Political science geekery ahead… if you want actionable stuff about the game, though, we have that too… but politics is also a form of game theory, like the game itself.
The U.S. looks insane to the rest of the world because of some apparently minor political structures that over-power rural states and under-power urban ones. If you read The Federalist Papers (don’t worry, you won’t), you’ll see the concern about balancing powers among states expressed repeatedly. A quick history lesson: the American Revolutionary War (or “The war of the ungrateful colonists” depending on where you are) lasted from 1775 – 1783, and at the end of if the U.S. states created a joint and ineffective government guided by a document called the Articles of Confederation, which didn’t allow for sufficient coordination among the states; that ineffective document led to the creation of a Constitutional Convention in 1787, and the ensuing document was eventually ratified by the states in 1789.
Way back then, smaller states were worried about being bullied by larger states, and, to prevent that from happening, and to prevent the usurpation of the presidency by a tyrant, the U.S. Senate was designed to give each state two senators, irrespective of the state’s size, and the Electoral College was created to put a barrier between the possibly tyrannous will of the people and the power of the presidency.
The world had very little experience with democracy back then, and the states’s representatives were more like start-up founders than CEOs implementing a mature business process. They had no idea what the f**k they were doing and did the best they could with the limited experience they had at the time. Those features may have seemed good in the agrarian period when they were created, but since then the Electoral College has shifted from “stop tyrants if necessary” to “vote according to the vote of the people of a given state.” In modern presidential elections, that means only a handful of states matter, and the votes in those states count for far more than the votes of other states. At the same time, the ratio of the population of the smallest states and largest states has grown enormously. Montana has just a million people in it, and Idaho has just 1.7 million, while California has 40 million. Yet Idaho and Montana between them have double the Senate representation California does. A fairer alternate Senate system might have two senators per state, and distribute those senators by state lines whenever possible, but also attempt to use a non-partisan commission to distribute senators. In a system like that, Idaho and Montana might have two senators, but California, Texas, and New York might have 3 – 4 senators (getting us closer to the “one person, one vote” ideal).
Instead, we have a system in which some rural votes are far more valuable than other rural votes. It’s also proven to be internationally true that, the more urban an area is, the more it votes towards the left. But the U.S. has a peculiar system that disproportionately empowers rural areas, and that’s had big international consequences over the last 20 years.
Imagine that the U.S. had a simple presidential system in which the winner of the most votes wins the presidency. In that alternate universe, Al Gore would have won in 2000, as the winner of the popular vote. There would be no Iraq War and the U.S. would be $1 trillion wealthier. In 2016, Clinton would have won as well (although if you have Gore win as a hypothetical in 2000, the world would have evolved in a different direction and perhaps many other things would be different too). And if you imagine that the U.S. had a fairer Senate system, the last ten years in particular would look very different, because a purely opositional minority party would have had far less power.
In a world closer to one-person, one-vote, the U.S. political outcomes would look much more like Canada’s, Australia’s, or the UK’s. The U.S. system disproportionately empowers a small number of minority rural states to set and sway the political agenda. Backwards rural states’s power leads to many of the undesirable outcomes we’ve seen over the last twenty years. The structure of the country allows a relatively unpopular rump party to set the country’s agenda. Once you realize this, you’ll realize that the U.S. is slightly less nuts than it seems, politically speaking.
The U.S. right doesn’t have the moderating influences that a parliamentary system would impose, and the U.S. right has been able to drift away from reality because it’s protected from the will of voters as a mass. If not for the Senate and Electoral College, we’d have a right wing closer to something like an Australian, UK, or European right wing. We don’t, though, so we don’t. Historically, this hasn’t been a big problem, because parties were less ideological than they are today.
Some combination of the end of the Soviet Union (big external enemy), the end of formal segregation, and the rise of social media seems to have created or grown political problems in the U.S. We’re likely to have a crisis that will likely lead to government breakdown and, hopefully, a peaceful transition to a parliamentary system. To understand why this will likely happen, remember that elections are mandated every two years. It’s possible for one party to hold the Senate and another party to hold the presidency and/or the House of Representatives. If different parties hold the presidency and one of the houses of congress, it’s possible for the president or for a house of congress to simply say “no” to everything. In other words, to impose total stasis. This situation might be okay absent a crisis or crises, but the longer it goes on, the stronger the pressure to do something, particularly if/when a crisis erupts. In 2008 and 2009, we still had enough bipartisanship left to respond to the financial crisis, and that could easily have turned into a bank run and a second Great Depression. (Relatively) fast federal action saved the country’s banks, albeit at great political cost to the left. If the next big financial crisis leads to bank runs and bank failure due to Senate inaction, we’ll have the conditions for total government breakdown.
In addition to the structural points above, remember that most people follow the leader… they aren’t stirred by abstract principle so much as they are by a particular person. People don’t tend to think for themselves, they tend to follow whoever the leaders are. You can tell the people who believed in anything resembling conservative principles, because they announced themselves as “Never Trumpers” in 2015 and 2016. They joined Project Lincoln. If they didn’t want to vote for the left, they voted for Libertarians, or not at all. They’ve been consistently against Trump since he appeared (there are zero of them in the U.S. Senate, by the way). The vast majority of the people on the right, slavish follow their leader (and the same is true on the left, but the left hasn’t produced any leaders with the level of competence or mendacity Trump does, so they’ve not been a defining problem). Very few people have stable independent views… their views are swayed by whoever’s on TV today.
Everyone forgets other incompetents boosted by politics, like Sarah Palin, who is now at best the butt of jokes, if she’s remembered at all. Memories are short. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s manure… something that’s also widely forgotten, by the partisans who are hyped up about today’s contest. No one watches old sports contests on TV, and no one cares about yesterday’s politicos, except weirdos interested in history. Tomorrow it will be some new hotness… something that the hottest tweeters forget. The tweeters also don’t realize we could use ten percent less democracy.
Last time an unpopular minority got disproportionate power in the U.S., in the 19th Century, said power was used to protect and promote slavery. Today’s rump party is not using its power to promote slavery, but it is possible for a minority set of views to hold the rest of the United States hostage, and, unless you understand the peculiarities of the U.S. system, it will be hard to comprehend the last 20 years of U.S. political history. It’s not the majority; it’s the minority. The U.S. is less crazy than we look, we just have a crazy legacy system. Most Americans don’t understand the ins and outs of this system, and most people in other countries understand it even less, and leading to the headlines about how crazy the U.S. is. The losses that would cause a party in a better system to moderate aren’t occurring in the U.S. system. Blame the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.