Part one in a series.

A little thought experiment for a Tuesday morning…

Over the past few years I have tried to make as much sense as I could out of the American political landscape. By nature, I’m a theoretically minded thinker, and the point of these exercises has been to try and articulate the structures, shapes, motivators and dynamics the define who we are so that I might develop better theories about why so that I might then think more effectively about how we might be nudged in a more productive direction. Facts → Theory → Action, in other words.

I have observed a few things along the way.

I have also been wondering, perhaps as a result of Wufnik‘s analyses of last year’s elections in Britain, whether the US might be better off with a different electoral system. Perhaps a UK-style parliamentary process would be an improvement, or maybe we could do a better job representing the full spectrum of American political perspectives via one of the other approaches being used by various democracies around the world. I don’t know as much about these other forms of government as I’d like, but what I do know suggests that there certainly better ways of affording minority constituencies representation that’s more in proportion to their numbers than is strictly the case in the two-party system. All systems require the construction of coalitions, but where they are constructed and how makes a great deal of difference. More on this in a second.

It’s also true that the American two-party system is subject to distortions that can allow a particularly noisy and militant minority with significant financial backing to exert influence all out of proportion to its actual numbers while other groups, perhaps even larger ones, find their own perspectives under-represented in the legislature. That a constituency should have representation reflecting its actual size instead of an emotional quotient that’s so easily and cynically manipulated strikes me as inherently democratic.

Proportionality vs. Plurality

I rarely recommend Wikipedia for nuanced research, but its overview on proportional representation is a helpful 101-level resource with plenty of links to more detailed information. As this page explains, the US and UK employ plurality systems, “where disproportional seat distribution results from the division of voters into multiple electoral districts, especially ‘winner takes all’ plurality (‘first-past-the-post’ or FPTP) districts.” In other words, in a given situation, the winner of an election can represent a minority constituency while the various competing perspectives, which together comprise a majority, go completely unrepresented. Most Americans can probably think of multiple examples of this phenomenon, at local, state and national levels.

Let’s consider an alternative approach.

Say you lived in a nation with a parliamentary system driven by party-list proportionality (such as you find in Austria, Finland, Israel, Poland, Scotland and Spain, for instance). Instead of five to ten distinct constituencies trying to sandwich themselves into two parties, each of these entities is established as its own party. Perhaps you’re a member of the smallish Party X, which polls show historically represents the views of nearly 10% of the country’s population.

In the US, a hypothetical third party or voter bloc that delivers 8% at the polls gets zero representatives and when Congress is sworn in they have no leverage. Their only hope for representation is to throw their support behind either the Dems or the GOP and hope that once those candidates are elected they will listen to the concerns of X Party leaders. Operative word: “hope.” In the US coalitions are loosely constructed at the campaign stage. You have 8%? Great, vote for us and here’s what we’ll do once we’re elected. Except that such promises aren’t binding and there’s no practical means of holding the Dems or Republicans, as the case may be, accountable to their promises. If you don’t like it, fine – go vote for the other guys, who, by the way, are as diametrically opposed to your platform as it is possible to be.

Take it or leave, just shut up and go away.

However, in the alternative proportional system, 8% represents actual stroke. If Party X scores 8% of the vote, this system assures them of 8% of the seats in the legislature. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a lot more than 0%. And it can translate into real power. If no party garners a straight majority, this 8% might be critical to forming a ruling government. In this case, Party X’s smallish minority can then demand clear concessions (such as policy positions, cabinet appointments, etc.) to its platform in return for its support.

Over time, the US system translates 8% into zero, whereas the calculus in a proportional system is more likely to conclude that 8% = 8%. How democratic, right?

Now, I acknowledge that in certain instances we might not like the idea that a particular minority can exert this kind of authority over governance. However, the process I am describing generates a greater transparency than we have in the US at present. Hey, look – that’s the 8% – they’re right there, we can see them, they’re accountable for their votes (as are their coalition partners), and this information is exceptionally actionable when the next election rolls around. I’m not describing a perfect system, I know, but I do wonder if it might not be far more aligned with what Americans, from our founders right down to average citizens in 2011, think democracy ought to be.

Maybe, maybe not, but there’s nothing about our current system that suggests reforms aren’t needed, is there?

Tomorrow: America’s 10 Political Parties

About the Author

Sam Smith

Samuel Smith lives a double life. Okay, triple life. By day he makes a living as a marketing consultant specializing in high-level strategy, branding, corporate communication and merging media and practices. In his "spare time" he's the executive editor of Scholars & Rogues, where he writes about everything from politics to music to sports to literature. Finally, he's an author of poetry and fiction whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like storySouth, Poet & Critic, New Virginia Review, Cream City Review, High Plains Literary Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Pemmican and Uncanny Valley. He holds a BA at Wake Forest and MA from Iowa State, and somehow endured the torturous process of earning a PhD in Communication from the University of Colorado.

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