Can a Radical New idea Change American Politics?  

A polling location station is ready for the election day.


In September of 2017 Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter published a report called “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” It has caught the attention of many people. Katherine Gehl is a very successful entrepreneur, businesswoman and Harvard Business School graduate.  Michael Porter…well, if you study management…you know Michael Porter. If you are an MBA from Harvard, or Chicago or Stanford he needs only a single name, like Cher or Gershwin or Einstein. Porter is the “go to” reference on competitive strategy.

So, what have they done and why do you need to know about it? They have taken competition in business, Michael Porter’s eminent specialty, and applied it to government. The results are significant, as one might expect.

First of all, what is the problem? The problem with our political system is one of those tantalizing situations…both simple and complex. Take just one aspect, the national debt of the United States.  It is far, far too high…over 20 trillion dollars. That part is simple. We see it. We all agree. We must bring the national debt down. But now comes the complex part. How to do it? Now comes the politics.

Should we raise taxes on the rich and corporations? Yes. But it’s not that simple. We’ve been cutting taxes on the rich and global corporations for 40 years until they now pay very low…or in some cases…no taxes. And one political party would say that we should never raise taxes at all.

The other party says, yes, you can raise taxes, and we should. But if we are going to do it as it is normally done, we will raise taxes on everybody. Oops! Now things become a little more complex. Some people cannot afford to pay more taxes because they already live paycheck to paycheck.

So, these economic complexities are fought over by two different political parties with two diametrically opposed ideologies. And this is why a brilliant man like Porter and an entrepreneur and social activist like Gehl, who has had extraordinary success in business, are worth listening to very carefully when they address a major issue, such as our grindingly difficult political intransigence.

For many years, Michael Porter had been working with others to develop a worldwide set of criteria, called the Social Progress Index, by which individual nations could be assessed to determine whether progress in important social issues was being achieved. The idea was that, in order to generate positive accomplishments in second and third-world countries, we needed standards that everyone could recognize. The idea was to work out as closely as possible the same measurements in every country. So the Social Progress Index was established. But the report had some very surprising results, which were what propelled industrial competitive analysis expert Michael Porter into the realm of politics.

In looking at the statistics, Michael Porter discovered the simple fact that our political system is not responsive to the needs of the people. In a society where there is virtually limitless growth and potential for the economy, in many categories, the United States governing system leaves its citizens wanting. You see, the results showed that far from leading the world in many categories, the United States was falling way down the list. And worse, we were falling farther behind each year.

For example, in all categories, that is, overall, the United States is not even in the top tier of countries in the things measured, like nutrition, basic medical care, water and sanitation, shelter (housing), personal safety, environmental quality, access to knowledge, communication and advanced education. Overall, the United States ranked 26th, which drops us into the second tier of countries, in which we are not first, but 11th, just below Estonia and above Singapore.

After watching this decline since 2014 when the index first began, and seeing our statistics get worse, not better, each year, Porter decided to become involved in improving those statistics. For example, our position as 57th in the world in public and personal safety, thanks to our inability to address the problem of 310 million guns in the country.  In now only one of the richest countries in the world, we are number one in providing  nourishment to our children, yet 42nd in child mortality. We are first in adult literacy, yet 45th in access to basic knowledge. We are 34th in health and wellness. We are 59th in environmental quality.

In the “land of the free and the home of the brave” we are 32nd in personal rights, which includes 48th for freedom of religion and 47th in property rights for women. We are 3rd, however, in access to advanced education. How does that square with the fact that we cannot solve our problem of immense and staggering student loan debt? Does that sound like a problem that needs solving? It does to Gehl and Porter.

Porter turned to Katherine Gehl, who had already been working on the complexity of domestic politics  to join forces and attack the problem head on. From their work, the first thing that Gehl and Porter concluded for certain was that the political system no longer works for the average citizen. It responds best to the military-industrial-political complex that is such an integral part of American life. In large part because of the financing of politics, the response to serious problems has been ignored in favor of solutions to problems defined by this group.

Changing the system, they discovered, is difficult partially because our jobs are intricately tied into this complex. The system may be working for you as an employee but working against you as a citizen. A factory may provide 500 very good jobs but then creates another 1,000 secondary jobs in the area that are not so good. You may be one of the former workers or one of the latter. Depending upon which you are, 20 years from now you might have a nice life or you may find yourself out of work and on the brink of financial ruin. Without responsive politics, others will more than likely determine that outcome. You will have no control over your future or the future of your children.

The Essential Problem–Political Duopoly

What Gehl and Porter discovered about the political system is something that that mirrors a similar problem in industry. This is the difficulty that happens when competition for an entire universe of business customers is divided between only two providers. This is called a duopoly market. Our political system has evolved into a duopoly. In other words, there are only two providers, two options, Democratic or Republican. In business, this is a serious problem. A duopoly has many consequences, most of them bad for consumers. But there are fewer bad consequences for the two companies that make up the duopoly.

In business, there would be enormous market pressure to build a new company to take advantage of what always happens in a duopoly–lack of service. If you have only one other choice, the alternative choice has very little incentive to provide you with good service. That company is the only alternative. So why should either company spend time and energy (i.e., money) to insure that you are happy?  They won’t. Neither company will work hard to upset a situation in which neither must try to completely satisfy the customer.

In our current form of political life, the duopoly that controls the situation has created huge barriers to entry. Currently, both political parties control the only two brands. They control the selection of candidates. And they control the funding. The two political parties currently set the entire agenda. The barriers to entry are enormous, which is why there has been no new, continuous, political party since 1854. The closest was the party of Ross Perot that ran a candidate in the 1992 presidential campaign, but failed thereafter.

The costs of media are high. The cost of building an organization to find candidates at all levels is high. The competition for donors, given that political financial laws are skewed against Independents, is intense.  Political history (brand history) and tradition also works against new political parties.

This duopoly, of the Democratic (not Democrat) Party and the Republican Party, has a virtual strangle hold on American politics.

This is so important that it merits a couple of other comments. First, we know that 80% of Americans want strong regulation of guns and yet, every single day, guns are so rampant that crazy people or just plain thugs shoot people in schools or churches or stores or restaurants, in all parts of the country. We are 57th in the world in public safety. Government is obviously unresponsive to the needs of the people when it comes to guns and public safety.

In general, people are not stupid. But people must believe someone and at present they have only two choices for any given position. In the current system, it is clear that many individuals are paid to advocate for the positions of a political party, which itself is funded by individuals whose goals are often antithetical to those of the average family. When one political party has only to prevent the other from completely winning an issue, it does not have an obligation—in a duopoly—to actually deliver the solution.

In the long run, what happens? In the long run, those with power and influence on each of the two parties win. They decide the issues, not the people. And the issues are then dictated by those in power and influence and not by those representing the people.

So we need to find a way around the walls put up by the duopoly of our political system. We need to break through the ideology that says; your life will be this way because we say it will.

Common sense and our own observations, if honest, tell us that the vast majority, probably two-thirds of Americans, agree on most things. We agree on the basics of fairness and justice, on good health, on good solid basic education—reading, writing and mathematics—and on safety and security in the home and in public. Those things comprise 90% of our daily lives. Everything else, formed into political issues, are created by the two political parties, responding to the demands of those who finance them.

The two national political parties deal with  very few of these issues for the people. They do react to the  issues that the very wealth sponsors of their party, corporations and billionaires, request. The groups served by the other political party, as one would imagine, are the large social organizations, the scientific and educational institutions and the workers’ organizations. Those issues are basically reactions against the legislation sought by the former groups. In each case, the right and the left, the opportunity for any politician or group of politicians to break free and found a new party based on direct responses to the people  is virtually nil. Financial and institutional obstacles are overwhelming.

While Gehl and Porter can’t say it, we know independently that the Right Wing of the Republican Party has been completely purchased by reactionary forces with unlimited financial resources. As early as the mid-1970s the super-rich who basically own the giant corporations have built Right Wing institutions like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation and groups like Americans for Prosperity, whose goals are to confuse and divide the American People, while sounding perfectly rational and reasonable.

The current political problem, the impeachment, perfectly demonstrates our dilemma. The Republicans are locked in to a strategy of protecting a President that they know is guilty of horrible things. There are two political parties, and as their positions have hardened with the demands of these hugely wealthy individuals, they cannot back down. And so they are put in a position of simply ignoring the truth and banding together to create an even bigger lie than the ones told by the President.

So what is the political situation? One party, in control, can simply violate all the rules, deny the facts, and hopes that, because of enormous financial support, they can continue on the same course.  This political strategy is simply to continue the propaganda long enough to win another election. Our politics now races from election to election with no attention at all paid to the people. And it is because of our duopoly.

Many Americans have been persuaded that they have problems or dangers, which really don’t exist. They have been made to feel that the opposite party is so dangerous or so callous or so foolish, that they cannot vote for them, and yet there is no third option. This process has been exacerbated by the current trend of not believing the facts as presented by the mainstream media. This is a serious mistake.

The national press corps,  major newspapers from Florida to Oregon, Maine to California Texas to Minnesota, have been a reliable source of facts and truth for many generations. The idea of “fake news” may sound good to those who actually do not read the news. But no one should consider the national press corps as fake or remotely tainted. Newspapers, far more than politicians, far more than Presidents, respond to their audiences, who are the people. Others, like Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter or Rachel Maddow or Lawrence O’Donnell may shade the truth. Fox News may slant the news. But the national press corps, hundreds of major newspapers, beholden to their readers with editors responsive to the families in their communities, do not produce “fake” stories. They would not last a week because they do have a direct and a very personal relationship with their audience.

The Democrats are faced with the same problem as the Republicans but from the opposite point of view. Any Democratic candidate in a key race will face a Republican opponent whose ideology is hardened as steel. If it is a key race, the huge resources of the Republican Party, fueled by the immense wealth of the corporations and the billionaires who own them, will use television commercials to offer alternative, unfair or untrue positions of the Democrat or use dark imagery, virtually out of the horror film genre, to portray or describe the Democratic candidate and his or her positions.

Whether or not the Democratic candidate responds with the truth in an objective way, or responds in kind with dark, counter-attack style commercials, the two sides are locked in a battle, which neither really wants. One, the Republican, is locked in as soon as he or she takes the money. The Democratic candidate is locked in to that argument, which may not be a key problem for his or her constituents, as soon as he or she responds. Only if the Democrat wins is there any possibility of respite from the struggle. But even if the Democrat wins, there is no assurance, because of the way candidates are chosen that he or she will be responsive to the needs of that community or the families that live there. The higher the office, the more concentrated these problems become and the more potentially remote the politicians, on both sides, become.

The good news is that there have been successes in bringing down the level of antipathy and strife in the political system. Gehl and Porter have been part of a process of studying alternatives and monitoring the results of elections held with these alternative methods. The first phase is to change the way we elect candidates. The results are very promising and people are reacting very favorably. Here’s how it works.

Gelh and Porter have come up with what they call “four pillars” of change that they say will make all the difference. When implemented, they change the nature of candidates and they end the problem of the duopoly.

The first pillar is to change the way we elect people. In order to end the duopoly, we must end the use of political parties in primaries. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires political parties.  The system we use now has merely evolved over a couple of hundred years, and not for the better.

So here is what you do. You eliminate the partisan primary. Partisan primaries create an unreasonable and extremely high barrier to entry. Instead, you substitute new procedures already used in many locations called the “four forward” primary. In this instance, anyone can be listed on the one single ballot for any given election. No party affiliation.

The top four vote getters go into the general election under what is called “ranked choice voting.” This will solve the second problem which is that people do not feel satisfied in electing someone who does not represent the majority. Too many people feel left out of the election process. So voters now have rank choice voting, which means that they vote for their first choice, second choice, third choice and fourth choice. If the candidate with the most votes has a majority, he or she wins. If not, then the votes for the second, third and fourth choices on the ballot are counted (actually the counting is all done simultaneously) until the one candidate with the majority of votes becomes the winner.

It is basically a run off system as we now have in many places, but it is all done at once. As soon as one candidate gets less than a majority of votes, all the other votes are counted and the one with a majority wins. With a majority of votes, that person, one logically assumes, will be held responsible by the voters.

The important thing is this. Most of the people paying attention want the best possible person to be elected. This system completely disregards party and says to the person elected that, not only can they be elected this time, but now, by responding to the needs and wants of the people, the odds of winning again are pretty good. If not winning, coming in among the top four is at least pretty good. You don’t need to raise a lot of money. And you only need to make sure you are reflecting the wishes of those in your district or state or even the country. Perhaps the most important thing about this system is that it has been tried and in every case where it has, it has remained because it is popular.

So this is step one and it works. It has been proven many places around the world and even in some places in this country, with more being added as voters begin to understand how it will impact response to the needs of communities. Both Barack Obama and John McCain pushed for these reforms. Obama entered legislation into the Illinois House of Representatives and McCain can be heard on recordings of his voice in robo calls supporting this kind of election.

Step one is very important. Let’s assume for a minute that step one works in a specific community or in the House of Representatives. And let’s say that we can elect just one out of five members of  state or national government in this way. If 20% of members are elected in this way, non-partisan but beholden to the people they represent, it is disruptive. This group says to Democratic and Republicans, “We’re going to vote with the people.” Not only that, they can begin to lobby for the issues on which representatives vote. There will be nothing that those two fairly equal political parties can do about it. 20% in most cases will be enough to amend the issue on behalf of the people.

Imagine if this were in existence right now. No one would lose their guns because the majority does not believe in that. But guns would become more regulated because people do support that. Things like background checks for guns, pretty standard majority stuff, would be automatic and done everywhere because this is what the majority wants and no outside group with unlimited propaganda would have enough clout to change the legislature’s connection with the people.

Women make up 50% or more of the voting population. Women’s issues would suddenly make up at least half of all legislation. Climate change would move off the back burner to the list of top issues. Where the majority wants action, legislators would be forced to take action. Still, this new voting system is not the final step. While a very good beginning, one that will enable other changes to be made, here is the complete list.

The number two “pillar” removes party identification from the rules in the House and Senate and in other deliberative bodies around the country. Currently the identification with party has a great deal to do with the actual operation of legislative assemblies. This would be an easy change.

Pillar number three is to reform money in politics. Even though we change elections, each candidate, under current law, could solicit and spend whatever unlimited amounts campaign funders are currently allowed to give. With a non-partisan primary system, each person who runs has a chance to become one of the four who run in the general election. Even there, the person who wins is not necessarily the person with only the most first-place votes, but the one whom a majority of the public feels is the most qualified. Obviously, the best and fastest track to a political career in this method is to respond to the public with results. After a period, in this new system, money will again become only one factor in elections, not the dominant factor.

The fourth and final pillar is more difficult but could bring immediate relief from deadlock. Individuals in a state could assemble a list of people who would be part of a centrist coalition that would be a tie breaking vote or votes. Similar to the 20% rule mentioned before, even a handful of centrist –elected candidates would have a demonstrable effect on legislation. The issues could clearly be laid out in advance and majority positions of citizens could be discussed, deliberated and then voted on by groups from each party. In elections like the “four forward” primaries, these and other individuals could be elected to act as a buffer to vote these positions, should they be necessary to provide relief for the people.

The four pillars are important. But the first pillar is the most important because it seems that the results prove that simply changing the primary and general election process, even in a few areas brings the kind of change that earns the attention of voters. In the long run, it will be the people, the voters, who will make changes to our government and its responsiveness. It is time for all of us—for you—to work with your neighbors to begin this process in your area.