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"Why Not Democracy?"

May/June 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

by David Kairys

Perhaps the greatest public relations coup of recent decades was the instantaneous conversion of the 1994 electoral campaigns-almost universally condemned as unprincipled and repulsive-into a "mandate" and "landslide" for Republicans swept into office by slim margins.

The most that can fairly be said of the election results is that less than 20% of those eligible to vote favored the Republican program (and many of those were anti-Clinton votes), almost the same number went the other way, and most people stayed home.

President Clinton's 1992 victory was treated similarly. Like most winning Presidents, he received more than a dismal 2W, but not by much. Even President Reagan's 1980 "landslide" consisted of his getting only 27% of the eligible voters. Participation in these and all recent elections is disproportionately white and higher income. In the November 1992 elections, 37.2% of persons 18 and over with incomes under $10,000 voted, compared with 80.0% of those with incomes over $50,000. By race, 63.6% of voting age whites voted, 54.0% of Blacks, 28.9% of Hispanic origin (of any race).

A mantle of legitimacy is regularly bestowed on anyone who wins, no matter how they win, or how minuscule their margins of victory or the proportions of the electorate who voted. Our electoral process doesn't yield mandates, only exaggerated legitimacy, frustrated citizens and precarious winners.

Progressive voices are often silent or silenced these days, but the silence on this issue-the fundamental crisis of democracy in America-is puzzling. There is a widespread sense that things aren't working right and that the political system is part of the problem rather than the solution. Most Americans, across the political spectrum, perceive themselves and their views and interests as excluded from public discourse and political decision-making.
The deep anger and alienation from the political process presents an opportunity for progressives to continue perhaps our most sustained and successful struggle since the beginning of the republic: the extension and redefinition of democracy to include all our people.

This alienation and anger is often expressed in terms of hostility to those who have, or seem to have, power, particularly "politicians"-a label that now connotes disgrace. It is also evident in the cynicism and basic lack of respect or common decency shown to candidates and officeholders. This has been nurtured and exploited by the media, but they have struck a chord with the public. Politics has become a spectator sport in which strategy and tactics are more important than principle and the capacity to endure humiliation is more important than insight or integrity.

Needed Reforms

The highest priority for meaningful reform is to confront the perception and reality that votes are bought and politicians are for sale. The current system amounts to sanitized and legalized bribery. The average House of Representatives seat now costs over $500,000 to win. Raising such enormous sums of money keeps officials from the work of government, distorts their views and votes and creates a fundamental conflict of interest. We will not have public officials who take principled stands, lead instead of go where the money and power are, or really represent people of ordinary means as long as they are dependent on large contributors.

The other Western democracies, and democracies throughout the world, have electoral systems that are structurally different from ours in two fundamental ways. We are one of only a few democracies that has not adopted proportional representation, and of those few, we are the only one in which the issue has not been the subject of longstanding public debate. Proportional representation systems (there are a variety of them) allow voters to choose from a range of candidates and parties and bestow power in proportion to voter support.

In contrast, we generally have, at the federal, state and local levels, what political scientists call a "single-member plurality" system, which bestows all power on the highest vote getter, even if he or she does not receive a majority. This system discourages voter choice, distorts voter preferences, promotes the two-party monopoly and encourages legislators to consider the narrow interests of their districts rather than the general public interest. On the federal level, the single-member plurality system for members of the House of Representatives is established not in the Constitution, but by an act of Congress; it could be changed to a proportional system simply by a new act of Congress.

Bestowing legitimacy and power on winners with sometimes small pluralities contradicts basic democratic precepts, particularly when so few of our people vote. An old Latin wordquorum-embodies a traditional American idea about the legitimacy of political processes. If you don't have a quorum, usually set at half the eligible voters, there can be no valid or binding vote. That's the rule for nearly every board of directors, neighborhood group and Cub Scout troop. It means you can't chase away most of the voters and then claim victory.

Further, we are almost alone among the democracies in rejecting the parliamentary system in favor of a winner-take-all, fixed-term presidential election that is divorced from elections of legislators. The formal name for this is "checks and balances," but it is at the core of what we now call and condemn as "gridlock" and the "two-party monopoly." The winner wins all, and the losers get no ongoing power or influence in the Presidency or Congress. This encourages compromise before elections-the watered. down, mushy positions and the low level of political debate to which we have become accustomed-and the tendency of winners after elections to ignore the range of voter views rather than engage in dialogue or compromise. Votes for candidates who do not win are in this sense "wasted," and votes for third-party candidates usually seem senseless, since they reduce the total vote for the major-party candidate closest to the voter's views.

Contrast this to parliamentary systems: A range of parties and candidates put forward their various positions before elections and compromise afterwards to form a majority coalition that selects the chief executive (usually called prime minister). Each party maintains ongoing power and influence in the legislature in proportion to its vote, and if at any time the majority no longer supports the ruling coalition, there is a new election. Voters have every reason to participate even if their favorite candidate is unlikely to win. These systems regularly draw three-quarters to over 90% of the voters to the polls. (A "Representation Index" published by the Center for Voting & Democracy-calculated by multiplying voter turnout by the percentage of votes cast for winning candidates showed that in the 1994 House of Representatives election Florida brought up the rear with a 12.4 rating, while South Dakota was the highest, with 35.0. By contrast, Germany had a 76.3, South Africa close to 90 in their 1994 elections.)

Finally, we should eliminate the barriers to voting and to ballot access by third parties. A party or individual shouldn't have to be as rich as Ross Perot to get on the ballot. And we are the only major democracy that requires voters to register and regularly strikes them off lists of eligible voters if they haven?t voted recently. Most everywhere else, if you are a citizen and you show up on election day, you vote.

These systemic features should be the focus of the widespread popular discontent with the electoral process, but conservative Republicans, who routinely oppose even minor democratic reforms such as the motor-voter bill, have diverted our attention to the issue of term limits. Without the reforms emphasized here, term limits would likely increase, not decrease, the proportion of our legislators who are wealthy and the speed of the revolving door between government and special interests, only deepening the reality and the public's sense that the system is closed and fixed. Nothing in the term-limited process encourages new directions, new leadership or enhanced popular participation in the political process.

The problem is not with the notion of a life or career of public service. We need more of that-particularly the brand of public service that includes the insight and courage to look beyond appeals to fear and narrow self-interest. And public service should be available to people of ordinary means. But term limits are, at best, a gimmicky diversion.

What we must confront is the fear of democracy at the core of the system devised by the framers of the Constitution and the fundamental obstacle their approach poses to meaningful democracy in the 20th and 21st centuries. The constitutional convention was attended by representatives chosen by state legislatures to resolve interstate commercial rivalries that were impeding trade. The framers, who transformed their gathering into a constitutional convention on their own, were among the elite of each state, and they met in secret behind closed doors. Their fear that the people, if really empowered, would undercut the privileges of wealth and create chaos dominated the proceedings.

An Issue for Progressives

The reluctance of progressives to embrace the democracy issue is hard to understand. There is a tendency to see political democracy in an exclusively instrumental fashion. Perhaps at a deeper level, there may be some distrust of the people, which we often discuss as a problem unique to conservatives. Mass democracy surely involves risks; perhaps some of the reluctance is based on a sense that currently oppressed groups might have even more to fear from broadened participation. However, a revitalization of American democracy would increase the proportion of the vote that comes from groups currently excluded or discounted in mainstream politics and would promote dialogue and compromise. There simply will not be progressive reform-or significant attention paid to progressive concerns-unless politicians feel responsibility to and pressure from the people in the midsection and at the bottom of the economic ladder, who are not major campaign contributors or consistent voters. Further, the appeal
to democracy raises the question of control by an elite-the question of class-in a way that can be heard even in the current political environment, and may be extended to other issues.

As we search our old files and our souls for progressive visions and program ideas, shouldn't meaningful participation in a fair democratic process and in a political dialogue to which people of ordinary means have access be seen as a fundamental need of the people? It is a necessary prerequisite for progressive change and for a basic sense of national purpose, cohesion and connection in a large, diverse society such as ours.
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