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Public Administration in “Post-Democracy” America: Part 4—Can a Simple Fix Prevent Authoritarianism?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
April 18, 2022

This is my fourth and final in a series of columns in the PA Times regarding the implications for public administration from the emerging crisis of American democracy (the first column on the possible increase in official corruption if America becomes an authoritarian state is available here; the second column on public administrators needing to recognize absolute standards of conduct is here; the third column on the value of the “Deep State” is here). I hope that the readers of these columns have been horrified by the prospects of the United States continuing to slide toward authoritarianism. If that slide does continue, then the field of public administration will become an untenable, mere shadow of its functioning from 1933 to 2016. Recently, evidence is accumulating that a simple fix to our electoral system might permanently halt and then reverse these authoritarian tendencies. This column discusses that fix, acknowledging up front that it resides squarely in the political, and not administrative, domain.

The fix is the “top four” or “top two” primary for choosing candidates to appear on the general election ballot. For those unfamiliar with this system, here are the crucial details:

  • All candidates from all political parties run in the same primary election against each other. There are no separate nominating processes for each party, except if a party uses such a process to select the candidates that will enter the primary as endorsed candidates. Any separate nominating process would not require a publicly funded voting system—that would be restricted just to the primary.
  • All registered voters are eligible to vote for any of the candidates running in the primary. The party affiliations of voters do not restrict their choices at the ballot box.
  • Depending on the rules, either the top four or the top two candidates receiving the most votes would then run against each other in the general election. If it turned out that all of the candidates were from the same political party, so be it.

This system already has yielded dramatic, positive effects on the election of the California State Legislature. Where in the past that legislature was noted for increasing ideological polarization and infighting, today most of the intense divisiveness and polarization is gone. Alaska is using a top four primary for the first time this year to choose candidates for Congress and already that has produced the same tangible reduction in ideological polarization.

These benefits are accruing because, when all voters are eligible to vote for all candidates, it consistently results in the election of moderates over politicians with views much more to the right or left of center. Instead of self-selecting conservatives into one primary and liberals into another, with moderates often sitting out either primary process, the top four or top two system gives centrist voters the same influence in the primary that they often have in the general election. The top four or top two system appears to be a clear pathway toward reinforcing moderation and stability in American politics. As a pragmatist and a scientist, I respect both the evidence and the outcome.

Certainly, there are some potential costs, especially regarding the ability of public policy to gain from the insights of progressives and conservatives alike. Widely adopting a top four or top two system will discriminate against views that should be heard. But this is a short-term problem. Over time, advocates for public policies outside the moderate mainstream can and do succeed in getting public policies to incorporate their ideas. For example, the conservative proposal to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions using a cap-and-trade market approach was met with derision on the American left, but eventually became a successful public policy that moderates support. A similar transformation is underway right now with conservatives embracing the cause of decriminalizing marijuana.

Please note that the shift to the top four or top two system does not require amending the U.S. Constitution; all the necessary changes occur at the state and local level. Most proposals I know of that are directed at finding institutional fixes to reinforce American democracy against authoritarianism generally do suggest amending the Constitution. Those include various suggestions for either abandoning or altering the Electoral College. As a pragmatist, I believe that any solution that begins with, “First, amend the Constitution,” is not likely to work especially in the current political climate in the country.

The stakes here for public administration remain high. Consider how productive and morale-improving it would be if we could sleep at night not worrying that the next U.S. president might choose to move Federal agricultural agencies across the country just to destroy them, or reverse decades of effective environmental policies on a whim or abandon long-standing allies abroad without notice or reason. As a champion of a strong, effective public sector, I have come to realize, as argued in this column, that we need to make immediate changes in our political system as a matter of survival. If you can support the adoption of a top four or top two primary where you vote, I hope you will give that your full attention.


Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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