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Opinion: Why I believe Evan McMullin can break our ‘two-party doom loop’

Utah U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin is running as an independent. If elected, what advantages could he give Utahns in the Senate?

SHARE Opinion: Why I believe Evan McMullin can break our ‘two-party doom loop’
Evan McMullin, Utah’s independent U.S. Senate candidate challenging incumbent Mike Lee, stands in front of the Utah mountains near his home.

U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin poses for a photo at his home in Highland on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. Lee Drutman explores the advantages Evan McMullin would have if elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The United States Senate is a unique institution. All senators are equally powerful, and those who choose to use their power carefully have made great contributions to American history.

Today, however, most senators do not use their power at all — either carefully or carelessly. Most senators simply turn over their vote to the leader of one of the two major parties, thus deepening the zero-sum hyperpartisan division that is undermining our system of self-governance.

One can certainly understand why Sen. Mike Lee would not choose to exercise all that much of his power. 

In October 2016, Lee publicly urged Donald Trump to “step aside” and let someone else run as the Republican nominee for president. “Your conduct, sir, is the distraction,” Lee said at the time. “Mr. Trump, I respectfully ask you, with all due respect, to step aside. Step down. Allow someone else to carry the banner of these principles.”

Such dissent required some courage. It went against the prevailing partisan logic. But it faded quickly. To get along, Lee decided to go along. There were many things he could have done to try to bring back civility and decency to our politics. But four years later, he was an enthusiastic partisan and even explored ways to overturn the 2020 election.

What might a more independent-minded senator have done? Examples include Utah’s own Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Jon Tester from Montana. Though each caucuses with Republicans or Democrats, they are often a thorn in typical partisan plans. In a divided Senate, each has tremendous leverage because they are willing to withhold their vote. Each would lose their power if they were a reliable partisan.

Were Evan McMullin to be elected senator as an independent in a closely divided Senate, he would become one of the most immediately powerful senators. If he was willing to use the power of a single senator instead of taking the easy path of being a reliable partisan, he could offer a powerful check on both extreme Democratic and extreme Republican legislation. 

Some have said McMullin would be powerless as an independent — kept from committee assignments or ostracized by both parties. This view not only fails to understand how the Senate actually works but also fails to imagine a different and better way it could work. The Senate is governed largely by rules and tradition. But those rules and traditions are constantly evolving as new senators innovate on them.

Right now, American politics is trapped in what I’ve called a “two-party doom loop.” We have two political parties, deeply divided, both fighting each other for narrow advantage in control of the entire U.S. government, escalating into hatred and anti-democratic behavior with each passing election.

Yet, for all the endless scorched-earth battling, it’s a fight nobody seems to ever win. The biggest losers are the American people, who are caught in the crossfire. 

According to a New York Times poll, more than half of voters (53%) now believe that “the political system is too divided to solve the nation’s problem,” up from 40% in 2020. They are right. Unfortunately, voters in almost every state and congressional district this fall have no way to register this concern. A choice of a Democrat vs. a Republican is a choice for either more division or more division. A few candidates talk about the importance of compromise and bipartisanship. But few have the courage to stand independently and attempt to do anything about it.

What could a senator committed to bridging partisan divides that are undermining our system of government accomplish?

Such a senator could hold up business until both parties agree on some power-sharing agreements that would build towards more compromise. Such a senator could join with other independent-minded senators like Romney, Murkowski, Manchin and Tester to form a larger voting bloc to ensure that the Senate passed legislation that represented broader bipartisan compromise, rather than just the support of whichever party happens to have the narrow majority for the current Congress. 

Even more ambitiously, such a senator could advance voting reforms that would allow for more political parties that could break the binaries, such as proportional representation for the U.S. House and fusion balloting for the U.S. Senate.

There are, in fact, a whole host of ways McMullin could work to advance important, healing changes. 

The easy thing to do in our politics right now is to pick one of the two major parties, and let the leadership of the two major parties do the thinking for you. But that’s exactly how America fell into this deep crisis of hyperpartisan polarization.

It’s easy to be a foot soldier in the war of us against them. It’s the path of least resistance. But if we are to escape this doom loop, we need a few good people who are willing to use their power not just to do the easy thing, but to do the hard thing — making our democracy work again. Senators are uniquely powerful. They should use that power to bring our country together.

Lee Drutman is a political scientist, the author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. He is also co-founder of Fix Our House, a campaign for proportional representation in the United States.