Advantaging Authoritarianism: the U.S. Electoral System

America’s authoritarian faction is both more extreme and more successful than similar movements in other advanced democracies. Yet despite its ascendency, this faction does not enjoy broad-based support. So what explains its outsized success?

In Advantaging Authoritarianism: The U.S. Electoral System & Antidemocratic Extremism, Protect Democracy examines the links between escalating antidemocratic extremism and the U.S. electoral system: “one uniquely translating limited factional support into outsized political influence.” In particular, it interrogates how specific features of the U.S. electoral system may be structurally favoring political extremism, such as by exaggerating one party’s electoral wins over the other, diluting minority voting power, weakening competition between the major parties, preventing an electorally viable new center-right party, and rewarding extreme factions at the ballot box, among other effects.

As political scientist Robert Dahl once observed, the U.S. system, “natural as it may seem to us, is of a species rare to the vanishing point among the advanced democracies.” Advantaging Authoritarianism examines its anomalous features; the ways in which those features are aggravating extremism; and how various reforms could help to turn the tide. While the authoritarian threat confronting the U.S. is a near-term crisis, successfully confronting it will also require long-term, structural solutions.

The U.S. is an electoral system outlier. No other democracy on earth elects its officials like we do. This report critically examines how our peculiar, outdated system is systematically advantaging America’s ascendant authoritarian faction—and how absent reform, extremism will escalate.

Grant Tudor, Policy Advocate, Protect Democracy
This paper argues that understanding the escalating extremism and success of America’s authoritarian faction requires understanding the U.S. electoral system: one uniquely translating limited factional support into outsized political influence.

It also examines the core components of the electoral system used for most U.S. elections—single-member plurality—and ways by which its basic features may be structurally favoring extremism. The choices constituting single-member plurality—along with other anomalous features of the U.S. system, such as party primaries and small assembly sizes—aggravate the authoritarian threat. In particular, this paper assesses at least three ways by which the design of the U.S. electoral system is likely accelerating antidemocratic extremism, including by:

  • Generating electoral biases, or exaggerating electoral wins in one party’s favor,
  • Rewarding coherent factions at the expense of less coherent majorities, and
  • Collecting limited information about the electorate’s preferences, including underlying consensus.

Additionally, there are at least three ways by which the U.S. system blunts efforts to counter extremism, including by:

  • Weakening competition such that the far-right is increasingly unchallenged at the ballot box,
  • Diluting minority voting power such that racial and ethnic minorities are systematically underrepresented, and
  • Entrenching binary conflict that exacerbates animosity between partisans and marginalizes in-group moderates.

Absent changes to the machinery of the system, the behaviors of the actors are unlikely to change.

Lastly, while this paper does not advocate for any specific suite of reforms, it does briefly illustrate reform options and recommend pursuing reforms as a strategy for protecting U.S. democracy against further backsliding. Alternative electoral system design choices could incentivize broader coalition-building, lessen biases that favor one party over the other, enhance racial and ethnic minority representation, and facilitate substantially greater competition, among other potentially desirable effects to structurally help mitigate antidemocratic extremism. Absent basic changes to the U.S. electoral system, extremism is likely to continue accelerating. Electoral reform may thus prove essential to attenuating the authoritarian threat.

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Gerrymander, U.S.A.

The New York Times, July 12, 2022
By Jesse Wegman

About the Author

Grant Tudor

Policy Advocate

Grant Tudor develops and advocates for a range of reforms to shore up our democratic institutions.

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Current United States Authoritarian Threat Index score: 2/5 Significant Threat

The Score Breakdown

  • Elections 2/5 • Significant Threat