The American political system is one of the most unrepresentative in the democratic world; in the latest Presidential election, despite how incredibly contentious it was, only 55 percent of the population voted. The November 2018 midterms showed even more apathy among Americans, with only 50.1 percent, a scant majority, having voted for their representative in Congress. And that was an extremely high turnout for a midterm election in the United States. This popular discontent does not only apply to election turnout either. According to a recent Gallup poll, a plurality of Americans, 39 percent, do not identify with either party, but instead identifying themselves as independents. This cannot stand. We should not have a political system in which such a large segment of the populace continues to be unrepresented.
This problem is unique to American politics. In their last general election, 76 percent of the German population voted. In France’s 2017 presidential election, turnout was 74 percent. In each of the last Canadian and British elections, 68 percent of the population cast ballots. America’s disenchantment with the political system is thus a singularly American problem. And it has a singularly American cause – our particular political system. This article will diagnose the problem and then offer a way to fix it.
In America, we use the First Past the Post system. What that means is that whoever gets the most votes in a particular constituency – even if that is less than a majority – is elected. This absolutely guts the ability for a truly representative democracy in the United States.
The first impact of our First Past the Post System is to discourage independent or other unaffiliated politicians from gaining any real ground in American politics. Scared of allowing someone whom they hate into a political office, many people will simply vote against that candidate, even if it means voting for someone whom they dislike but whom they think others will also vote for. This process, called strategic voting, is commonplace in the US and is why we have a two-party system, even though there are clearly more than two major political schools of thought capable of attracting a constituency in America.
First Past the Post requires centrists, even though they make up a plurality of Americans, to vote for one of the two sides of the spectrum out of fear of the other. As a result, our two big-tent “right” and “left” parties rely on support from Americans who vote for them not out of support, but rather out of dislike for the other side. Even if a third-party politician ran in the center, he or she would be ignored by Americans who are forced to vote out of fear rather than agreement. This is markedly different from the European system, in which people can choose from among a selection of many different parties depending on which one they agree with the most, not which one they hate the least.
In fact, this lack of options is ubiquitous in American politics. Despite the fact that a large percentage of the American public, especially the youth, is socially liberal and economically conservative, wanting smaller government in all sectors, there is no major movement in America representing this viewpoint, called “liberal conservatism.” The closest thing to a party for this group is the Libertarian Party, which, supporting the legalization of all drugs and the abolition of the income tax, is too radical on both fronts to attract support. Instead, those who hold left-wing views on some issues and right-wing views on others have no choice but to just hold their nose and decide which policy they care more about.
Not only does First Past the Post have a radicalizing effect on who is elected, it also affects party leadership. In the more electorally purple parts of the country, the places with the best chance for centrist candidates, it is incredibly dangerous for any moderate who is elected to attempt to gain a leadership role. The candidate’s home constituency, in these cases, tends to view their representative’s interest in national politics as synonymous with a lack of interest in them. While a centrist in a leadership position must focus on national issues, a challenger can run a campaign that focuses exclusively on the local situation at home.
This is perhaps best illustrated in the case of Tom Daschle, a Democrat Senator from South Dakota who became Senate Majority Leader and lost his Senate re-election campaign in 2004
partly because his constituency thought he didn’t care about them. Even in a red state like Texas, failed ambitions for leadership roles can lead to close elections, as in Ted Cruz’s re-election campaign in 2018 following his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Politicians representing purple states see these examples and fear the same things happening to them, leading them to give up whatever ambition for leadership they may have had. This is why the politicians in leadership roles tend to come from places like New York, California or Kentucky rather than Florida or Ohio.
There is, however, an easy solution, at least for congressional elections. It’s called mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), which is currently used in a wide range of countries, including Germany and Sweden. In MMP, people vote just like before, at least in theory. Each person votes for whichever they want to win the election, whether that be congressional, senatorial, or presidential. However, unlike the current system, if one party wins, say, ten percent of the vote, it will always get ten percent of the seats, even if it wins no constituencies. This is done by adding overhang seats to the winners in each district until the chamber becomes representative on party lines. These are chosen by party list, which is when the party lists its candidates in an order decided by how important it thinks each politician is. There is, of course, a percentage threshold to being considered for party list seats, usually around 4 to 5 percent.
This fixes all of the current problems. By ensuring each party gets proportional representation, tactical voting disappears, as people know their votes are going to be considered in the electoral process whether or not their chosen candidate wins their constituency. Leadership-wise, party lists guarantee party leaders will not be elected out, even if they lose their constituency, because they will likely be first on the party list.
The political system in America is flawed, but fixable. Hopefully, we can help the millions of Americans who are so disenchanted with the political system that they would rather not vote at all than for any of the candidates.