup whatever bits and bobs we needed for dinner that evening. Like everywhere else there was an initial run on stock – with some staples (like flour) only now returning to pre-panic levels. We’ve shifted our shopping to a weekly larger shop, Dawnise typically does the shopping and I meet her there to help mule it home.

In the long long ago I worked from home full time for a few years, and once I had a home office, it didn’t take us long to remember old habits that worked. Punctuating the start and stop of the work day, being conscious to eat an actual lunch on a regular schedule and not just wandering into the kitchen to snack.

I largely spend weekends reading – either short form, often COVID-related, or long form, continuing to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Along the way I’ve written a couple blog posts I didn’t think worth sending to the mailing list. At some point I found an offer for three free months of Fender Play and pulled the guitar out of the closet. I hadn’t touched it in years, and forgotten most everything. I guess the good news is I forgot all the bad habits, too.

Dawnise has been reading, cultivating sourdough and baking with it, killing unsuspecting alternate-history Brits in We Happy Few, and of late amusing Facebook friends with the photographic adventures of QWar and Tina – if you Facebook, you can search for “#QWarandTina”

The weather has been, on average, frustratingly nice, which hasn’t helped compliance with the “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” directive. We feel very fortunate to have a deck and easy access to the out-of-doors. We bought a stand for an umbrella left by the last tenants, and I have a better tan than I’ve had since our last trip to Hawaii.

Boris Johnson addressed the nation last night to lay out a roadmap for reopening. It was hardly the Saint Crispin’s Day speech, but it was mostly coherent (aside from maybe the “we have a 1-5 scale, and we’re between 3 and 4” bit) and I’m pretty sure he actually understood the words he used.

We both struggle occasionally to keep perspective. We’re both healthy, safe, and mostly as sane as we were when this all hit the fan. That it’s completely fubar’d our travel plans for the year puts us in good company. We try with varying success to not focus on the work it took to get here.

So here we are. Living in London. Aside from when I’m out for a morning run the city outside our windows could be a matte painting.

I can’t throw a rock far enough to tell.

A Moment of Serenity

I (re)started running last month. I picked a route – from our flat to St. Paul’s Cathedral and back – that was about the 2 miles I had been running on the treadmill.

One morning I deviated from my planned course – mostly-but-not-entirely on-purpose. When I got home it turned out I’d run 5k at a reasonable pace, so I decided to make that “the new normal” and started sticking to that route. (Except for one morning when I took a different turn sorta on purpose, ended up turned around and basically lost, but that’s a different story.)

The route approached Saint Paul’s from the back, continued past, and returned to our flat via most of a mile straight down a major road. One morning on a whim I decided to reverse the route. Run the boring bit first, jog through a few turns (there are few rectilinear intersections in London) and run toward Saint Paul’s.

That simple change made a dramatic difference.

This morning I ran up to Saint Paul’s as the hourly bells started to chime.

I took off my headphones and stood – silent and still, not another soul in sight – and got lost in the sound of the bells.

The Boy Scout’s Marching Song

I would like to state at this time that I am not now and
Have never been… a member of the Boy Scouts of America.

Tom Lehrer

Like many smarter and more informed than me, I’ve been struggling to come to grips with how the western world could have been caught so flat-footed by SARS-CoV-2.

I’m not surprised that some governments have responded more successfully than others – though the underlying mechanics there certainly seem fertile ground for discussion.

I’m also not particularly surprised that America both failed to prepare and has presented what could charitably be called an “uneven” response. [You may be tempted to dismiss this as post-facto cynicism, but in my adult lifetime American federal institutions – under both parties – have shown a pattern of failing to adequately prepare for plausible disasters and struggling to coordinate response when they occur.]

What I keep coming back to is that no western government was adequately prepared. None of them. Not a sausage.

That suggests the failure was, and likely is, something fundamental. And that gets my attention.

In my search for answers, I stumbled upon The Ostrich Paradox, by Meyer and Kunreuther. It’s short. You should read it.

Building on the (much longer) work of Daniel Kahneman, they explain the common failure of individuals to prepare for disasters as the output of six biases: myopia (overly focusing on the short-term), amnesia (quickly forgeting the pain of the past), optimism (underestimating the likelihood of loss), inertia (maintaining the status quo in the face of choices), simplification (considering only a select set of factors when deciding) and herding (basing decisions on the behavior of others).

They sketch an outline of how we might acknowledge and incorporate these biases into our planning to encourage better outcomes.

Frustratingly, but maybe not completely unreasonably, they largely talk about the role of government as being part of the solution.

What’s to be done when it isn’t?