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Real Choices/New Voices

by Douglass J. Amy

 

"Pollsters manufacture bland slogans, then test them in polls

to see which ones voters like. The ones voters like become

the 'values agenda' that politicians use. Popular ones

include: 'Finding common ground,' Standing up for what

is right,' 'Opportunities for all Americans,' and, most

notably 'Doing what's right, even when it is

unpopular'--ironically a slogan that itself was the

product of rigorous polling to ensure it was popular."

--Daniel Casse in Policy Review (ironically a magazine

with few policy arguments)

 

A splendid and well-organized argument, Real Choices

explains the wrongs of our current winner-take-all

voting system. The best alternative to our

single-member plurality system, writes Amy, is a system of proportional

representation (PR).

 

Amy lists several serious flaws in our kleptocracy, er, democracy: Institutions that should spread and strengthen democracy--schools and media--weaken democracy. We suffer from a duopoly and winner-take-all elections. The Senate engages in filibusters and is not representative by population. Unelected officials--judges among many--wield too much power over laws and law enforcement. Legalized bribery causes havoc. Near impossible processes exist for reforming the constitution. Gerrymandering and corrupt committee processes in legislatures increase destruction. The president is still selected by electoral rather than popular vote.

 

On some issues, the two major

parties share nearly identical views. On other issues only

two alternatives receive coverage while we ignore better alternatives.

Democrats or Republicans win nearly every election.

The minority party in a two party legislature

gets second prize rather than punished. Both parties

make third parties--meaning, in this case, ordinary citizens--pay.

Women and minority politicians are underrepresented, though

some of this underrepresentation results from other factors. Turnout by voters is poor,

though Amy points out that additional factors

cause low turnout.

 

Campaigns evade important issues or let lobbyists determine the issues. Daniel Cisse writes

that in the minds of many voters the word issues

means "themes" carried by buzzwords and slogans.

When politicians are super vague, some voters

prefer they merely be vague. Steve Forbes,

Casse writes, tried the single issue flat tax campaign in 1996.

It was replaced in 2000 with the buzzword "freedom." Perhaps

in 2004 his campaign will consist of a single letter representing, allegedly, all things good.

Minor parties in proportional representation systems can at least raise neglected issues.

 

Several types of proportional representation exist. In a party

list system, parties earn seats based on the percentage of the

vote they receive, and in many cases they can still choose

choose their preferences for candidates. Thus, 32 percent

of the vote earns a party 32 percent of the seats, with the seats

filled by that party's candidates receiving the most votes.

 

Less common are single transferable vote systems.

STV voters rank candidates the way college football

polls rank teams. A formula then calculates a winner.

Amy explains a formula. I will not.

 

Amy also makes some not widely known good points.

Gerrymandering is often bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans

collude to create safe districts for incumbents in both parties, even when it benefits

Republicans more overall. Add in the money and name recognition advantages

incumbents enjoy, and we see why legislators rarely

lose. If one party rule is an instant recipe for ruthlessness

and incompetence, two party rule is a long-term recipe for

the same.

 

Amy is, perhaps, overconfident in proportional representation's impact

on issueless campaigns.

Smaller parties can easily hide behind deceptive rhetoric as the Green, Libertarian, Constitution

Party, and almost all the rest of the world's smaller parties do. Mindless blather and horse race

coverage by the media may be due more to factors outside

the voting system. If voters vote against candidates merely

because the candidate's take a specific, "offensive" stand

on more than zero issues, if citizens continue to act as on

intuitive litmus tests, proportional representation alone will not

bring great reforms.

 

Amy asserts votes for candidates with almost no chance

of winning are wasted. I call them low influence votes.

On occasion main party politicians shift their policies

to attract votes that might otherwise go to third parties.

 

Some flaws within this work:

        Fails to emphasize that policy stands are important parts of moral

character--the most important part of moral character in politicians and opinion makers.

        Too spectrum oriented. Political spectrums are inaccurate. People who support totalitarianism often see themselves as "centrist" or "moderate" while they mix horrific liberal and conservative ideas. (Amy

compares Italy with the United States by placing Italian

parties on a spectrum.) One of the best benefits of a

proportional system is parties and candidates who

do not fit on neat, little spectrums.

 

To those saying a proportional system would be too complex, Amy replies a proportional system is easy once individuals develop familiarity. (We understand football polls.) Some claim proportional systems lead to unstable governments. Amy looks at democratic countries and finds almost no correlation or causal relationship between instability and proportional government. Some unstable countries use our system. Instability results from other factors. Another counter argument points out that proportional systems encourage verbal conflict. If so, good! Hooray for ideas! Another claim says there would be too much emphasis on parties rather than candidates. Amy disabuses us of that idea. Many versions of proportional representation emphasize candidates. Last, proportional representation could foster extremism. Yes, the good kind--the kind that stands up for evidence and justice against destructive fanaticism and conventional lack of wisdom. The current system caters to extremism s--bad extremism. Amy did a superb job explaining complex ideas. Highly recommended.

 

Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 29, 2009.

 

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