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Finley: A case for free-market politics

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump delivers a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House, Wednesday, May 22, 2019, in Washington.

Mackinac Island — Can free market politics save the Republic?

That's the solution that will be pitched Wednesday to the Detroit Regional Chamber's policy conference here by a pair of reformers who say it's not the personalities that have mired America's politics in dysfunction, it's the system itself.

The message comes just as hostilities between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats have seemingly brought the federal government to a complete standstill.

"It's an unfortunate opportune time," says Katherine Gehl, former CEO of her family's food company and co-author with Harvard's Michael Porter of Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America: A Strategy to Reinvigorate Democracy.

The duo contends today's broken politics is not necessarily a function of the Trump era, but has been building for decades.

"We avoid connecting our work to the day-to-day drama," Gehl says. "So much talk about politics is connected to that drama, and it keeps us from understanding and solving the root causes."

Gehl and Porter see the core issue as a lack of competition.

"Our view and our work suggest the system broke down decades ago," says Porter. "There has been less and less ability to move the country forward. Now it's turned into a highly partisan system that is really organized around the interests of two political parties, and designed to advance partisan interests and ideology rather than practical solutions."

They have a few doable ideas for introducing true competition. 

First, they'd scrap partisan primaries and move to an open system in which all candidates would run on the same ballot. The top four finishers, regardless of party affiliation, would go to a run-off.

That would open the door for candidates not hand-picked by the parties, independents and third-party hopefuls. 

They'd also move to a rank choice voting system, in which voters would pick not just their favorite candidate, but also their second, third and fourth choices. Those secondary choices would be factored into the vote count until one candidate secures a clear majority.

"It results in the election of the candidate with broadest appeal to most voters," Gehl says. "And it eliminates the 'spoiler' label that works against independent and third-party candidates."

It would also make politicians less beholden to their parties, and shield them from threats of a primary challenge if they don't vote the party line.

"These two reforms would powerfully change the system," Gehl says. "It might not change who's elected, but it would provide the incentive for them to respond to their entire district, and their re-election isn’t doomed if they come together to solve difficult issues."

Under the current binary system, she says, "customers are not well served. In any other industry this big, with this much customer dissatisfaction and only two players, an entrepreneur would see it as a wonderful opportunity."

Porter says beyond the election system, legislating should also change to give the majority party less control over setting the rules. 

"Parties have created extensive rules that in effect give the party in power the ability to control the legislative process, and what gets voted on," he says. "There's no back and forth, no negotiation to get to the best possible bill. Instead of a deliberative process, we have a process controlled by the party of power."

Their premise is intriguing: It's not the politicians, it's the process that has brought Washington to its knees. That seems an easier fix than finding politicians who can rise above politics.


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