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We Can Do Better Than Capitalist Formal “Democracy”

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

An article I read shortly after Jacinda Ardern’s re-election in New Zealand noted, with a touch of weariness, that Labour’s victory came after a campaign measured in “weeks.” Folks there ought to count themselves lucky — the United States has endured years of campaigning in what has proved, to the surprise of no one, its nastiest presidential contest in memory.

Not to mention that the sclerotic U.S. political system has yet again thrown up two dismal choices, sadly reiterating that the two major parties offer a choice of extreme right (Republican) and center-right (Democrats). And although a common lament is that a third party is needed, one that might actually represent the interests of the majority of United Statesians, very few seriously considering pulling the lever for an alternative party, and the number of those who actually do are likely to be less than usual, given the understandably fervent desire to push Donald Trump out of the White House.

Millions will hold their noses while voting for Joe Biden. The lesser evil is still evil, especially given former Vice President Biden’s dismal record of war mongering, acting as an errand boy for big banks and turbo-charging the prison-industrial complex. So why does the U.S. not only offer such abysmal choices, but seemingly worse ones every four years?

Ultimately, the stranglehold of capital on all aspects of U.S. institutions, the ability of industrialists and financiers to buy Republican and Democratic politicians and their ownership of the news media makes the idea of “democracy” a farce. But the U.S. is a formal democracy, not yet a fascist dictatorship (despite the wishes of Trump), so theoretically it is possible for a popular movement to elevate a candidate pursuing progressive goals.

Not so easy, of course, as the Democratic Party leadership, obeying the wishes of its corporate benefactors, did all it could to oppose the rise of Bernie Sanders — and Senator Sanders is merely an FDR-style liberal, not actually a socialist (despite what he calls himself). That a platform emulating the time that the party enjoyed its biggest congressional majorities is now beyond the pale speaks volumes. Even if Senator Sanders had been able to win the presidential nomination, corporate Democrats would undoubtedly have undermined his candidacy; party leaders like Hillary Clinton made it clear they would have rather seen Trump win re-election than see Senator Sanders win. Just as we saw in Britain, where Labour potentates, and far from only Blairites, clearly preferred to lose to the Conservatives rather than win with Jeremy Corbyn.

But beyond the sad spectacle of Democratic fealty to Wall Street and Republican worship of industrialists, the U.S. system, as currently constructed, is as foolproof a system of maintaining elite power as exists in any capitalist formal democracy. It’s only partly due to the U.S. being saddled with an anachronistic Constitution hopelessly out of date, a document that cements this corporate lockbox. Not that the Constitution should be overlooked; the U.S. Senate is the world’s most undemocratic legislative body (Wyoming, with 570,000 people, and California, with 39 million, both have two members) and the Electoral College allows a minority of voters to elect a candidate with a minority of votes (a presidential vote in Wyoming counts three times more than a vote in New York).

A president who received nearly 3 million votes less than his opponent in 2016 is enabled by a Senate in which the controlling party received a cumulative 20 million votes less than their opponents and is able to pack a Supreme Court with extremists out of step with majority opinion (an unelected Supreme Court that is a political super-legislature with powers far beyond those possessed by other countries’ high courts).

Choice is an illusion in a two-party system

The foregoing are certainly serious contributors to the backward U.S. political system, easily the worst among all advanced capitalist countries and worse than plenty of others elsewhere in the world. And we haven’t even touched on the pathetic unwillingness of Democrats to stand up for whatever it is they believe in and the party’s bizarre tendency to “stand up” to its base, products of the intellectual dead end of liberalism. Nonetheless, the ultimate reason for the two-party system is the U.S. system of single-seat, winner-take-all representation.

Until some form of proportional representation is enacted, United Statesians will be stuck with their deadening two-party system.

A representative body based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. With two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no room for a third party to emerge. Campaigns for elections to these bodies can be conducted on larger national issues or on the basis of an important local issue, but the tendency is for these elections to become contests between personalities. If the personality representing the other party is objectionable, or the other party is objectionable, then voting is reduced to the “lesser of two evils.”

The advantage of the two-party system (for its beneficiaries) is that it offers the illusion of choice, in contrast to one-party systems. This “choice” is illusory because capitalists, through the concentrated power amassed in their corporations and the ability of those capitalists to suffuse their ideologies into other institutions, restrict the scope of debate within boundaries acceptable to them — ideas that question their dominance are far outside those boundaries. Still, there is much more scope for the contesting of ideas and for serious acknowledgement of problems and devising solutions than in a one-party system. Individual political figures can be voted out of office, unlike in a one-party system, and although changing personalities does not in itself change the system in any way, it does provide a safety valve.

Voting for a party or an individual becomes a sterile exercise in ensuring the other side doesn’t win. From the point of view of the candidates and parties, the safest strategy is one of peeling away voters from the only other viable candidate, thereby encouraging platforms to be close to that of the other viable candidate, promoting a tendency to lessen differences between the two dominant parties.

Personalities over substance

With little to distinguish the two parties, the importance of personality becomes more important, further blurring political ideas, and yet third choices are excluded because of the factors that continue to compel a vote for one of the two major-party candidates. In turn, such a system sends people to representative bodies on the basis of their personalities, encouraging those personalities to grandstand and act in an egocentric manner once they are seated. These personalities are dependent on corporate money to get into and remain in office, and the parties they are linked to are equally dependent — the views of those with the most money are the views that are going to be heard. And if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together (since they control all political institutions) so that both have “safe” seats, or if one party is much more willing to employ bare-knuckles tactics than the other, it draws the lines to benefit itself.

The two parties nonetheless compete fiercely to win elections. They represent different groupings within the capitalist class — Republicans favor industrialists and Democrats favor financiers. This is a closed competition: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out. These are the underlying reasons for the stability of a two-party system — replacing it with a multiple-party system would require fundamentally changing political structures.

Most any other system would be more democratic. Not altogether democratic as long as capitalism exists (the built-in inequalities and power imbalances can’t be wished away but must be eliminated through the construction of a better world), but at least an improvement.

One system increasingly being experimented with is ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff. In this system, a voter ranks as many candidates as she or he likes. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second choices of ballots choosing the eliminated candidate are then added to the remaining candidates; this can be done multiple times until someone has a majority. In this system, a voter can vote for who they really wish to see take office and rank the “lesser evil” second to keep the “greater evil” out. Australia uses this system but because its House of Representatives uses a winner-take-all, single-seat districts, there is an effective two-party system there (the Liberal/National coalition and Labor), although 14 of the 151 seats are held by minor parties or independents.

This system is an improvement, but it’s not the panacea its promoters promote it as. Using it for single-seat, winner-take-all districts leaves the system of two dominant corporate parties intact, continues to allow them to draw district boundaries to their benefit and only very marginally increases the long odds of a third party winning. At best, this is tinkering with a fatally flawed system.

If you want more choices, you need proportional representation

Multi-party systems can only exist where there is proportional representation, no matter the content of a constitution, even if a constitution never mentions parties.

Some parliamentary systems use a combination of some seats representing districts and some seats being elected on a proportional basis from a list either on a national basis or from large subdivisions. This allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and for a party at the same time. There is more scope for smaller parties here, and this type of system generally features several viable parties, depending on what threshold is set for the proportional-representation seats. Germany, New Zealand and Scotland use this system.

There can be two dominant parties in this system (as is the case in Germany and New Zealand), but the major parties often must govern with a smaller party in a coalition or even in a clumsy coalition with each other (thus, Germany’s tendency to produce periodic “grand coalition” governments). Parties in a coalition government will run on separate platforms and maintain separate identities — the next coalition might feature a different lineup. The rules can be set to make it difficult for any party to achieve a majority, as New Zealand and Scotland do, and thus encourage coalition governments. (Labour’s victory this month in New Zealand marked the first time a party won a majority on its own since this system was adopted.)

Some countries fill all parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Each party supplies a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats; the top 20 names on the list from a party that wins 20 seats gain entry. This is a system that allows minorities to be represented — if a party wins 20 percent of the vote, it earns 20 percent of the seats. However, if the cutoff limit is set too high (as is the case in Turkey, where ten percent is needed), then smaller parties find it difficult to win seats and voters are incentivized to vote for a major party. Thus even in this system it is possible for only two or three parties to win all seats and a party that wins less than 50 percent of the vote can nonetheless earn a majority of seats because the seats are proportioned among only the two or three parties whose vote totals are above the cutoff.

A low cutoff better represents the spectrum of opinion and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. The most common thresholds are three or five percent of the vote, but cutoffs can be lower. In the Netherlands, a party need only win 0.67 percent — the country is a single constituency with 150 seats. Thirteen parties currently have seats in the Dutch parliament.

Do we really have to limit ourselves to geography?

Such a system in itself doesn’t guarantee full participation by everybody; a national, ethnic or religious majority, even if that majority routinely elects several members of a parliament, can still be subjected to legal oppression. The threshold to win a seat in the Israeli Parliament has been set as low as one percent, and no party has ever won a majority, but that hasn’t prevented the consolidation of an apartheid state that renders Palestinians third-class citizens. The most open legislative system must be augmented by a constitution with enforceable guarantees for all.

Still another variant on parliamentary representation are multiple-seat districts. Voters cast ballots for as many candidates as there are seats — a minority group in a district should be able to elect at least one of their choice to a seat. This is a system that also has room for multiple parties, and with several viable parties in the running, votes are likely to be distributed in a way that no single party can win all seats in a given district. Ireland seats three to five members of the Dáil from each constituency, and additionally uses a form of ranked-choice voting known as “single-transferable vote” in which a voter can rank as many or as few of the candidates in his or her constituency as wished. All but four of the 39 Irish constituencies seated at least three parties.

One way to ensure that multiple parties will be seated might be to limit the number of candidates any party can run to a number lower than the total number of seats. More than one party is then guaranteed to win representation. There is such a stipulation in the District of Columbia — two of 13 seats are reserved for candidates not affiliated with the dominant Democratic Party. But that is not a guarantee that small parties will be represented. Both non-Democratic seats are currently held by independents, one of whom was previously a failed Democratic candidate. Members of the DC Statehood Party, however, have held seats in the past.

Of course we need not limit ourselves to traditional parliaments. Councils representing workplaces or other non-geographic constituencies were organized in revolutionary situations across the 20th century. Yugoslavia had a Chamber of Producers, elected from workers’ councils, one of two chambers in the federal parliament, from 1953 to 1963. For the next several years, Yugoslavia seated a five-chamber legislature! One chamber was the Council of Nationalities (10 members from each of six republic and five from the two autonomous provinces, a setup designed to dampen ethnic rivalries); the other four chambers included representatives from citizens by their economic or social-political function (economy, education and culture, welfare and health and organizational-political chamber). Unfortunately, the five-chamber federal legislature was not fully democratic because its members were delegated by members of lower bodies; there were direct elections only at the local level.

The human imagination can surely conceive of still more representative bodies. But future designers of political structures will need to eliminate single-seat, U.S.-style electoral districts — and overturn capitalism — if we are to ever have legislatures that are responsive to non-manipulated popular will.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His first book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books and he has completed the text for his second book, What Do We Need Bosses For?

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