Solving the Standoff
Considering Alterations to the Constitution That Could End the Stagnation in Washington
The federal government of the United States is currently at a standstill. Even with a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate, and the Presidency in hand, the GOP has yet to push through any major legislation.
On the one hand, it is early in the life of the 115th United States Congress. They’ve only been at it for about 7 months and they’ve been trying to pass healthcare reform, certainly one of the most difficult tasks the legislative body could undertake.
On the other hand, it’s become quite clear, through not only the health care process but through the impending effort to reform the tax code and the fast-approaching need to pass a budget and keep the government running, that there are more than 2 factions currently holding seats in the legislature. The Republicans struggle to appease the more conservative members of their party like the Freedom Caucus, and when they move to do so almost immediately forfeit the votes of moderates like Susan Collins. Bills are passed in the House only to be completely rewritten in the higher chamber. Even within the ranks of the far right, members like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz disagree on what being governmentally conservative might actually mean.
Democrats, meanwhile, have had their own problems trying to coalesce. After Bernie Sanders scorched-Earthed moderates in the party by openly advocating for far left policies and democratic socialism, Elizabeth Warren made it clear that her preference was not to simply fix Obamacare, but instead move towards single-payer, something that moderate democrats have been much slower to embrace outright. Bernie and his campaign has pushed the Democratic consensus to the left, and the newly revealed “Better Deal” plan from the Democrats continues to take those steps. Still, many on the left think the platform has not gone far enough, while moderates might find it tough to swallow parts of the plan, like beefing up anti-trust and anti-monopoly efforts.
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In a time when tribalism and partisanship is at a high, both parties are struggling with intense and very real internal factions. This is not simply inopportune posturing — these members truly disagree with one another on what it means to be a part of their party.
And then we have the presidency. The 2016 Presidential Election was, for many, an exercise in choosing between the lesser of two evils. While it certainly wasn’t for the same reasons, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were widely disliked. Given these circumstances, there were a large number of voters who disliked both candidates but could still be counted on to show up and vote. Trump’s campaign had a name for these people, “double haters”, and they actively pursued them.
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In the end, these people voted, by a large margin, in favor of Donald Trump. In doing so, they effectively handed him the presidency, and now the American people are left with a President who has a historically low approval rating, someone who many of them voted for despite their open disdain. It should be restated that there were so many of these people, those who disliked their candidate but voted for them anyway because they disliked the opponent even more, that the campaign developed strategies just for them!
Why is this so?
Often in American politics, we accept these kinds of practices as the way things are. Congress is divided because it’s divided, we’re split down the middle and those in Washington will just never work together. The candidates for President are who they are, we can’t do anything about it and we have to choose one of them. That’s how the system works. The popular vote goes to one Presidential Candidate, but the Electoral College goes to the other, so a vote in Ohio and Pennsylvania matters more than a vote in California, New York, and Kentucky. That’s just how the government works.
At risk of ruining any potential political future I might have, let’s do the unthinkable. Let’s question the Constitution and consider how alterations to our voting and governmental systems might not only grease the wheels of government and encourage progress, but actually empower more political viewpoints and expand our democracy. Let’s explore options that many may have never known to exist, much less considered as an alternative. Let’s see if we can find a way to improve upon a 228-year old document.
To best understand how to change our democracy and make it more effective, we should first discuss the system as it currently exists. What we have now is called “First-past-the-post”, a reference to horse-racing and the fact that, out of all candidates, the only one who wins is the one who gets the most votes.
In some cases, this makes a great deal of sense. Person A and Person B compete, and the winner is the one with the most votes. But what happens if there is also a Person C? Let’s take it a step further and say that Person B and Person C are fairly similar, with a few key differences. You would much rather vote for Person B or C over A, but you’re worried that both B and C, because they’re so similar, will split votes and allow A to cruise to victory.
Should C drop out of the race? Should B? Should they both stay in and hope for the best?
This is a big problem in American politics. A quick glance at the 2016 Presidential Election, a time when those who voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein infuriated Democrats because those votes were a drain on Hillary Clinton in key states, shows the flaws of first-past-the-post. Why should someone be disallowed from voicing their opinion simply because their opinion differs from that of the two main parties? And yet, because of the way we vote, opinions are regularly shut down and forced into one of two buckets. Not only in the race for the Presidency but also in the race for the House and Senate, third parties face an enormous challenge to exist in any meaningful form. One is discouraged from running for a different party or as an independent because even if they make it to Congress, they wield very little power alone.
The system has resulted in two political parties that struggle to corral their members on the edges. As we mentioned, the Freedom Caucus doesn’t have a great deal in common with someone like Susan Collins. Bernie Sanders differs greatly from many of the Democrats. To do anything, parties must first compromise internally, moving their platforms and policies to the political center of their individual party, and away from the political center of the country.
This restricts progress on both sides. Unless one party enjoys an enormous margin, they won’t be able to lose any votes on the edges of their party. Even when they attempt to quell the issue by working with the minority party, that party is typically hesitant to work with others lest they be disparaged for doing so and potentially kicked out of contention for office in a primary by someone who will toe the party line at all times.
Still, it’s possible that first-past-the-post isn’t to blame for this. Perhaps it is a symptom of our governmental system. Let’s explore an alternative.
First-Past-the-Post Parliamentary Democracy
This is probably the “other democracy” that you’ve heard of the most. Considered the alternative to Presidential Democracy, the system we use, it’s quite popular around the world in places like the United Kingdom. The key difference between this system and ours is that there is no separately elected executive. Constituents vote in legislators, and then those representatives vote in the head of state, often referred to as the Prime Minister.
The Parliamentary system brings with it a few common consequences. For one, you never have a legislature that is directly opposed to the executive. The obstructionism exhibited by the majority Republican Congress during much of former President Obama’s tenure would not occur. What does happen, though, is the election of third (and fourth, and fifth) parties who live on the margins, win only a few seats, and prevent either party from earning a majority in the legislature. These groups then have a disproportionate amount of power because the larger parties must form coalition governments to earn a majority and elect the Prime Minister they’d like in power.
This is what happened recently in the UK. Neither of the two major parties earned a majority and as a result the Conservatives, who were closer, were forced to cut a deal with the small Democratic Unionist Party.
On one hand, this helps us toward our goal of allowing for more voices to be represented. If politicians who didn’t entirely see themselves as fitting in either bucket thought they could wield some power in a coalition, helping to develop a platform and policy with deciding votes, they would probably be less hesitant to default as simply a Democrat or Republican, and give representation to citizens who thought the same. This isn’t the norm in our democracy, and while it isn’t prohibited in any sense it is true that Parliamentary Democracy breeds this result more, partially because the election of the Prime Minister occurs within the legislature. Democrats and Republicans in the US do form voting block caucuses, groups that function something like a party within the larger party, but for obvious reasons this falls short of the expanded abilities an entirely separate party could have.
For all its empowerment, coalition governments can be very challenging. They give those on the edges a somewhat disproportionate amount of power. In addition, should no coalition form, it can halt governmental progress in an even more complete way than we might see in our democracy. It encourages more progress in the right circumstances, when a majority is elected, and it ties together the executive and the legislature. It can encourage more voices to participate, but that can have negative consequences almost as much as it can have positive consequences, since those voices are quite often regional or more extreme. It does not necessarily encourage consistent compromise and dealmaking.
To take on that problem, let’s go beyond the system of government and change something even more fundamental: how we vote.
Proportional representation dramatically alters the game. As the name suggests, in this system the number of representatives elected to the government is directly correlated with the percentage of people who have voted for their party. If one party receives 40% of the vote, they get 40% of the representatives. If they receive 5% of the vote, they get 5% of the representatives.
This system can be implemented in several ways, all of which would have an enormous impact. To start, you’d vote for a party instead of a person. The party would release a list of their candidates, with those at the top being the first representatives in and those at the bottom only being elected if they received 100% of the vote. This way, you know who leads the party, and what individual representatives would be elected based on the percentage of people who vote for the party.
You can implement this in several ways. For example, you could implement it nationwide, meaning there are no representatives from smaller districts but instead the United States serves as one, enormous district. Since the US is so large, and since there is benefit to having representatives from varying areas, this would likely be unwise. You could meet in the middle, though, and instead of having 435 individual districts, as the House does now, or 1 enormous nationwide district, create 43 districts with 10 representatives each. Win 80% of the vote, and the party earns 8 seats in that district. Win just 10% of the vote and, instead of being a historical footnote “also ran”, you earn one representative.
This is a complicated proposition, and there is some homework to be done regarding how to best pull it off, but it makes a great deal of sense. This system would allow for more voices, more opinions, and more established parties. While it is now difficult to get even two parties to agree on something, this system would make compromise the norm because virtually no party would or could ever get to 51%. Instead of forcing those who are socially liberal but economically conservative to pick one and get over it, you could establish what would likely be a very popular party.
Instead of forcing the economically depressed, socially conservative people of the world to either vote against their beliefs or their financial interests, you could form a new group that looked out for both. Not every issue would be wrapped with obviously competing political ramifications. Not every middle-ground politician would lie awake at night wondering if they were going to face a well funded challenge in their primary.
Full disclosure, I am obviously a big fan of this system. That being said, I recognize its challenges. It would result in some extremist parties, if 5% of people vote for an openly racist party, they would get representation. A look at our currently elected leader might make that point less poignant than it would have been in 2015, but it still stands. There are real regulations that would need to be implemented along with this system. Multiple legislative houses, percentage thresholds, and other such additions to the rule.
You would also lose some of the local relationship and representation that is so important to a functioning democracy. Something would have to be done to ensure that urban areas and more populous states did not overrun the rural parts of the country. And that brings us to our final point.
Government is a complicated beast. It’s almost absurdly easy for constitutional design to result in unintended flaws, and even a constitution as well-crafted as ours has its problems. Gerrymandering disenfranchises large masses of voters. Due to population differences, California has one Senator for every 20 million people, while Wyoming has one for every 300,000, a clearly undemocratic situation.
To remedy the difficulties one faces when creating a government, one must get creative. There is no limit to the possibilities you could implement to create a truly effective and representative government. You could create a Parliamentary system with two houses, one filled by a nationwide proportional representative vote, and one done with state by state first-past-the-post voting. You could have both a President and a Prime Minister, each of which hold different powers over making appointments, the military, and the branches of government. You could regularly hold multiple rounds of voting. While one wants to avoid getting too convoluted in their solutions, and there is a line to walk between creativity and unnecessary complication, there is effectiveness to be found in multi-layered intentional design.
Americans shouldn’t simply be upset that their current representatives appear to be stuck in a standstill, unable to unite even within their own parties. They should go a step further and look to the system the representatives exist within. How can that be improved to expand their voices? How can we change the game and therefore encourage the players to improve and push forward? These are complicated questions, but too often it seems we avoid even raising it or, worse, don’t even think to. I would suggest that we begin to open the door to these kinds of possibilities.