Sunday night — Monday morning, Beijing time — I put on a jacket and tie (only) to deliver remarks to leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.
(With Zoom, wonderfully, you can’t tell the participants from the partici-no-pants.)
It was a follow-up to remarks I had delivered in Beijing eight years ago. Mostly about gridlock, but also about being gay.
I fear I spoke way too fast for the simultaneous translator to convey my message (in Beijing, it had been “consecutive” translation, a few sentences at a time), but I was told to speak naturally, so I did:
Good morning! [It was 10:34PM.]
I’m no expert in world affairs, but I know this much: nothing is more important to the world’s future than a constructive relationship between the U.S. and China, so it is an honor to be with you today at this Party Leaders Dialogue*.
Your hospitality on my visit to Beijing and Nanjing in 2013 was extraordinary.
My assignment that first morning was to discuss the gridlock in Washington – the inability of our two major parties to find compromise and get things done.
As you know, in the eight years since, things have only gotten worse. Our country is even more polarized.
So I’d like to tell you today about a solution to this problem that is gaining momentum.
But first — and before I tell you about the Chinese-American, Andrew Yang, who is helping to promote it — let me describe the underlying problem:
As you know, our Senators and Congressmen-and-women are elected in two steps.
First, they have to win a “primary” election to become their Party’s candidate. Then, months later, in November, they have to win the “general” election against the candidate of the opposing party.
The problem is that relatively few Americans pay attention to primary elections. Those who DO tend to be the most passionate and, often, the most uncompromising and extreme.
My own view is that the extremism has been worse on the right than the left — my Republican friends on this call may not agree — but either way, it is a problem on both sides. Our politicians are afraid to be seen compromising, or to take moderate positions, for fear of losing support among primary voters who could kick them out of office in the next election.
So that’s the problem.
The solution comes in three parts:
> The first is to make voting in the primaries easier, so that more people in the center take the time to do it. For example, what if every eligible voter were mailed a ballot, so all they had to do was fill it out and mail it in? No time taken off from work. No trouble going to a polling place. No waiting in long lines in the rain. Voter participation would be much higher, giving moderate candidates a better chance to win.
> The second is called Open Primaries. California already does this. Instead of Democrats going to the polls to select their candidate and Republicans going to the polls, often on a different date, to select THEIRS, everybody votes among ALL the candidates, from both parties, in a single election . . . and the top two, even if both are Republicans or both are Democrats, run against each other in the general election.
This system favors candidates who can appeal broadly, not just to the most passionate extremes on their side.
With more moderate Senators and Congressmen-and-women in Washington, there would be more compromise. Less gridlock.
> The third is called Ranked Choice Voting. Also known as “Instant Run-Off Voting.” It’s already in use in some places, most recently in the election for Mayor of New York City.
Instead of voting only for your first choice among all those running in your party’s primary, you specify your 1st choice – but also your 2nd and 3rd and as many more choices as you like.
If your 1st choice gets the fewest votes, he or she is eliminated and the computer instantly assign your vote to your 2nd choice.
The computer keeps dropping the candidate with the fewest votes until someone with a majority – more than 50% of the votes – wins.
In such a system, the extreme candidates might get 20% or 30% of the votes, but not enough to win.
To take one dramatic example: if Ranked Choice Voting had been the law in 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore for presidency by 537 votes in Florida, an idealistic candidate on the left named Ralph Nader won 97,488 votes. If their votes had not been wasted – but instead assigned to their SECOND choice – Al Gore would almost surely have been president and the course of history quite different.
The same might be said of the 1992 election. If the 20 million votes for businessman Ross Perot had been assigned to his supporters’ SECOND choice, President George H.W. Bush might very well have been re-elected to a second term . . . again, changing the course of history.
Ranked Choice Voting would moderate candidates’ positions and soften their polarizing rhetoric. They would be competing not just for their most extreme supporters, but competing also to be the second choice of more moderate voters.
In 2018, I hosted a dinner in New York for a young, largely unknown Chinese-American lawyer and entrepreneur who planned to announce a run for President against Donald Trump.
I knew he couldn’t win the Democratic nomination, but I thought the ideas in his book were so good and important, I want to help get him on the “debate stage” to expose those ideas to tens of millions of Americans.
And that’s just what happened. His ideas for a Universal Basic Income attracted a great deal of interest. He is now quite well known here in the U.S. He has a megaphone. Universal Basic Income will I believe sooner or later be adopted throughout Europe and, eventually, here in the U.S.
His NEW book is being published next month. This one advocates exactly what I described above: the need for Open Primaries and Ranked Choice Voting to move American politics back toward moderation and constructive compromise.
As with Universal Basic Income, these ideas are not original to Andrew Yang. But he does a very good job of popularizing them.
Maybe one day he will be our Ambassador to China – or, someday, perhaps, President of the United States. It’s unlikely, of course. And he would probably not be my FIRST choice. But with Ranked Choice Voting – who knows?
I have three last things to say:
First: Polarization is not our only problem. For example, two-thirds of the Justices who sit on our Supreme Court were appointed by Republican presidents, even though Republicans have won the popular vote just ONCE in the last eight presidential elections. Our system needs reform. There are solutions for that, too.
But nothing is more important than the reforms I’ve just described to give to elect more candidates who embrace compromise and cooperation.
Second: on my trip to China, I had the opportunity to tell your Vice President and Party leaders how much progress toward happiness had been made in the U.S. – at no economic cost! – by embracing our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. At the time, three of our nine Democratic Party officers were openly gay. I was one of them.
This morning, I just wanted to report that this progress continues. So much so that — along with Andrew Yang — another of our Democratic candidates in 2020 was Pete Buttigieg, a wonderful young man who is married to another wonderful young man. He got millions of votes and in fact won the very first primary, ahead of Joe Biden and everyone else. Today, he is America’s Secretary of Transportation.
I hope this progress is continuing in China as well. At no cost, it dramatically increases the happiness of tens of millions of people.
Third: let me end where I began. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. Nothing is more important than a constructive relationship between the United States and China.
At which point I took off the rest of my clothes, popped a melatonin gummy, and went to bed.
For all the things we rightly dislike about China and her form of government (“socialism with Chinese characteristics”), it should be noted that in just the last four decades they have lifted 700 hundred million people out of poverty; and that our own performance is not entirely above criticism, either. So, yes: nothing is more important than building a constructive relationship that helps each of us do better and better.
*Needless to say, I am not a “party leader.” Even when I was DNC Treasurer, I was basically just a fundraiser, as I still am today (click here!). I ad-libbed something to be sure they knew I was just a private citizen.
Quote of the Day
You know the old saying, 'Two can live cheaper than one?' It depends who the second person is.~A.T.
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