Public Discourse and Electoral Representation

Why Full Representation Would Facilitate a Citizen Commonwealth

James W. Skillen


A polity -- a political community -- has its own identity distinct from the families, schools, churches, enterprises and many other organizations that function within its territory and under its public law. Citizens under government constitute a political order with its own distinct responsibilities. This is the arena in which people are bound together in a commonwealth, a political unum, sharing common civic rights and responsibilities. If it is necessary to distinguish between the moral discourse appropriate to a church from that which is appropriate to politics, between that which pertains to schooling from that which pertains to doing public justice, then how should citizens, as citizens, best be organized for the conduct of political-moral argument?

The main tradition of American politics takes for granted that the republic is, or ought to be, a community of free and rational individuals who share what Jefferson called a common moral sense as guide to the shaping of the public good. Our Constitution establishes a federal government and presupposes state governments that are to serve the people as citizens. These checked and balanced governments are not supposed to fall prey to unrestrained majorities, to usurpatious minorities or to any single interest group. The Constitution is, furthermore, the guarantor of a variety of individual rights over against government.

The system of electoral representation that has been established within this framework is one designed to facilitate the realization of civic consensus (made manifest through a single, majority will) amid multiple and competing interests. Citizens are supposed to conduct debate during electoral contests in which the selection of representatives will set the direction for policy making.

Campaign debates culminate in voting -- a process carried out in single-member districts where, by majority vote, one candidate will be chosen to represent everyone in the district. A majority (or plurality) vote wins; the winner takes all. Those who vote against the winner (the minority, or plural minorities) are not thought to be unrepresented after the election but rather are considered to be represented by the winner, who, by definition, represents the will of the whole.

In this electoral system, minorities are not expected to be represented independently but are to have protection in their persons and properties from an overreaching majority. Minority political opinions deserve the same protection that other parochial opinions deserve, namely, the right to free expression outside the majority governing process. Political debate during election times, therefore, is a debate oriented toward winning a majority vote in order to identify those who will be authorized to enter legislative and executive offices to govern.

But now, this question: What if U.S. citizens do not, in fact, constitute a homogeneous political mass? What if their political views cannot adequately be condensed into a single, majority viewpoint, especially when electoral majorities appear to be increasingly thin and artificial? The United States is, to be sure, a single republic, but what if citizens differ significantly in their views of the republic, as happens to be the case with libertarians, nationalists, utilitarians, pragmatists, socialists, liberal egalitarians, conservative republicans and Christian- democratic pluralists? In that case, does it make sense to have an electoral system that forces citizens to seek an unrepresentative, majoritarian, electoral conclusion?

If one's view of political life and concern for a sound program of government is grounded in a morally coherent world view different from the views of other citizens, how can one feel satisfied with an electoral process that frustrates the desire to engage in serious public-moral debate from that point of view? What should people do if political debate is inhibited or shunted aside by an electoral process structured as a simple horse race and by a legislative process that has increasingly become one of interest-group brokering?

Could it be that the American electoral process has become as ill-suited to a culturally and religiously diverse society as the current public school system is ill-suited to that same society? Is there not a better way to structure the electoral process to make serious public debate possible among our diverse citizenry? Serious debate about the political unum will become possible, we believe, only if the electoral system allows genuinely competitive debate to occur among the actual diversity of citizens and quits forcing them into artificial, bipolar camps in the struggle to gain winner-take-all majority power . . . .

How Do We Get a System That Will Work?

Reforming the American electoral system in order to strengthen genuine representation and to make that representation a tool of public-interest government requires a means of connecting voters directly and powerfully with their official representatives -- a connection that is politically stronger than either the link between voters and interest groups or the link between representatives and interest groups.

The electoral system devised by most democracies in the world to serve this purpose is one that allows almost every vote to count, not just those of the majority, and one that puts the burden of governance on citizen-connected parties rather than on freewheeling interest-group brokers. It is called proportional representation, or PR for short.

While there are many ways to design an electoral system with greater or lesser degrees of proportional representation (PR), we suggest a first step that simply alters the method of electing members to our House of Representatives while leaving everything else about the Senate, the presidency and the federal system intact. Once this first step is taken, however, even if only in a few states, we believe the consequences can gradually unfold constructively [to address problems with our political system].

Under current law, population determines the number of seats allotted to each State in the House of Representatives. For the entire country a numerical proportion is calculated between the number of House seats -- 435 -- and the total U.S. population. Each seat is supposed to represent the same number of people.

Once that number is determined, each State knows how many Representatives it may have based on its own population. Each State then carves up its territory into the number of districts corresponding to the number of House seats it may fill. Each of those districts then becomes a single-member election zone to be represented in Congress by the candidate who wins a majority (or plurality) of the votes cast in the election.

It is easy to see that the election winner represents a voting district, which includes more than the citizens who voted for the winning candidate. Those who voted for the losing candidate (or candidates) in that district will also be "represented" by the winner. All the losing votes -- even if they add up to 49% or more of the ballots cast -- achieve nothing. In simple terms, ours is a winner-take-all system.

This is the root cause of the lack of electoral competitiveness in our system. On the surface there appears to be fierce competition between candidates, and each year more and more money is spent on campaigns. But underneath the personality contests we do not often find significantly contrasting program alternatives from which to choose. Our system tends to eliminate all but two candidates in any district, and each of them battles just to get 51% of the vote in order to win everything.

Each wants to appeal to as many voters as possible and to alienate as few as possible. Strong, detailed and specific contrasts disappear. The strongest competition between candidates is for campaign contributions with which to pay for superficial TV and other media advertisements. Candidates who can appeal to only a minority of the population tend to be squeezed out of electoral contests. Voter apathy and antipathy spring from the growing incongruity between the appearance that something significant is happening and the deeper reality that the election campaign's outcome is likely to be inconsequential.

In place of this winner-take-all system of individualized, expensive and superficial contests in single-member districts, we propose that each state be turned into one multi-member district from which its allotted number of House seats would be filled by a means of PR (proportional representation). For example, if Illinois is allowed 22 seats in the House of Representatives, our proposed reform would permit any number of political parties each to run 22 candidates for the entire state in an election that would determine the winners by a PR count.

If the Democrats were to win 50% of the vote across the State, they would get 11 seats in the House, not more or less. If the Republicans were to win 35% of the vote, they would get 8 seats in the House, not more or less. If the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Rainbow Coalition were each to win 5% of the vote, then each would get one seat in the House, not more or less.

Not only would nearly every vote count in this PR system -- with minority as well as majority parties gaining representation -- but nearly every voter would be represented in the House by the party he or she actually votes for. All who vote Democrat, no matter where they live in the State, would be represented by the Democrat team. All who vote Republican would be represented by the Republican team. All who vote Green or Libertarian (or some other) would be represented by the party they actually voted for -- if that party wins at least 5% of the vote.

Here is the beginning of a real connection -- of genuine accountability -- between voters as citizens and the official representatives they elect. It also opens the way to other benefits. For example, PR allows groups of citizens, even small groups, to gain representation through the electoral process without in any way inhibiting a genuine majority -- even a very large majority -- from winning control of the House.

Instead of citizens giving up at the start because they feel their votes will not count (since under the current system those votes often do not count), they will instead be motivated under PR to work together to organize parties that can try to win a percentage of the House seats at election time. They will not have to win a majority of votes in a single district in order to assure themselves of representation. They will, however, have to work together to develop meaningful principles and programs sufficient to bind a sizeable group of citizens together.

Criticisms of Proportional Representation

An argument for proportional representation faces at least two criticisms. The first is that too many parties might come into existence and thus cause governmental instability if no party were able to gain majority control of the House. The second criticism is that a statewide slate of party representatives would not guarantee voters a personal representative close to home -- from the particular district where they live. Let us consider each of these criticisms.

In the first place, a greater number of parties may be precisely what the country needs if the diversity of its citizens is greater than can be represented by a superficial majority in a two-party system. Would it not be better, in other words, for everyone to see in Congress exactly how diverse the body politic is than to be misled by the impression that the Democrats and Republicans adequately represent the entire body politic? More parties in a system that allows for better and truer representation might bring greater rather than less stability to our system because it would make for greater voter confidence in elected representatives. The real question is whether the present system is any longer stable.

Second, we must be careful not to compare apples with oranges as if they are the same fruit. A system of PR tends, as we will argue below, to create parties that are more disciplined and coherent, each with a definite program and philosophy. Even if six or eight parties gained significant representation in the House, and even if none of them held a majority of seats, the process of negotiation and accommodation among them would likely be less chaotic and more purposeful than under the current system.

Why? At present, majority control of the House by the Democrats gives a superficial impression of coherent, one-party control. But in many respects, given the nature of our undisciplined parties and the interest-group influence on individual committees and Representatives, the process of negotiation typically involves far more than six or eight groups or camps. When the dominant party has no binding program to discipline all of its members, and when each member is tied significantly to unofficial interest groups, far more chaos, gridlock and incoherence are likely to be evident among 435 negotiators and compromisers than would be the case if only six or eight well-defined and disciplined parties were negotiating over a bill.

In the third place, most countries that employ PR typically fix as a threshold a certain percentage of votes that any party must win in order to gain representation. In other words, there is a relatively simple way to avoid the problem of subjecting the House to the onslaught of too many small parties. A typical threshold, for example, is 5%; a party, in other words, would have to win at least 5% of the vote in order to gain a seat in any state.

Establishing a threshold like this would clearly inhibit the proliferation of parties. For governing purposes this can be justified, though it does compromise the principle that every voter should have the right to be represented by a party of conviction. Our proposal already compromises the principle of pure PR regardless of whether a threshold is established. In proposing to keep the state boundaries intact, our proposal recognizes that states with heavy population concentrations -- such as New York and California -- will have far greater potential for genuine PR than will states such as Montana and the Dakotas. A pure system of PR for the House would turn the entire country into a single, multi-member district in which any number of parties could each run 435 candidates.

Fourth and finally, it is important to point out that evidence gathered over time from the experience of other democracies (most of which have some system of proportional representation) shows that PR by itself is not the cause of government instability. Instability of government typically has more to do with the governing system than it does with the electoral system.

We are not proposing to change the three-branch system of American federal government to a parliamentary system in which the executive is determined by the winning party or by a coalition of parties in the parliament. As long as our president is elected independently to head the government, then PR in the House will never leave the United States without a government.

As for the second criticism that PR denies citizens a personal and local Representative in Washington, we must look carefully at what would be lost and found in the change to a new system. Part of our criticism of the present system of single-member districts is that they have less and less meaning as actual localities of public, civic identity. Gerrymandered districts often take on such strange shapes that they mean nothing to the people who live in them apart from functioning to secure a winner-take-all personality who is available in Washington to perform "constituency services."

The present system has drained away much of the original meaning of a "representative"-- someone in whom fellow citizens place their confidence to make laws in the public interest. To the extent that a serious diminution of the representative's public legislative role has occurred (as exhibited in loss of voter confidence and actual distrust of government), it is a very weak argument that tries to defend the present system with the reason that it provides citizens with a particular person to perform constituency services for them in Washington.

How much better it would be if citizens in a state could have teams of Representatives -- party teams -- serving them in Washington. These would be legislators with whom voters could identify closely, sharing the same philosophy and legislative agenda. In other words, if the primary meaning of representation could be regained by way of a system that allows all voters to be connected closely to the House members of their chosen party, then often people would have more than one Representative in the House from their State to serve them. PR allows citizens to select statewide party teams rather than only a single representative.

Even more important, these statewide teams would combine with other statewide teams of the same party to form national party teams of similar conviction, principles and program. It would finally become possible for citizens to gain the thing most lacking in our current system: national parties that represent their convictions about, and perspectives on, the country as a whole.

It must also be said that there are electoral systems, such as the one currently operative in Germany, that combine elements of both proportional and district representation. Such a system might work well for House elections in the United States. We are not proposing that here, however, because if PR for the House were to be introduced within the confines of present State borders and if the electoral system for Senate seats is left untouched, then ample recognition would be given to the most important traditional districts, namely, the states.

The need now is to build strong national parties and at the same time to make it possible for a diverse citizenry to gain genuine representation through publicly significant elections. Debating the intricacies of more complex electoral systems, such as the one in Germany, would needlessly complicate matters at this stage.

Movement Toward More Accountability in Washington

The core value of PR is to make genuine representation possible -- to connect voters and elected officials together in an accountability structure that keeps attention focused on the public interest. Those who are elected by means of PR will be tied very closely to those who are members of their party. No party is likely to put forward candidates at election time who do not come up through its ranks and stand for what the party stands for. Every candidate will be part of a team that continues to function after as well as before the election.

The party will continue to shape and direct its principles, its programs and its representatives. Since each candidate who gets elected will represent his or her party, each will continue to be closely watched, guarded and disciplined by that party. In such a framework, career politicians can be a boon rather than a threat to good government.

This, rather than term limits, is the answer to the problem of the lack of accountability on the part of those whom Will denounces as careerists. Will's reasons for wanting to limit, by purely negative means, the number of terms that an individual can serve sound like little more than wishful thinking. Without changing anything else in the system; without seeking to strengthen parties; without looking for a way to allow all voters to be represented; without expecting any new kind of team work--without any of these needed reforms, Will pins his hopes on the illusion that by taking away some of the voters' last remaining responsibility, deliberative democracy can be restored.

The object is to restore a healthier relationship between the citizen and the government. At bottom, the case for term limits rests on the belief that such limits will help reacquaint Americans with the ideas and practices of republicanism as that idea was understood by the most reflective members of this Republic's founding generation.

This requires restoring the status, and hence the competence, of Congress. Given the nature of modern government, such restoration requires breaking the dynamic of careerism. Term limits will break it. Limits are required to institutionalize healthy competition in the political market, just as antitrust intervention in economic markets can serve the values of a basically free market economy.

Term limits might break the careerism of freewheeling individuals who are unconnected to parties and who therefore grow attached to interest groups. But what will break interest-group control of an even further individualized congressional membership? What meaningful competition will become possible if voters still have no opportunity to choose from among alternate governing programs put forward by parties that can discipline their elected representatives? Why will citizens, who currently feel alienated from politics, suddenly gain more interest in ancient republican ideas when they have not been given a single new or additional power by means of term limits?

The way to bring about accountable, deliberative government is to make it possible for citizens both to deliberate seriously (directly as citizens and not merely as members of interest groups) and to hold accountable the representatives they elect for the purpose of continuing that deliberation in Congress. The PR reform we are suggesting will help to do that by forcing a change in the way parties actually develop and function.

Parties in a PR system have to work to define themselves very precisely and clearly in contrast to one another. Under PR, victory is gained not by candidates trying to be all things to all people and therefore saying as little as possible about what they will do in office. Rather, representation is gained by parties only in proportion to the number of votes won, and no party is able to "take all" by winning only 51% of the votes.

Voters are free to vote for what they really believe in rather than simply for the lesser of evils. Under PR, voters gain the opportunity to learn more precisely what they are voting for, and if they do not like what they see in one party, they can vote for another party or work to start a new one. No party will be able to benefit from being fuzzy and non-committal. Here we have the makings of real electoral competition.

Furthermore, each party under the new system would be pushed to define what it plans to do on a wide range of concerns. It would, in other words, have to show why its program is best for the common good on a large number of issues. Some citizens, interested only in one issue, may of course try to organize a party around that single issue, but over time relatively few voters will cast their ballots for a party whose candidates refuse to address all the issues on which Representatives are authorized to legislate in Congress. It will be too easy for another more comprehensive party to coopt that issue and thus to marginalize or eliminate single-issue parties.

Interest Groups' Need To Earn Support from Voters

If interest groups want to exercise influence in the political arena, they will have to deal with citizens from the start, at the grass roots level where they are defining and organizing their parties; interest groups will no longer be able to buy up candidates individually before elections or to wait until after the election to pressure representatives individually when they arrive in Washington. Citizens, in other words, would be able under PR to take charge of their representatives from start to finish and thereby to deal with various interest-group pressures both prior to and following elections. Disciplined parties would have no reason to send lone rangers to Washington to become interest-group brokers outside party control.

This is the only fundamental way to get at current problems associated with campaign financing and interest-group control over candidates and representatives. All other measures will only be stopgaps. As long as citizens have no direct way to support the representatives in whom they wish to place their confidence they will feel powerless to hold accountable those who do win elections. Under those circumstances, nothing can be done to control interest groups that are able to forge a close connection between their members and their leaders. Only by putting real civic and electoral authority in the hands of citizens who are thereby able to hold representatives directly accountable will it be possible to subordinate private interest groups to the civic work of shaping law in the public interest for the common good.

Emergence of National Parties

Once the business of elections shifts from the buying and selling of individual candidates to campaign debates among disciplined parties with clearly articulated legislative agendas, voters will become more involved in learning to judge among different party programs. With respect to a national legislative agenda, each party will want to maximize its strength nationwide. Representatives from the Republican Party in Illinois, for example, will need to work closely with Republicans from other states.

In fact, the initiative for organizing parties and party programs is most likely to gravitate to the national level. Democrat, Republican and other parties will organize nationally and begin to map out consistent and coherent strategies for their House campaigns in each State. Integral, comprehensive and distinctive programs will be developed by each national party and then put before the electorate by the branches of that party in each state as the parties campaign under PR for House seats. Any party that demonstrates nationwide coherence and strength will have an advantage over parties that cannot demonstrate such capabilities.

One consequence of the emergence of national parties is that a greater number of national leaders will also begin to appear. Each party will, in essence, put forward its best people for election. The most outstanding leaders of each party will, of course, have to win election in particular states. If one of the leaders of the Democrats happens to reside in Illinois, he or she will be able to enter Congress only by winning a seat in that State. But clearly that leader and others who win Democrat seats across the country will become national leaders representing everyone who is a member of, or who votes for, the Democrats.

Additional consequences that are likely to follow from the formation of national parties and from the rise of national political leaders will include a more thorough apprenticeship for future candidates, the recruitment of a greater number of statecrafters into parties with comprehensive agendas and a deepening of experience on the part of ordinary citizens who learn to practice real political team work over time.

Under the new system, parties will have a tough time surviving if they limit themselves to raising money at election time for empty and meaningless campaigns of a few individuals who have loosely chosen that party's label for themselves. Instead, parties will have to begin doing the remaining 90% of the hard work that mature political parties must do, namely, educate and recruit members; train and keep close tabs on leaders; develop serious platforms and programs; do policy research; work as teams to clarify the distinctive contribution's of their party's program in contrast to other party programs; and conduct ongoing coalition efforts with other parties where ideas and programs overlap or coincide.

A Commonwealth for All Citizens

Under the new system proposed here we would, in all probability, witness the rise of a variety of strong national parties serving to represent nearly every voter (and not just voting districts) in Congress. A greater number of national leaders, working with party teams, would give all citizens a voice in political debate. Interest-group politics could gradually be demoted to second place behind genuine party politics. And citizens could begin to experience real and direct representation in a more deliberative Congress.

In all probability voter turnout would increase, and the demand for statecrafting could grow in strength as inter-party negotiations and accommodations begin to displace interest-group brokering in Congress. By means of such a system, the unity of the political order is reconciled with the true diversity of the citizenry. The pluralism of political convictions is respected and channeled through real competition into shared responsibility for the political order -- the commonwealth that belongs to all citizens.

James Skillen is executive director of the Center for Public Justice. This essay is from his Recharging the American Experiment (Baker Books, 1994). For information, contact the Center at: 1835-H Forest Drive, Annapolis, MD 21401 (410-263-5989, cpjustice@aol.com).

 
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