There are few things less popular than Congress. Apparently, according to a recent New York Times poll, polygamy, communism, and the BP oil spill all have better PR than the United States Congress, who recently has slipped into single digits – an all time low, even for a historically unpopular body. It has been argued (by Jason Simpson, among others) that we can't really expect great numbers from our legislature, since a lot of us voted for the other guy, and none of us here in CT voted for the distinguished representative from, I don't know. . . let's say Texas. Even worse, voter turnout has never approached 100% of registered voters, and registration has never approached anywhere near 100% of those eligible. As Woody Allen once said, “Life is run by the people who show up.” On average, since Gallup started keeping track, Congress has done a good job in the eyes of about a third (34%) of the voting demographic, and that jives with what a thinking person might expect given the sheer number of people in this country, and the propensity in our national character for crying bullshit at the first sight of a bull, or even the faintest whiff of shit.
And yet, 9% is really dismal. Gallup concurs placing the number at 10%, a record low. So how is the two party system working for you? Feel good about it? If that question makes you squirm, perhaps you're one of the 40% of Americans who self-identify as Independent (another Gallup record, by the way). It doesn't have to be like this. No clause in our legal code, or our precious Constitution requires us to choose between two parties; Dumb and Dumber. It does, however, stack the deck in favor of the already powerful with it's winner-take-all system. Something has to change, and fortunately, since we established our Republic, a lot of good ideas have come and gone from the world. There are well tested alternatives, and many modern nations are benefitting right now by learning from our mistakes. Why we aren't taught about them in school is a discussion for another day, but when I learned about the German Legislature I thought it sounded like just the ticket. That was a decade ago. I've had a lot of time to hone this idea, and think about how it might be applied to our own situation. The time is now. We will crack this two party system. Here's how it will be done:
Firstly, we must change the way the U.S. House of Representatives is elected to use a form of proportional representation, which essentially means that if you get a certain percentage of votes, then you get a certain number of seats. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is. And, this not being an article on arithmetic I will skip over the details like what to do with the “remainder” and. . . nevermind. I can already feel your eyes glazing over. If we get so far as to be arguing over the details, then we have already won.
The way this works is that each political party would put up a list of names. They can be chosen by a caucus, primary, smoky back-room deals, lottery, or by searching neighboring villages for a child who can pick out Newt Gingrich’s underpants from a lineup. I am happy to allow the parties any amount of latitude for choosing their candidates. In Connecticut, since we have five seats, each party would put up five names. For every 20% of the popular vote you get, one name comes off the top of your list. If you sweep the election, you get all five of your candidates in.
You can see right away one of the big benefits of this is that it becomes very difficult to manipulate elections by “gerrymandering” or drawing up favorable voting districts. Instead of throwing all of your opposition's supporters into a single voting district (thereby conceding that one seat, but making sure all the others are “safe”) you would have to win broader support from the whole state.
The other immediate benefit is that there is much less “strategic voting” where you cast your vote for the lesser of two morons, because someone has convinced you that voting your conscience is throwing your vote away. In time this can chip away at the profound apathy that we have developed because, quite frankly, most votes do not affect the outcome of elections. Again, this is not because of any shady ballot-stuffing, but simply because the political machine is rigged to keep seats firmly in the hands of one or the other party.
The consequences of this simple but powerful change in the way we elect our Representatives take just a little bit of vision to appreciate. The ultimate goal, of course, is to break the two party system into something else. The goal is fragmentation. It sounds less stable, but is in fact more stable. There are, of course, counter-examples, but for the moment remember how really well-represented you feel by the Republicrats.
Proportional representation will allow more political parties to develop over time, the better to represent you with.
Firstly, it is less personality-driven, and more issues-driven. Ultimately, bombastic statements are useful in speaking to your constituency back home, but not really useful in shouting down your opponents at a committee meeting. Your opponents are not likely to sell out or be bullied into a swing vote for expediency, because more fragmented parties tend to have a more narrow agenda. They are just as likely to abstain from a discussion on social issues if they were elected to push a specific economic agenda, and vice versa.
Secondly, everyone has a more or less permanent seat at the table. Have you noticed how when the majority flips in Congress, the first thing they attempt is un-doing as much of the previous majority's agenda as suits them? That's an awful lot of wasted time un-doing something that (supposedly) a large number of Americans wanted and asked for. Keeping all parties negotiating leads to stability, and direction – two things we are sorely in need of at this current moment, and which have always been beneficial to large nation-empires.
This benefit could be extended further by greatly increasing the membership of the U.S. House, say by doubling or even tripling it. It takes a bit of tolerance, which we here in America profess to have, because it includes the fringe elements. I am willing to accept the fringe and I hope you are too. If one in a thousand people in our country are really NAZIs, then there is a seat in a thousand-member body for them, however repugnant it may seem to me. I believe they can be heard, and that the business of running the country will carry on without them. I am not afraid that letting fringe elements participate will allow them to push whole agendas, and in fact, if the NAZI representative has something intelligent to say on one of the minor points of the new tax code, we might do well to hear it.
I have a vision of a five-party America; five major parties who participate in government, and a handful of smaller ones who nip at their heels to keep them honest. If you are not familiar with Nolan's two-axis political spectrum, go take the World's Smallest Political Quiz, just ten questions, at www.theadvocates.org/quiz. Go on, I'll be right here. I have, in studying politics in other republics, become familiar with parties like “Christian Democrats” vs “Social Democrats” (I'm one of them). There is an active Green Party who elects members to parliament in nearly every other republic in the world – arguing alongside the Libertarians sometimes, for less federal control. Oh yes, and there are Libertarians. And of course, social Conservatives, of which there are no shortage of in our own country.
In a robust and active legislature, the Social Conservatives do not need to be in the same party as the Libertarians for decades on end. They don't even need to play nice together. They can form some ephemeral alliance when it is convenient to do so, and then break it (just like in Risk) when it looks like they're getting a better deal with the Christian Dems. In any event, unless one of the parties becomes exceptionally weak, it would take the cooperation of three parties to pass an agenda. You can see the Libertarians pushing for states rights alongside of the Greens one moment, and then in league with the Social Dems for individual rights the next. The last time there was a major reshuffling of the deck was back during the civil rights struggle, when social conservatives left the Democratic umbrella en masse for the Republican party. I don't think many people are really happy with the resulting snafu, which is now in its third generation.
All of these benefits might be achieved through one form of proportional representation, which I will call Pure Proportional Representation (PPR). Another form, called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is a compromise to answer the largest criticism of PPR, namely the inability of a true Independent to run for office without a party. In this system, one casts two votes: one for an individual (just like we do now under our system) and one for the party as in PPR. It is a fair compromise, and that is how the German Bundestag (lower house) is elected. You can see the sample ballot here: votes for individuals in the left column, and for party in the right. It's simple enough that you can probably understand it even if you don't sprechen sie Deutsch.
So that, in a nutshell is the short game. Before anything can resolve itself in this country, we will need a constitutional amendment to allow us to elect the U.S. House in a way which is truly representative. I am personally in favor of using a PPR system in the House (with a 5% threshold to prevent the problems that Israel, Italy, and the Weimar Republic has had with this system. . . details, details) and leaving the Senate directly elected as a compromise. In total our Legislature would be MMR, but to each house according to its own. The long game involves the reforms that can happen once such a system has been in place, and once more political parties have started to emerge.
The long game involves, I think, stripping the Senate of its authority over most domestic issues.
Historically, since Rome, the Senate has always been the Upper House (for the oligarchy) and it is about time that we have a real House of Plebes. I would leave the Senate with the powers to 1.) amend the constitution (jointly with the House); 2.) approve treaties and international agreements; 3.) declare War and Peace; 4.) levy sanctions, approve aid, and set foreign policy (jointly with the President, and not subject to the more mercurial whim of the House); 5.) confirm executive appointments; and finally, 6.) veto legislation, domestic or otherwise, but then only with a 2/3 supermajority, and even still with the chance of a veto override. They seem to be pretty good at blocking legislation as it is.
Reform like that, I firmly believe, is only possible after empowering the U.S. House. Then we can tackle other structural, constitutional challenges, like: term limits for Supreme Court Justices, Electoral College reform, rewriting the obtuse tax code (which should at least be smaller than a Volkswagen), and other hurdles that have kept us from being a truly post-modern republic.