Supreme Court of the United States

The DACA Decision Through a Party-System Lens

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on DACA is only a temporary reprieve for undocumented DREAMers; there’s little to prevent the Trump administration from trying again with a modified process. Meanwhile, the DACA program is popular with both Democrats and Republicans. In a better functioning system, Congress would have passed a law solving the problem long ago. But Congress is extremely dysfunctional, so it’s left to our courts to deal with issues that should be addressed legislatively. This is a fundamental failure of representative democracy to live up to the name.

Let’s consider the dysfunction in more detail. Why can’t Congress pass laws that are broadly supported on both sides? I think it has a lot to do with our seesaw, zero-sum, us-versus-them, two-party system. Republicans may prefer that DREAMers be allowed to stay, but it’s not their top priority. If their party takes the opposite position, it probably won’t, by itself, lead them to defect to the other party. In effect, the top priority for them is to oppose everything Democrats support. For many Democrats, the converse is true, in effect. As Senator Lindsey Graham once said, “If it’s a Democratic idea, I have to be against it because it came from a Democrat. And vice versa.” In the words of Senator Ben Sasse, “D.C. isn’t focused on serious, future things, it’s sort of Republican-versus-Democrat hackery most of the time, without even having clarity about what particular policy fight we’re arguing about.” I call this seesaw logic — in a two-party system, whatever hurts the other side helps your side, because there are only two choices. 

Think of it in terms of black, white and gray. The world is full of grays, but our bipolar party system depicts it as black-and-white. On most issues, the debate is either-or — this way or that way. But people take different positions on different issues — as do parties. They may take the “black” position on some issues and the “white” one on others, averaging out to a (lighter or darker) shade of gray.

The problem is that our party system doesn’t have the variety to represent these nuances of public opinion. One party takes a “white” position, the other “black”, and because of seesaw logic, an issue seen as marginal to the party’s core issues gets swept up into the ideological basket. The Republican Party can take a position that most of its voters don’t support because that position aligns better with the values of its base, and it opposes the position of the other side.

In a multiparty system, we’d have more variety, and the partisan balance on any given issue would be more likely to accurately represent the views of voters. Seesaw logic would no longer hold, because voters would have more defection options. Parties would no longer be able to rely on hatred of the “other side” for their own support. They’d instead have to come up with policy proposals that made sense to their voters. This would make them more responsive and more coherent in the ideological program they offered. And because it would no longer be normal for one party to win control of the agenda, politics wouldn’t be such a zero-sum game. Instead of fighting for the power to hijack the levers of Congress for their own purposes, parties would have to work together to craft legislation that would be more true to the views of the electorate.

The struggle over DACA illustrates why we so badly need to move beyond two parties to a proportional, multiparty system — as I explain at length in my book. For those in the majority, who want to see DREAMers given permanent residency, and our immigration system reformed, a more representative party system shows the way. For those who see the Supreme Court’s action as illegitimate because it usurps the role of the legislature, a more representative Congress would give it more legitimacy as the voice of the people, and thus, perhaps, reduce the scope for judicial activism.

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