Friday, November 7, 2008

Reader Comment: Proportional Representation

The following text is a commentary from a reader, Steven, of the underlying focus of this blog (although so much has happened lately that the subject has been mercilessly brushed aside temporarily). Steven is critical of my suggestion of a U.S. Parliament, and this is why:

Steven writes:

"The focus of this blog is political issues in the United States. I advocate a merger of the U.S. house and senate into one U.S. Parliament with proportional representation, where 10% of the vote for a given party would give that party 10% of the seats in the Parliament."

Over two hundred and fifty years ago, Montesquieu observed in The Spirit of the Laws that a nation's political structure should take into account such factors as its demographics and geography. I think this is precisely what you have ignored.

The creation of a Parliament of the United States would mean the elimination of the states.
You have a better chance of being elected to the Senate as a socialist in Vermont than you would as a Democrat in Texas.

The fact that Wyoming (population less than 500,000) and California (population nearly 34,000,000) have equal voices in the Senate might be incomprehensible to most Europeans but makes perfect sense to Americans.

The Amish people in Lancaster, Pennsylvania have little in common with the Afro-American culture of Harlem, New York. The Cubans of Miami Beach have little in common with Mormons of Utah. Gay constituents in Greenwich Village, New York have little in common with the Hasidic Jewish Community of Williamsburg, New York. Coal miners in West Virginia have little in common with ship builders in Connecticut. The needs of our nation's farmers (access to credit, depreciation of their equipment on income taxes, assistance in times of famine, price supports on milk, etc) have little in common with the needs of the rest of our population.

Also important are the constituent services our representatives perform for us. Someone having a problem with a passport or an emergency visa, seeking information on obtaining a patent, or struggling against a ruling by a social security office has an advocate in the form of his Congressman or Senator. For years, conservative Republican Senator Al D'Amato from liberal Democratic New York kept getting reelected primarily because his rapid and effective assistance in such matters was legendary. People who disagreed with him on everything voted for him because he got their lost passport replaced in a matter of days or had some bureaucratic ruling from some social security office reversed. Government is more than passing laws and spending money. In adopting a national parliament, this free and vital service would be lost.

In our current system, members of these communities have the opportunity to elect men and women to represent their values and meet their needs. However, in a national legislature composed of members elected by proportional voting, any focus on the agenda or unique needs of these constituencies would last about as long as a cheeseburger in a backyard bar-b-que.
Your proposed legislature would make representatives responsible to their political party rather than to any state or town.

You forget that state delegations made up of members of both parties often vote together on issues that affect their states.

Democrats and Republicans representing Michigan collaborate to protect the automotive industry.

Democrats and Republicans representing Nevada collaborate to try to stop the use of federal lands in their state from being used to store nuclear waste.

Democrats and Republicans representing New Jersey collaborate to enact laws preventing ocean dumping, a procedure largely practiced by neighboring New York.

Democrats and Republicans representing Louisiana collaborate to gain federal funding for reconstructing New Orleans.

And the beat goes on.

This country is called the United States of America, not the United People of America. That is why the American flag has fifty stars. That is why on election night you saw the contest between McCain and Obama decided by state electoral votes rather than individual popular votes. And that is why a national legislature modeled on proportional representation based on the strength of the various political parties will not take root here.

1 comment:

Jacob said...

Thank you Steven. A more elaborate response will be given shortly, but preliminarily, I'd like to say that I don't believe that a national legislature that gives equal voice to an unequal number of people is the only way to achieve regional voices or minority representation. The United States has some of the most vibrant political life on the regional level out of any country in the world, and that is certainly a good start in safeguarding regional and/or minority voices. On the national level, the fact that the United States also has, probably, the strongest judiciary in terms of political influence, should also comfort Americans in terms of Parliamentary excesses.