Add it up

love-that-demWrote this a week or two ago, but never finished it.  May as well post what I have while it’s relevant and finish it later…or perhaps even provoke some commenters into doing it for me.

…nah, that’ll never happen.

Was reading yesterday in Rolling Stone about the state of the Republican Party post-2008.  It’s a lovely bit of schadenfreude, but I was tinged with a bit of sadness and frustration about the whole thing – and not because a bunch of guys who I think should dry up and blow away politically elicit any sympathy from me.

Briefly, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, the GOP is in a grand clash right now between the ideologically pure segment (Cheney, Limbaugh, Sanford, Gingrich, Grover Norquist, et al.) and the old-time politicos (Lindsey Graham, Charlie Crist, Colin Powell, et al.) over the future direction of the party.  The moderates, for what appear to be mostly practical reasons, want to back off on some of the more strident bits of ideology and try to appeal to the former “Reagan Democrats” (who may or may not be a fictional construct; more on that a different time).  The purists want to keep dragging the party to the right, as they’ve done with the entire country since Reagan, and, earlier, Goldwater.

The sad part about this is that never has there been a better, more apt, more shining example of a need for electoral reform than this intra-party ideological struggle, and yet no one is looking at – sorry, but I have to use it – the elephant in the room.  In any sane democratic system, this battle wouldn’t be fought out in the wonkish margins of the Times’ editorial pages (be it the NY or DC) – the two sides would simply break off, post different candidates, and decide at the ballot box.  But because of the two-party system, that obvious solution can’t be done.

The U.S. electoral system is an artificial, undemocratic construct designed to concentrate power away from the people.  The mechanism isn’t any sinister conspiracy; it’s pure and simple mathematics.  When you go with single-seat, winner-take-all races, the math works against you having any more than two choices at a time.  So all the important, devil-in-the-details decisions are made away from the public eye, inside the parties or inside associated think tanks, and the people get to choose between the two most bland, TV-friendly figureheads who champion them.  The important minority voices within each are shouted down and weeded out before you get to choose; any competing alliances they could form with each other are scuttled before they can cause any meaningful change.

There are two basic solutions to this: change the math, or exploit it.  Everyone else did the former; we did the latter.  Most of the Congressional races now, for example, aren’t “races” in any sense; they’re more like the patsy, for-show elections that take place in authoritarian countries.  A Democrat, for example, will win in my district in 2010.  It’s been gerrymandered to take place.  Any Republicans in my district will never, ever have any representation in the House.  The system is broken enough that essentially special gerrymandering had to be introduced so that you could have any – any! – blacks or Latinos elected, much less any in proportion to their actual size in the population.

In the Presidental ballot, it’s even worse, thanks to the Electoral College.  If you are a Democrat in Texas – and there are literally millions of them – it is likely that you will never in your lifetime cast a vote that matters for a President.  Same thing if you are a Republican living in Massachusetts.

The thing is, changing the math is easy.  Proportional representation is intuitive to anyone: 30% of the people should get you 30% of the representatives.  If the legislature is split such that no one has an absolute majority – which makes sense, given that you’re trying to represent 300 million people! – then you can make the deals necessary to govern right there in the legislature itself, where it’s supposed to happen in a democracy.  Gingrich might only get 25% of the people for his freaky little glee club, but that’s better than the 0% he’s going to get when his ideas get shelved by the moderates of the GOP (assuming that’s the way it actually goes).

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4 Responses

  1. I have written about a world with no political parties. In many ways, I think a system that forced people to run as individuals rather than as a part of a large political machine makes a great deal of sense. If there were no political parties politicians would be much more likely to serve the voters, because bribing them would be more difficult. Instead of bringing in more parties I say we should do away with the entire party system.

  2. Suggestions for avoiding Israel’s proportional representation experience? My understanding of it is that the two major moderateish parties had around the same percentages, like 45ish each, and so needed all the little guys to get to a large enough coalition. Meaning that the 5 percent ultraorthodox were VERY important, and ended up with a whole lot of power re the whole country.

  3. @ val: A very valid point. Three things about that: first, to address it directly, it’s possible to place a threshold on the percentage of the vote in order to get any seats at all – sort of a “you must be this tall to ride”. Israel’s threshold is notably small; I think it’s 1%. Secondly, it was possible for an alternative coalition on the left to have formed a government in Israel had Avigdor Lieberman’s faction not gained quite as much as they did. 12% doesn’t sound like a lot, except when you realize the leading two parties only gained about 22% each – and if a similar election was held here, 12% of the U.S. population is a little over 34 million people.

    Third, as an aside, implementing such a system in the U.S. would not necessarily mean “parlimentarianism”, as it’s understood in foreign countries. Congress would still have no power to declare no confidence, nor extract any concessions from the executive or judicial branches. The only thing it would necessarily mean would be the committee chairmanships – important, but not insurmountable for a determined minority, particularly with the power of filibuster and possible a popular referendum at their disposal.

  4. Personally, I see the drama in the GOP a good thing for those (like yourself, for example) who want to do away with the two party system. Where one of the established parties suddenly (or even gradually) starts changing themselves away from their defined place on the spectrum then you have disenfranchised people. For example, if the GOP leans closer to Limbaugh than Powell, then those on Powell’s side of the party (what we’d call “Red Tories”) would not like the party and be grumbling about splitting off and forming their own party to represent their needs, since that can no longer be done with the GOP. If some of the high-profile GOPers themselves (like Powell) take up that cause and run for leadership in the new party then bingo, you’ve got a viable third party with an established base to challenge the other two and finally put an end to that silly two-party system you got.

    In my mind that’s probably the best way to break the two-party system rather than bringing an existing third party (like the Whigs, Libertarians, or Greens) up to the level of the Big Two. The signs, as you point out, are there. The dominoes just have to fall (and attitudes have to be changed too, attitudes like “It’s America’s God-given destiny to be a two-party country”, even though that shows massive ignorance of history). I doubt though that Americans will “tolerate” an ideological shift of their party merely to prop up the “two-party” illusion (Americans are a LOT less tolerant than Canadians in that sense), so it will happen, mark my words.

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