By Mark Bauer

Does the U.S. electoral system reward cruelty in politics? That’s one of the questions journalist Ilana E. Strauss seeks to answer in a recent article in the Atlantic, “The Point of the Cruelty.

In examining the issue, Ilana identifies several contributing factors to why political leaders tend to exhibit cruel behavior. One reason she highlights is that the job itself seems to attract the type of person who enjoys bossing people around. “Jerks—people who consciously and intentionally violate norms and rules—may succeed in politics simply because they want power so much,” she discovered in her research.

Bossy behavior notwithstanding, the U.S. electoral system also plays a role in rewarding cruel behavior by the way it’s set up. The winner-take-all system encourages polarization through knock-down, dragout political campaigns that seek not to promote a candidate’s highest ideals, but instead seek to obliterate political opponents. Ilan elaborates:

consider the bigger picture: Jerks can survive only in environments that reward cruelty. In highly polarized societies, people yearn for a fighter who can defeat what they perceive as a horrible enemy. The winner-take-all electoral system in American politics reinforces this kind of polarization. But other countries—and even some parts of the U.S.—have different ways of picking their leaders. In ranked-choice voting, for instance, voters rank candidates in order of preference, rather than just choosing one. That means third parties have a real shot at winning, preventing elections from looking like a sports game with only two sides. Ranked-choice voting also often results in the candidate whom voters hate the least winning, not just the one candidate who can eke out a majority.

Ilan isn’t the only one to come to this realization. All across the country, Americans who are tired of politics-as-usual are taking a closer look at the political process in order to identify ways of expanding democracy. Ranked choice voting is one that is increasingly attracting widespread, bipartisan support. And why not? The way politicians treat one another isn’t contained to just the political arena; there’s leakage into the lives of everyday Americans. 

Social scientist Arthur Brooks covers this phenomenon in his book, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.” In an interview about the book, Brooks says: 

That means we’ve reached a pretty catastrophic level of dehumanizing each other along partisan lines — so that, for example, the characteristic that people most don’t want to see in their child’s spouse has become belonging to the opposite political party. Why? Because it suggests this prima facie evidence of terrible character. And not long ago, many of us would have considered that kind of judgement unthinkable. But now, if your daughter comes home and tells your Democrat family she wants to marry this Republican, people might react as if the guy has some glaring pornography addiction, or has shown some serious moral deficiency.

The good news is that with a little bit of awareness and political will, reforms like ranked choice voting can help change the political landscape so that it emphasizes ideas over character assassinations.

Help get ranked choice voting on ballots across the country by joining us or by donating.

Mark Bauer is a producer, entrepreneur, day trader and former Independent candidate for Congress in Texas. Previously he spent 10 years as a legal journalist covering the legal market in Texas and regulatory issues in Washington DC.

Mark’s primary interests involve using content and storytelling to help different groups of people better understand one another.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.