The American political system has become dysfunctional with no hope at the moment for an end to the crisis. Further, those benefiting from the dysfunction have a vested interest in continuing the crisis, and can best do so by continuing to split the country. This is an extremely dangerous strategy for the long run. It is creating the conditions that, as James Madison described in Federalist 10, could destroy America’s constitutional system replacing it with civil war or tyranny.
Traditional elites are proving incapable of handling our problems. Traditional institutions are failing to work. Many Americans believe we are on a downhill path at best, threatening national destruction at worst.
This paper focuses on one powerful and practical remedial measure that can enable us far better to address the issues afflicting us.
Reforms must share two qualities to have a good chance first of adoption and then working as hoped. First, any reforms must be perceived as fair by all sides of the rank and file involved in our current conflicts. Any reform that seems to favor one side will be opposed, likely effectively opposed, by the other. In other words, they must address constitutional issues rather than narrower policy issues.
Second, needed basic reforms will not originate in Washington. Not only is the government there dysfunctional, it is dominated by two parties that, when push comes to shove, benefit from the status quo. In order to rise within those parties, except for unusual cases like Elizabeth Warren, politicians are essentially vetted by elites committed to the status quo. For financial reasons primaries are overwhelming tilted in favor of the established powers in both parties, and this is especially true for the Democrats, the major party progressives like myself most identify with.
Anyone who looks to Washington for the answer is wasting their time.
Taking the initiative
Seventeen states allow citizen initiated constitutional initiatives to appear on the ballot. Two more allow legislatures to place an initiative on the ballot. Some states are small, but California, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois are not. A series of similar initiatives passed by many of these states would generate enormous pressure for state legislatures in other states to pass versions of them as well. State legislatures are more open to pressure from average citizens than bought and paid for servants of corporations and banks, located far away in Washington, DC, and with no plans to return to the states they ‘represent’ once they retire. It is no accident that the strongest force for political centralization and disempowering local and state government comes from the business community.
But ideally an initiative campaign has to appear fair to reasonable Americans on both sides of the red/blue divide. It must also aim at key changes in constitutional rules that have broken down in the past few decades. And third, the provisions must be intuitively reasonable, so that campaigns on their behalf will be easily understood and so hard to distort. That is, initiatives that are many pages long or try and prescribe in detail what is to be done should be avoided, because the more complex they become the more easily they can be distorted.
I think one initiative measure is more crucial than any of the others, an constitutes an act of political akido that punishes no one explicitly but will have an increasingly important long term impact on the country, and for the better. Further, the times are ripe for it to succeed in some states and thereby ignite a conversation for adopting it in others.
Establish all state elections by majority vote.
This initiative can be expressed in two sentences:
All political offices in the state of _______ shall be chosen by majority vote. Instant runoff will decide elections where there is no majority among first choices.
Imagine the difficulty of the two main parties arguing against majority rule when most Americans hold both of them in contempt. If these initiatives were on as many ballots as possible, and repeated regularly until passed, the issue would remain in the public eye. Everyone turned off by the major parties would be all the more inclined to take away their oligopoly.
The gradual electoral successes of gay marriage and marijuana legalization demonstrate the more a defensible issue is discussed in the public eye, encouraging people to think about it, the more receptive the public becomes. But unlike gay marriage and marijuana legalization, majority rule is already regarded as legitimate. Most voters equate it with what democracy means.
Our constitution says nothing about political parties because they did not exist when it was written. The world’s first organized political parties originated in the US in the decades following its adoption. This helps explain the differences between American parties and most others., which arose from out of gradually democratizing parliamentary systems
Political parties to some degree undercut Madison’s argument that there should be no large organized factions, and that freedom was safest when no organized faction could dominate. But their being locally controlled and coming together only every four years meant that no strong national organization arose. Further, political parties are a natural outgrowth of people seeking allies to support their political ideas. The logic of democracy pushes for their creation.
The first major parties, Federalists and Democratic Republicans, wrote state legislation in ways to secure their stability against challenges and to make third parties very difficult to create and even more difficult to sustain. When issues were not seriously divisive this resulted in corruption, but no serious threat to the constitutional system. Until now, the only serious breakdown was just before the Civil War.
Today divisions going back to the initial split between North and South have reappeared and reached an unexpected intensity. There has even been talk of gaming the electoral college in insecurely Republican controlled states with large Democratic populations, to prevent their getting electoral votes proportionate to their vote, as has been the case for two centuries. This effort strikes at the legitimacy of elections in the public eye. Further, both parties are dominated by corporations and the financial industry, and the interests of Americans, even their core popular supporters, tend to come second. This undermines their legitimacy as well.
Addressing these weaknesses will not require a national constitutional amendment. State initiatives are the vehicle most suited to initiate badly needed processes of reform.
Advantages for most of us
With majority vote rules for elections, a vote for a third party candidate will not help the party you most oppose in any sense. If one of the two main parties gets a secure majority, compared with a plurality election the outcome will be the same. But when majorities are not secure the dynamic changes in five important ways.
I. A candidate may need another party’s voters to win in a runoff. In order to get them to choose him or her as their second choice, which could make the difference in a runoff, candidates have to address the issues they raise. As a result issues will be discussed that normally would not get discussed. Further, to get those votes the third party will be treated with a degree of respect, legitimizing these issues in otherwise skeptical eyes.
II. Voters will be encouraged to vote their genuine preferences. Today the Gallup Poll reports that 42% of Americans identify as independents, the highest percentage since they started telephone polls 25 years ago. 31% and Democrats and 25% are Republicans. More Americans fail to identify with either of the two parties than identify with either of them, and the percentage is rising. Nearly half the public does not like either party, and that is not because they are alike.
If voters were confident their choice would not backfire, as it does so often today, many Americans would make the least disliked main party candidate their second choice in case of a run-off, but vote for the candidate they most like as their first choice even if from a third party. Under current rules I may prefer Greens or Libertarians or someone else, but never vote for them because I don’t want to help the main party most removed from my values. Maine’s Governor LePage is what happens when voters vote their actual preferences under current rules, and that is one reason why Maine is a good place to start.
III. Because they will have a chance of electoral success, third parties will attract better quality candidates than they do now. As it is, many of those standing as third party candidates have little experience governing or representing people. Often it seems as if ego is more a motive than public service. This can be true for any candidate in any party of course, but when someone has no chance of winning, or in most cases even getting access to much media coverage, prestige and influence within their own community of supporters is about all they really have to gain.
With empowered third parties many would-be candidates would start at local levels knowing that if they are successful they will have an opportunity to succeed at state-wide levels. As it is there are few third party candidates for state legislatures or county positions, and hardly anyone knows anything about them beyond a small circle of supporters. As third parties become more competitive they will also become more interesting to undecided voters.
IV. Viable third parties will assist progressives. Right now both parties are essentially corporatist, albeit with different degrees of nastiness towards others. Obama knows we have no choice. A viable Green Party will pull the Democratic party to the left, because they will need Green votes for the run off if they do not win outright, and Greens will likely make sure that does not happen unless they address Green issues. This means that progressive Democrats will have a louder voice in the mainstream Democratic Party. If they do not, it is likely that many of the more progressive Democrats will vote for the Greens, and possibly put the Greens into a run off.
Libertarians will have a similar impact on the Republicans, but in their case there is a split between Tea Party ‘conservatives’ and genuine libertarians on civil liberties issues. The libertarian movement is complex and schizophrenic, but one issue that will help them differentiate themselves from the Republicans is civil liberties. That is a win for us. Should any libertarians win office over traditional Republicans, they will tend to ally with progressives over these issues.
V. Voters will begin to free themselves from the two party oligopoly that currently dominates the country at all levels. Under current rules while voters have the final choice between two parties those final choices are determined by whoever wins primaries. Those primary wins are determined by two factors. First, and most often, by who can raise the most money from banks and corporations. Today this is as true of Democrats as it is of Republicans. Second, insurgents usually arising from well organized extreme groups can sometimes pick off establishment candidates, but such insurgents are often far outside the bounds of what most voters find acceptable, and so voters simply vote for the existing candidate who is beholden to corporations and banks.
Given current levels of disgust with corporations, banks, and the main parties it might not take much time for major shifts to take place one voters have a genuine chance to make choices that matter positively instead of always voting for the lesser evil.
The Role of Maine
Nowhere is the failure of plurality elections more important or well known than in Maine. Today Maine has a right wing governor not because a majority of its citizens wanted one but because a progressive Democrat, Eliot Cutler, competed with a more establishment Democrat in the general election, enabling Paul LePage, who received slightly over a third of the vote, to became governor. No one believes LePage would have won a majority of votes under any conceivable scenario. Even with a three way race LePage won by under 8000 votes. In a run-off either Democrat would have won in a two way contest with LePage. Maine’s governor would have been supported by a majority rather than elected by a small minority.
There is a possibility of this outcome repeating itself as Cutler is again running as an independent in the 2014 election.
These facts mean a majority of Mainers who would already look with great sympathy on shifting from plurality to majority vote elections. Further, even a part of LaPage’s constituency would be sympathetic because, as they surely know, he won on a fluke and would have had no chance in a two way vote. That being so, ensuring that their issues would be heard and seriously discussed in every election would be a net gain.
Maine has one additional advantage for an initial campaign of this sort. It is relatively small in population. Enormous sums would not be needed to get state-wide coverage of such an initiative unlike in states more well known for their initiative politics, such as California or Washington. The problems of the LePage administration would encourage Maine media to give more sympathetic coverage than would be the case without such an example. Finally, in states more well known for initiatives there are often a great many initiatives on the ballot, all competing for donor funds and voter attention. This is less the case in Maine.
If Maine or some other state has such an initiative on the ballot it would inspire Americans of many views to see that their issues could be far better addressed with majority vote elections, and that there is a means to accomplish this that does not require approval by Republicans and Democrats in state legislatures. Serious people involved with third parties would therefore move to get similar initiatives on state ballots in states with initiative processes.
If such an initiative passed these effects would be magnified.
The result would be that the existing duopoly of two parties both beholden to banks and corporations would no longer be able to avoid issues of financial power and crime during elections, and even within them candidates willing to address such issues would find their standing strengthened, for in close elections they would be more likely to receive votes from Americans sharing these concerns.