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 magazine

Subscriptions for the complete print edition are $22.50 annually

from TF, Box468, Burlington, VT 05402-0468.

Or visit the TF website at

Democracy watch