In light of recent political developments, I am, to my great surprise, no longer alone in calling for an overhaul of the way decisions are taken in this country. So far in the year 2009, we have seen more starkly than perhaps ever before how far away the U.S. is from being a democratic country.
The healthcare debate in particular has raised a lot of questions regarding the decision-making process. More specifically, the role of the Senate has been put into question. The media makes it seem as if any healthcare reform hinges on a small group of senators, lead by Max Baucus from Montana. They may in fact be right, and considering the fact that this man represents roughly 0.15% of the population (90% of which are white), it is easy to see why such a situation might be called into question even in the U.S..
In an excellent article in the Washington Post called The Gangs of D.C., Alec MacGillis explains the strange power of the Senate and the impact this has on democracy at large. Also, focusing on procedural issues, Eric Etheridge of The New York Times writes about the Senate, filibusters and democracy.
I obviously agree with what these writers are saying about the Senate; it is an unbelievably undemocratic institution even before taking into account the tens of millions in corporate “donations” that these individual senators receive. However, neither of these issues can hold a candle to the fact that voters in the U.S. never have any real choice to begin with, because there is no proportional representation.
Before I continue, let me just reiterate what proportional representation is. First of all, it is the system of choice of the vast majority of advanced countries in the world. If a party receives 15% of the votes, it receives 15% of the seats in the legislative body. This inevitably leads to more parties, and a range of views being represented. If 10% of the population is environmentally conscious, there will be a green party, and if 10% of the population are libertarians, there will be a libertarian party in the legislative body. Neither of these things could ever happen in the U.S. because there is no proportional representation.
Instead, the U.S. system has evolved into nothing short of a corporate state. It is clearer than ever that citizens actually have very little say in what happens in their country. This would never happen in a system with proportional representation.
Here is my suggestion for bringing democracy to the U.S.: The U.S. Parliament
The Inception of a U.S. Parliament
The idea behind a bicameral system (the current system) where one body can overrule the other is, in reality, an idea of permanently limiting political change. The result is that it becomes almost impossible to bring about fundamental political change as society changes, and the fundamental situation that existed at the time of the creation of the bicameral system will, in essence, be preserved indefinitely. At the time of the creation of the American political system, wealthy, white, older men were the only citizens who were allowed to, and were ever supposed to be, involved in the political process. That is largely unchanged to this day, all things considered.
In my suggestion, the two houses of Congress would be merged into one unicameral Parliament, with a fixed number of seats, perhaps 501 (in order to prevent a deadlock). Elections would be held every 4 years. Each state would be awarded a number of seats based on population size, in the same way as the present electoral college awards votes for President based on population size. Each vote in the Parliament would be decided by means of a simple majority, with the exception of a vote of no confidence in the President or the governing party or coalition, which would be decided by a two-thirds majority. Filibustering and other abusive tools would be removed entirely.
The fact that all states have an equal voice in the Senate is frankly absurd. I completely understand the need for regional considerations, but the legal independence of U.S. states more than makes up for potential negative effects of populous states being more influential on a federal level. U.S. voters must realize that there is a time and place for everything. The U.S. Senate is not the place to discuss the construction of a local playground, and The Montana Senate is not the place to discuss the moral implications of abortion.
For Montana with 0.3% of the population, to have equal power to California with 12% of the population, is beyond absurd, and deeply undemocratic.
What makes the American political system different from most other political systems (save for some other Anglo-Saxon countries) is the lack of proportional representation. If 49% of voters in a given constituency vote for a certain party, those voters could receive 0% representation in the legislature. This is not an anamoly either; it happens all the time.
In a system with proportional representation, if 49% of voters vote for a certain party, that party receives 49% representation from that constituency in the legislature, no more, no less. How could anyone seriously say that proportional representation is unfair, unjustified, or in any way unsuitable? It directly transcribes what the voters want!
The votes would be counted according to the D’Hondt method, and a party must receive at least 8% of the national vote in order to be represented in Parliament. That rule ensures that extremist parties are not represented in Parliament.
The concept of a “Bill of Parliament” would be very different from a “Bill of Congress”. The problem with bills in the U.S. today is that they lead to corruption through earmarks and lack of coherence. Earmarks obviously lead to corruption by individual Congressmen, when money is being appropriated to corporate donors by the recipient Congressmen. However, the sprawling nature of American bills of Congress also further weakens the small aspects of democracy that do exists in the U.S..
If a bill about, for instance, construction safety is being held hostage by means of a provision about space exploration in the same bill, it amounts to making a mockery of the political system. For a political system to work for the voters, bills must be philosophically coherent and earmarks as we know them must be abolished. It must be this way in order for the most rational, efficient solution to converge with the will of the people.
The Usage of a Mixed Personal and Party Vote – The Party-List Ballot
One of the common objections to a political system that is based on political parties, as opposed to individual politicians, is that such a system takes away the ability of the voter to vote for a politician that he or she particularly likes. This problem can be remedied by the party-list ballot. In such a system, the voter takes a ballot for the party that he or she likes, and on that ballot, the party has listed the politicians that it considers best suited for the job of being a member of Parliament.
The party lists politicians in order, 1, 2, 3, and so on. Any politician on the list can be ticked off, and the vote would go to that party, and that specific politician who has been ticked off. If the voter chooses not to tick an individual off, the vote goes to the party, and the person who is number 1 on the party’s list. When all the votes are counted, the voters may have defied the choices of the party, and number 1 and 2 on the list, may have been exchanged for number 5 and 12 as the party’s representatives in Parliament.
End the Role of Money in U.S. Politics
The financial aspects of U.S. politics are alien and preposterous to most non-Americans. The idea of both local and national politicians going around the country begging for money from wealthy people, corporations and organizations is simply unbelievable. Most U.S. politicians don’t even try to claim that they have guiding principles for the benefit of their voters, naturally because that would be too transparent in light of billions of dollars in campaign donations. In ancient Rome, votes could be bought openly, and it is frankly not much different in the U.S. today. That U.S. voters continue to accept this is beyond me.
As a result of the government in general receding since the days of Reagan, a power vacuum was created. Slowly but surely, aided by both Republicans and Democrats, the U.S. actually turned into something that is very much like a “corporate state”. In some ways, this state can eventually turn almost as bad as a “failed state”, since it may lead to a form of anarchism (a sort of Ayn Rand-style unregulated economy).
All money contributions to politicians must be made illegal immediately. Period. Political advertising on TV and elsewhere must also be ended, and campaigns should be conducted purely through debates in the media. Each political party would be given a set amount of money from U.S. taxpayers, end of story.
Decrease the Power of the President
A U.S. President is the head of state, the head of government and commander-in-chief. No other modern country has this configuration, and for very good reasons. To give one individual such vast powers is simply dangerous, and as we have seen during the last 8 years, it can have truly disastrous consequences. However the role of the President would be changed, at least one of the three roles would have to be given to someone else in order to safeguard the country against a semi-dictatorship. It should be easier to fire the President through a vote of no-confidence.
It is definitely possible to have a significant President, elected in a separate election, as well as a Parliament with proportional representation. Finland is one country that has this.
Homogenization of Voting Cycles - Avoid The Do-Nothing Government
The United States has, by far, the lowest voter participation out of the OECD countries
This is, of course, a testament to a non-working system. Most U.S. voters obviously feel that there is no point in voting, and many of them are consistently and strongly prevented from voting, legally and illegally. Voter suppression is so rampant that it is worthy of a banana republic. Here are some numbers of voter turnout in OECD countries between the years 1945 and 2005:
The Netherlands: 84.8% (proportional representation)
Sweden: 83.3% (proportional representation)
Israel: 80.0% (proportional representation)
Germany: 80.0% (proportional representation)
Great Britain: 73.0% (fundamentally the same voting system as the U.S.)
Canada: 66.9% (fundamentally the same voting system as the U.S.)
United States (midterm): 40.6%, (presidential) 55.1%
As you can see, the three countries with the lowest numbers all have one thing in common: they all have the winner-takes-all voting system in which very large parts of the population are shut out of the political process completely.
There are a number of practical measures that can be taken to make it easier for people to vote, such as:
- conduct all voting on Sundays
- automatically register every U.S. citizen as a voter on the person’s 18th birthday
- create a national ID card which is sent to every U.S. citizen when the person turns 18
- allow mail-in ballots in every election
- End all electronic voting and create completely uncomplicated, nationally standardized paper ballots