Just about everyone who is moderately up to speed with regards to American politics likes to trash both the Republicans and Democrats, and who can blame them? Democrats (and John Maynard Keynes) may have brought us such absurdities as ‘countercyclical demand management’ programs so that my family is paid to not grow corn, but how can Republicans blame them when they are the ones responsible for such notorious boondoggles as the “bridge to nowhere?”
Many people have called for (or been involved with promoting) a third party to cut through the great heaping filthy mass of political corruption. Politicians, in order to differentiate themselves from the mess, are fond of casting themselves as “above” politics with claims to be bipartisan.
Some, including my recent acquaintance Korky Day, have called for a change in our political system from the plurality-vote winner-take-all system, which tends to produce a two-party dynamic like ours, to a system of proportional representation, which tends to produce a multi-party dynamic like much of Europe and Latin America.
But would an election process based on proportional representation actually improve things?
Now, I’m no political science major, so there are certainly those with more authority to speak on this than myself. Still, as an avid student of politics and political thought, it seems to me that there are several serious flaws with the proportional representation system.
First, it would not solve the problem of earmarks and culture of backroom deals (e.g. the “Louisiana Purchase” and the “Cornhusker Kickback”), one of the reasons that Mitt Romney was so fond of saying “Washington is broken” back in 2008.
Human ambition, the cause of said brokenness, can’t realistically be eliminated, especially among cynical politicians; however, rules can be changed without altering the whole electoral system. People act on incentives, and I don’t see any way a pro-rep system would alter politicians’ incentives to be less corrupt.
Second, proportional representation would promote political extremism. There is an American Communist Party, but it is relegated to the fringes of polite society. In Europe, with its system of proportional representation where each party is allocated representation based on the percentage of the total vote they receive, fringe parties can become a significant part of the ruling class.
I’m not saying we should try to silence dissent. Quite the contrary. But there is certainly something to be said for the moderating influence of the winner-take-all system that forces politicians to tack to the center in order to get votes. There’s no nationally significant Communist party in the U.S. and there’s no nationally significant openly racist party (in contrast to Europe) and I think we should all be grateful for that.
Third, the winner-take-all system in this country in which representation is allocated among the states based on geography and population ensures “no taxation without representation,” in terms of geography.
Maybe Korky can correct me on this, but in a proportional representation system in which the party selects the list and order of candidates to represent the party, is there any means of making sure that Oklahoma receives the same representation as Rhode Island? If several states vote largely Communist but the Communist party leadership decides the representatives should all come one or two states, is there any recourse?
Last, it seems to me that proportional representation gives way too much power to political parties. Would you rather the life-long political hacks at the Democratic National Committee (or horrors! the RNC) or the local district’s working men and women decide who represents us?
People are wont to criticize political parties, and not without good reason. Promotion within the party is based not on service to the country but on service to the party, and, of course, the interests of the respective groups don’t always coincide. If this system were given greater importance through pro-rep, the country would suffer.
Extreme polarization would be institutionalized. Claims by politicians to favor “bipartisanship” would be even more fatuous than they are today.
Anyway, it seems to me that the current system has worked well for the United States throughout our history, but maybe we could improve. Let me know what you think.