Commentary Magazine


Fixing America’s Political System By Making It More Like America’s Political System

Democrats and the media have long tried to blame congressional gridlock on Republican “extremism.” But the truth has always been that the two parties find themselves so far apart these days because while the GOP has become more conservative, the Democrats have moved to their left. And President Obama has, as Josh Kraushaar explains in a trenchant column at National Journal, played a key role in that shift.

Kraushaar writes that on some high-profile issues, the Democrats in Congress have followed Obama’s lead when electoral considerations would suggest they go their own way. (It’s one reason Obama has been such a disaster for his party’s congressional caucuses in both midterm elections.) On the Keystone pipeline, for example, Obama has pulled his party in line with the environmental extremist base. On Israel, Obama has worked assiduously to drive a wedge between his party and the Israelis, calling into question Democrats’ long pro-Israel history. The unpopular health-care law is another example.

Obama came to office wanting to be a Democratic Reagan by transforming the electorate in his image. “He has indeed transformed the Democratic party to his liking, but failed to get anyone else to follow suit,” Kraushaar writes.

The key part for Democrats, however, is that Obama doesn’t seem to care what happens to his party’s congressional delegations; he has all but ignored Congress even on issues he repeatedly stated he needed their support for. Obama also made clear that he believes in the “I won” mode of politics, exacerbating a system that has seen wave elections in both directions in an increasingly winner-take-all brand of national politics.

So what to do? The Atlantic’s Noah Gordon says that the practice of gerrymandering means not only do we have winner-take-all elections but they’re the kind of elections that “waste” the most votes in doing so. (Gerrymandering is not the polarizing force it’s often made out to be, but it’s nonetheless an absurd practice that should be reformed.) One solution then, Gordon writes, would be for the U.S. to adopt a system of proportional representation, in which parties receive seats in the Congress (or parliament, or Knesset, etc.) proportional to their vote counts:

The American system of government is stable, popular, and backed by the Constitution—and dominated by two political parties. A political system comprised of multiple, smaller parties and shifting coalitions may be unimaginable in America, but it’s the norm in most other democracies. While the United States is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and spreading democracy is a central tenet of the country’s foreign policy, our winner-take-all system itself is among our least-popular exports. In Western Europe, 21 of 28 countries use a form of proportional representation in at least one type of election.

There is, certainly, a fair amount to be said for such a system. And yet I can’t help but notice that we’ve already devised a solution to many of the problems in our current system. Instead of proportional representation, here’s a radical thought: why don’t we try, say, a federal republic.

And Gordon almost gets there himself. Look at how Gordon describes some of the PR systems:

Israel elects all 120 members of its national legislature from a single multi-member district that encompasses the entire country, and the Netherlands does the same with its lower house. But districts that large can lead to over-representation of fringe parties who receive just a small percentage of the vote, as well as giving numerous tiny parties the ability to make outsized demands from big parties if they lack a majority.

Indeed, and if anybody doubts the power of more marginal parties they can take a look at the latest Knesset polls for next month’s election and try to piece together what a governing coalition–any governing coalition–might look like. And in larger countries, it would be unmanageable to have the entire state as essentially one district for the purposes of elections. Gordon takes another step toward a solution:

So larger countries often break themselves down into smaller districts to ensure legislators have some connection to a particular geographic area.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Hey, we’re a large country. How might we follow this advice? Back to Gordon:

In the United States, those geographical areas could be the states.

There it is. Unfortunately Gordon stops there, and just games out how proportional representation would apply to the geographical-areas-otherwise-known-as-states.

But he shouldn’t. The best way to prevent the worst effects of winner-take-all national elections is to have the American system as it was meant to be, with states given far more leeway and government subject to far more local control. Not total control, mind you. But definitely not the top-down approach favored especially by Democrats in which the federal government seeks to impose an inflexible, universal standard on everything from health care to education to drug policy to gun laws to social issues to right-to-life concerns to employment restrictions.

Nothing wastes votes more than nullifying local governance on a grand scale. Yes, there are problems with how America conducts its national elections. And the obsessive focus on national elections is one of them.

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