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.
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.