Common Sense Democracy

One of the most frustrating aspects of America’s current political dialogue (if our screaming fits can even be dignified by the term “dialogue”) is the importance attributed to  various individuals–looney-tunes and statesmanlike figures alike. It makes me want to amend that famous James Carville adage–“It’s the Economy, Stupid”–with a more accurate one: it’s the system, stupid.

Call. it the “but for” problem.

But for systemic flaws like gerrymandering, Americans would be highly unlikely to elect posturing fools like Jim Jordans and Margery Taylor Green. But for the Electoral College, Donald Trump would never have occupied the Oval Office. But for our current “winner take all” system, we could send many more sane, competent people to Congress.

In a recent article for Time Magazine, two prominent political scientists pointed out that these systemic flaws are fixable.

America’s sharp division isn’t just about policy disagreements or ideology. Much of it comes down to the science of how Congress is elected. Winner-take-all elections have produced a fully-sorted two-party system in America that pits two sides against each other, incentivizes performative conflict, and punishes compromise. With the existing electoral and party system, we may as well invest all our money into a colony on Mars as hope for a bipartisan coalition leading Congress right now.

The silver lining is that America is not stuck with this broken system. Preserving the failing status quo is a choice. Winner-take-all elections are nowhere in the Constitution, and Congress has the power to change them. Multi-party coalitions work well in many other countries, and they can work in America, too, if we are willing to confront the root causes of Congress’s brokenness.

One of those root causes is America’s system of winner-take-all elections.

Winner take all elections do not result in anything remotely like accurate representation. As the authors point out,  all five of Oklahoma’s representatives are Republicans, even though about a third of Oklahoma voters consistently vote for Democrats, and all nine of Massachusetts’ representatives are Democrats, even though about a third of Massachusetts voters are consistent Republicans. But because the minority party doesn’t make up a majority of any one district, they are deprived of any voice in Congress.

That means that primary elections in these states effectively determine the general election outcome, making it easy to win for extreme candidates, harder for moderates, and impossible for anyone in the minority party.

This is one reason why the overwhelming majority of the world’s democratic countries use proportional representation for their elections, where districts elect multiple representatives to Congress in proportion to their party’s share of the vote. In America, it would allow more voters to have a say in who represents them; if a party wins 40% of the vote, it would get about 40% of the seats. Oklahoma liberals and Massachusetts conservatives would have a voice. That would mean more moderates in Congress. Members of the far right and far left would be elected, too – but in accurate proportion to their amount of support.

Proportional representation would also alter the incentive structure for representatives. Reflexive opposition to the “enemy” would no longer be the way to win elections, because voters would have more than a choice between the lesser of two evils. This would allow more ways to form a coalition in Congress capable of compromising and governing with a lot less infighting and chaos. This is one reason why last year, more than 200 political scientists, historians, and legal experts signed an open letter to Congress calling for the adoption of proportional representation.

There is much to love about Americans’ fixation on individualism and personal responsibility, but it is an emphasis that far too often masks important realities. For example, people are rarely poor because they are lazy and unwilling to work–far more often, they can’t work because they are disabled, or because the factory closed, or because the economy tanked. Congress isn’t dysfunctional just because the GOP base prefers angry buffoons –it’s our unrepresentative and obsolete electoral systems that give legislative terrorists the ability to bring the operation of government to a screeching halt.

In our winner take all system, a candidate who wins 49.9% of the vote loses to the one who garners 50.1%–and the people who voted for that losing candidate are 100% unrepresented. Then we wonder why the people who won election feel free to ignore the needs and desires of that 49.9%. After a few election cycles, we wonder why so many voters who find themselves consistently in that losing 49.9% stop voting and participating.

It’s the system, stupid. We need to fix it.


  1. The problem would seem to be that the very people who are successful under the old system would have to vote for a system where they are less likely to succeed. Hard to see that.

  2. I like the idea of “proportional representation”. I also like the idea of “ranked choice voting” for primary elections.

  3. Remember Obamacare? It wasnt a bipartisan law at all!!! It cost union workers their “Cadillac” healthcare plans. No one listened to union complaints. Politicians who are radically motivated to pass legislation are willing to make their subjects pay. If they treated people like they are citizens to begin with more legislation with balanced approaches would be passed.
    We were in debt $ 8trillion under Bush and now ee are $32 billion in debt?
    Neither side wants to listen and when the other side is in control they want to change things.

  4. As my Montana-born wife says, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” The sticking point is exactly as patmcc says. There is nothing in it for the crazies of MAGA World to do anything promoting increased minority (or even excluded majority) representation. Any ideas on how to get a horse?

  5. My response today? Of Course.

    Like it or not, we are life, so we prefer species survival over any individual need. That’s how all species adapt to threats of extinction versus opportunities to continue. That’s even how pond scum works.

    Plant species can’t travel. They have no nervous or muscle systems, but, like all life, they adapt. They travel by spreading their seed to their area.

    Animals sometimes help them survive as a species by finding nourishment in their seeds. They eat them. They poop them as they travel and introduce the seeds that survive intact to new areas. That is how weeds (plants that humans dislike) survive in our lawns and fields.

    Speaking of humans, the most recent animal survivors, I am one just like all of you who speak and understand language, and I, as an individual, love eating fruit. I poop too.

    Mine (after much treatment) goes into Lake Ontario, also the source of my plentiful supply of drinking water. Of course, that’s the same for you septic tank using humans, thanks to primitive bacteria. I use the same bacteria as you do. Mine are cultured, yours feral.

    All life injests what they need to survive and excretes their leftovers. Life exists thanks to perpetual cycles that help species survive—even politicians.

  6. That’s right, Pat…it’s why the millionaires in Congress don’t vote to repeal Citizens United. Our corrupt and foul system benefits the fools in Congress, not the people who elected them. The fixes are easy, but neither party wants to fix the systems.

    Even if they attempted to fix what’s broken, it would be performative with the outcome already decided.

    We spend thousands locally on elections, only for the winners to serve the oligarchs. Who wants that job for $ 1,500 a month?

    Where are the Biden-Obama speeches?

    Those are kept to quash progressive movements…

  7. Exactly what is the chance that anyone currently holding any elected office would promote changing the system that enabled them to be elected?

    Proportional representation sounds wonderful. Maybe we could get the ball rolling by switching state elections to ranked choice voting.

    Now I shall remove my rose colored glasses.

  8. Just saw three new candidates announce for ’24 – one immediately contributed $5M to their campaign, the others were near $500K. Just “ordinary Americans” wanting to be “public servants”, right? Go deeper…..$$$$$$$$$$$$

  9. Exactly how would it work? Do we have statewide elections then take the winners in order, until we get their proportion? What happens if one party gets 95% of the vote? What happens when most of one party’s constituents voted for the other party’s guy?

  10. I have flirted with the idea of adoption of a parliamentary system, one very much in vogue in Europe and elsewhere, but that’s not likely to happen what with the foxes in charge of the hen house, as Todd, Pat and others have noted today.

    It is hard to fathom reform when one of our parties is openly engaged in wholesale destruction of the institutions that undergird our democracy. We must first survive in order to have something to save. We are dealing with nihilists intent on “burning it all down” and starting over with our second constitutional convention under the aegis of Donald Trump and his
    theocratic bullies which, should it happen, would end the America we know today, or better said, yesterday.

    Per the topic today, gerrymandering has given us the worst gerrymandered district in America, that U-shaped (and lying on its side) Jordan atrocity in central Ohio, and MTG’s district (75% red) in Georgia. I’ve read that these two would win reelection from their respective districts irrespective of their conduct, conduct such as election denial, committee chair bullying and screaming at Biden when he was delivering the constitutionally required State of the Union address, not to mention their total support of the former president who as a defendant already found guilty of fraud is now trying to bully a judge in his own courtroom on the issue of damages arising from such fraudulent conduct.

    Proportional representation? Parliamentary government? Nice ideas but won’t happen, or at best not soon, neither of which might be panaceas for the fractured government we are now experiencing in any event. Why? Too much political investment in the status quo. So what to do? Keep on keeping on, and most importantly, elect candidates and appoint judges who believe in Madisonian democracy and are prepared to go to the figurative mat in support of such belief. The process to make this happen is simple. It’s called VOTING, so let’s VOTE!

  11. Gerald – hopeful thinking, BUT…

    Here in NC, before this week’s ugly additional gerrymandering, GOP holds a supermajority in the legislature despite DEMs getting close to 50% of votes. If you are a DEM, why vote? If you are an independent, why vote? If you are a young person, all you see is the corruption and shrug….

  12. Lester, why vote in N.C. when the current gerrymandering there nullifies your vote even though you have nearly 50 per cent of the raw vote? I see the answer in the question. If you are that close to victory (nearly 50 per cent) I should think Democrats there would have all the more incentive to work in getting MORE votes so that they would win elections. I understand the despair that comes with the gerrymander, but if your districts are that close even though gerrymandered, perhaps getting Democrats registered AND voting is the answer since you probably have the vote to win but need organization to overcome the effects of the gerrymander the old-fashioned way, i.e., voting.

    Can’t be done? Obama won this red state (Indiana) with such organizational efforts. Democrats who stay home on Election Day effectively vote for Republicans and their gerrymandering tactics leading to minority rule, when one of the cornerstones of a functioning democracy is majority rule. Let’s shore up this hole in our democracy our Founders did not contemplate.

  13. Gerald,

    The state legislature is based on “packed” districts created by the GOP, a few urban, a lot rural. Need I say more….

  14. So if the gerrymander is impregnable to the vote, Lester, then when does the revolution begin? Where are Guy Fawkes and Oliver Cromwell when you need them? Back to reality > How about lawsuits challenging such “packing?”

  15. Well underway toward our packed GOP Supreme Court….if you recall, SCOTUS ruled that redistricting is up to the states…. Ours is NOT about race, strictly partisanship.

  16. Funny, but I read that same piece and had a completely different response. My response was, “the problem isn’t winner-take-all elections. The problem is gerrymandering. And it will be a lot harder to convince Americans to do away with winner-take-all elections that it will be do convince them to do away with gerrymandering. This whole piece is silly.” It read like authors who had been pitching these sorts of elections for years, for lots of different reasons, and they were grabbing ahold of gerrymanders as new justification for their position.

  17. Once again, a problem is analyzed from one set of data. (MAGA Republicans) and extrapolated to “both sides”. Democrats don’t always nominate the “most left-leaning” candidates. Case in point, Elissa Slotkin. She is certainly not the most left-leaning, and I would venture to say that she will win the Senatorial primary next August with support from all factions of the party. Of course, Michigan also has districts (including Slotkin’s) drawn by an independent commission. The Republicans in Michigan still nominate the most reactionary candidates possible.

    That being said, two notes. First when I took a course “comparative political systems” a million years ago, it seemed clear that parliamentary systems work best when there are two major parties. Relying on coalitions gives too much power to a small number of people. I’m sure ex-Speaker McCarthy understands that.

    As for proportional representation, or multi-member districts (where two out of three people get elected), I think those are ideas worth exploring, but I am not holding out hope for that kind of change in my lifetime. Then again, I thought it would take decades for same-sex marriage to be accepted, so who knows.

  18. Proportional representation sounds like a great idea. It’d require a larger House, though – my small blue state only gets one Representative but we’d need at least two seats to properly represent the current red/blue divide.

    The larger problem IMO is the Senate. There was a proposed Constitutional amendment back in the 1960’s(?) to do so, and initially received significant support, but not enough to overcome the objections of the smaller states that get outsized benefits from the current system.

    The Founders were so concerned that their new government would act quickly and imprudently that they put in way too many points where a minority can kill legislation. Even so we made it work – until malign actors (Gingrich and McConnell come immediately to mind) decided they didn’t want it to work. I believe that a flawed or bad system (as ours has been shown to be) can still work well if the people involved want it to. The corollary is also true, a perfectly wonderful system will fail if the people involved don’t want it to.

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