Making More Voices Heard
by Greg Guma
Toward Freedom magazine, August 1997
As progressive forces make gains in Western Europe and Canada,
theories circulate about the underlying conditions that led voters
to give parties of the Left another look. According to most, Europe
is in the grip of post-Cold War disillusionment, while Canada
drifts toward a divisive regionalism. Meanwhile, however, most
US voters-who are surely as disillusioned and divided-don't seem
willing to give political alternatives a chance.
But why should they, when it's painfully obvious that the
two major political parties have a lock on the election system?
Only in a few localities such as Burlington, Vermont, where a
weak party system provided the opening for a new formation to
win elections, has discontent translated into power. For the most
part, campaigns continue to revolve around personality and "hot
button' issues rather than the underlying structure that deepens
alienation and allows two well-funded cliques to monopolize government.
The real problem, however, is the election system itself.
And one solution, recently implemented in New Zealand and now
under consideration in Canada, is some form of proportional representation
(PR). Former Canadian Member of Parliament Michael Cassidy has
proposed two possibilities: allocation of seats in multi-member
electoral districts-the system used in at least seven European
countries, or reserving 20 percent of seats for party lists. Thus,
any party that receives, for example, over five percent of the
vote is assured a seat. Of course, Canada's establishment considers
PR "the European disease." But given the latest election
results, which suggest the possibility of regional breakdown,
PR could help by reflecting voter preferences more fairly and
encouraging compromise between parties and regions.
The idea, actually 200 years old, was most persuasively promoted
by philosopher John Stuart Mill, who saw it as a way to increase
the bond between office-holders and their supporters, allow selection
of more thoughtful representatives, and prevent the dominance
of two parties. Although critics warn that PR leads to paralysis
and boss rule, most countries that use variations on this system
have proven stable and achieved considerable social progress.
In the US, it was tried-and abandoned-in several cities. At first,
PR led to victory for reform groups, but voters became frustrated
when older political machines and newly enfranchised minorities
refused to cooperate.
What boosters of two-party rule fail to admit is that their
system is just as factional and not nearly as fair. Dissenters
within the Democratic and Republican parties are routinely ignored
and denied the right to effectively project their views. Meanwhile,
significant minorities are completely unrepresented, or opt not
to participate at all. Thus, the two parties end up representing
a small fraction of the public, and mostly the interests of those
who fund their machines.
In Switzerland, Denmark, Great Britain, Belgium, and Germany,
among other countries, the proportional approach to representation
has stood the test of time. In some, voters indicate their personal
preferences, while in others lists or a hybrid system are used.
For the US, especially at a time when a false sense of national
"unity" promoted by the Republicrats hides deep-seated
divisions and growing cynicism, a united effort by progressive
groups to promote true equity and a renewed connection between
leaders and voters could be a key to the revitalizing of democracy.
From a practical perspective, it's unlikely that the current efforts
of the Greens, New Party, or Labor Party will advance much beyond
the local level without serious structural change. As it stands,
achieving office in most cases requires a campaign based on charisma,
an enormous "war chest," and positions designed to offend
as few people as possible.
Critics point to the possibility that a proliferation of parties
could make it impossible to govern. For them, action-whether or
not it serves the best interests of the greatest number-is what
counts. The answer to that is obvious: what really counts isn't
action, but wise leadership. Sometimes this means not acting until
the needs of minorities are addressed in good faith.
These days we hear phrases like empowerment and decentralization
from politicians who remain in office because of a political system
that disempowers millions and prevents diverse representation.
Most people see through this hypocrisy, but haven't found a way
to make their voices heard. If we can express -without intellectualizing
or sounding pompous-how electing leaders in proportion to the
number of people who really support them would make them more
responsive and responsible, the result could be a renewal of faith.
And that would be revolutionary in the best sense of the word.
Reprinted from Toward Freedom, a progressive world affairs
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