The Internet is awash in hot takes about what is perniciously, existentially wrong with the Trump-era GOP and the party’s disturbing willingness to embrace the Big Lie of election fraud as its new purity test.
But what is missed almost entirely in the diagnosis of what ails the party are not the symptoms, but the root cause driving all of it: Our broken election system is empowering a small fraction of voters to wield an outsized influence in party primaries and push our leaders to the extremes.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy knows that former President Trump’s incitement of violence on Jan. 6 was an affront to our democracy. He said as much days after the attack: “The president bears responsibility for [the] attack on Congress by mob rioters.”
But aspiring-Speaker McCarthy has come to accept Trump’s staying power, and is facilitating the ousting of Rep. Liz Cheney as conference chair because she defended the rule of law.
Similarly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis knows that mail-in ballots are not ripe with fraud. In 2018, 53,000 more Republicans voted by mail in Florida than Democrats –– enough to help deliver DeSantis his ultimate vote margin of just 32,463.
But presidential-hopeful DeSantis has bowed to the myth that greater voting access benefits Democrats, and recently signed into law new voting restrictions, including on mail-in ballots.
Why are McCarthy, DeSantis, and so many other Republican leaders running to the fringe? Why doesn’t defending democracy seem to matter to them, or telling the truth? Because the incentives for gaining and maintaining political power matter more.
Their actions lead us to the answer: If we want to save the Republican Party from its authoritarian, anti-truth spiral –– and taking the rest of our country down with it –– we must change today’s political incentives by solving the “primary problem” in our politics.
While a majority of Republicans (55%) believe the 2020 election outcome was the result of “illegal voting or election rigging,” only 26% of all Americans do. Those figures mean that while campaigning on a conspiracy theory won’t win a competitive general election, it may be necessary to win a Republican primary. Our leaders are keenly aware of this fact.
The vast majority of congressional seats lean heavily Democratic or Republican, and in these districts the primary is the only election that actually matters. Very few voters participate, and those who do tend to be more partisan and ideologically extreme. In fact, in 2020, just 10% of all voters effectively decided 83% of all congressional elections in the primaries, according to a report by the Unite America Institute, an organization I run.
Just look at what happened in the 2020 GOP primaries: Former Rep. Denver Riggleman was tossed out of office by just 2,500 Republican delegates in a Virginia church parking lot during a drive-thru convention in favor of a candidate who referred to COVID-19 as a “phony pandemic.” Former Rep. Scott Tipton was “primaried” in Colorado by Lauren Boebert, who on the morning of the Jan. 6 insurrection tweeted: “Today is 1776.”
In open seats, widely covered “Stop the Steal” freshmen Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn won primary run-offs with 8% and 5% support, respectively, from all eligible voters in their districts –– sealing their victories in solidly Republican districts months before Election Day.
Of course, any system that is, by its design, producing unrepresentative outcomes can be redesigned to produce more representative outcomes. Alaska voters did just that by passing a major electoral reform at the ballot last November that will replace their state’s partisan primaries with a single nonpartisan primary beginning in 2022. Under this new system, voters select their preferred candidate regardless of party in the primary, the top four finishers advance to the general election, and whoever earns majority support -- through a ranked-choice instant runoff, if necessary -- wins.
The impact of the Alaska reform was immediate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is up for reelection next year, voted to convict former President Trump in his impeachment trial knowing full well that her decision will be judged by all of the voters she represents, not just the base of her party, in the next election. Notably, the same goes for three House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump; they come from the only two other states with nonpartisan primaries, California and Washington.
Even if a fringe group of activists and conspiracy mongers want to make the GOP an anti-democratic cult of personality that denies basic facts, most Republicans do not. The same poll that found widespread belief in 2020 election fraud also found that 70% of Republicans believe it is “important for government to make it easier for people to vote.”
America needs a healthy Republican Party, including to check the ideological extremism of the left, which is driven by Democrats’ own primary problem. We will not get that healthy party, however, until we cure the underlying electoral disease.
The most important thing we can do to protect our democracy is to exercise it –– by adopting nonpartisan electoral reforms at the ballot and through state legislatures across the country to abolish partisan primaries and give all voters more voice, more choice, and more power in their elections. In a political system where elections truly represent the will of the people, big lies won’t have such long legs.