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
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
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.