A government of, for and by the people?

By Doreen Miller
Published July 7th 2003 in YellowTimes.org
Once there was a place whose leaders were bold enough to envision a country "of, for and by the people." Embarking on their noble quest, they carefully crafted a document that would guarantee all people equality, justice and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The essential key to this noble experiment required an informed and involved citizenry, hence the inclusion of such things as freedom of speech and the press, as well as free and open elections with votes cast by secret ballot. "Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," elected representatives were to reflect and carry out the will of the people.

Along the way and for various reasons, the people became less and less engaged in political affairs, and the corrupting influence of corporate money and power began to seep into the cracks, polluting the very core of their government. As more and more people fell into a deep trance-like sleep, such things as civil rights and precious freedoms quietly began to slip away like grains of sand through an hour glass marking the approaching end to their founders' grand dream. Truly, if the founders of this country were to return from the grave today, they would immediately initiate a new revolution to weed out the pseudo-democratic republic that has insidiously taken root.

An honest look at our present government reveals that its make-up in no way reflects the wonderful diversity found within the population. Rather, it continues to be a club consisting of mostly wealthy white men beholden to corporate interests. Indeed, many of the policy makers in the current administration have either direct or indirect ties to large corporations with the result that the financial interests of faceless corporations have drowned out the voices of the general public.

There is something amiss when the overwhelming majority of Americans want the labeling of genetically altered foods, yet the government continually sides with such influential giants as Monsanto in denying Americans their fundamental right to know if genetically altered ingredients were used in the food they consume.

There is a serious conflict of interest when national energy policies that affect each and every one of us are crafted by self-serving, profit-seeking energy giants behind closed doors in secret meetings with administration officials who have ties to and even investments in those very same corporations. The egregiousness of their behavior is compounded by the fact that these men effectively excluded input from non-governmental organizations and environmental groups with no oversight or review by our elected representatives of the processes that led to the final product.

There is a total breakdown in this alleged representative system when, last year, elected officials blithely ignored over 90 percent of calls and letters going into Washington from constituents telling them to vote against giving the president the sole and ultimate authority to decide to go to war against Iraq. Instead, members of Congress overwhelmingly voted to abdicate to the president their sacred Constitutional duty to review the circumstances and declare war.

There is something inherently wrong with a system where the 12 percent of the U.S. population that is black only has 7 percent representation. Hispanics fare even worse. With 11.8 percent of the total U.S. population, they have only 4 percent of the voices in Congress. Asians make up 4.1 percent of the U.S. population, yet are represented by 1.6 percent of the members of Congress. American Indians constitute 1.2 percent of the population yet have a mere one-half of one percent of Congressional representation. Perhaps the greatest injustice of all falls on the 50 percent of the U.S. population that has only a 14 percent showing in Congress -- women.

Moreover, what do we do about the issue of third-party voices that get practically no representation at all? Is it any wonder the vast majority of Americans has lost faith in the current system to represent its needs and has taken to staying away from elections in droves?

A look at two other countries, Sweden and Wales, strongly suggests that malrepresentation [sic] and voter apathy in the U.S. may to some degree be due to our two-party, winner-take-all voting system. In the Swedish Parliament, women make up a full 45 percent of elected representatives, a rate the Swedish government attributes in part to its proportional voting and representation system.

In 1997, Wales took its cue from Sweden and introduced a proportional representation voting system with the immediate result that women gained an additional 26 seats to comprise a total of 50 percent of Parliament, which now stands at 30 men and 30 women.

Similar small-scale adoption of proportional voting systems in U.S. towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts and Amarillo, Texas has not only resulted in local governments and elected boards that better reflect the diversity of their respective communities, but also stimulated greater voter involvement and turnout.

"What is proportional representation?", you may ask. Simply stated, it is a voting system that awards seats in an elected body of representatives proportional to the percentage of votes received. For example, a party that receives 5 percent of the votes will be given 5 percent of the seats. The same applies to whatever percent of the votes is garnered, so that a party receiving 51 percent of the votes is given 51 percent of the seats, not 100 percent such as would be the case in the U.S. Thus, in a proportional voting system, many different ethnicities and governing philosophies (as represented by various political parties) are given a voice in government that they normally would not have in a winner-take-all system.

The U.S. system, as it stands, does not fairly represent the people it is supposed to serve. According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, nearly half of the members of Congress are millionaires, reflective of a mere .5 percent of the general population.

It's time to get the very undemocratic influence of private wealth and corporate money out of politics and rightfully return the government to the vast majority of working people who make up this great nation. It will not be easy to get those entrenched in power to agree to create a more egalitarian voting system. However, unless we take that first organized step towards the push for a more democratic system of proportional representation, the condition of the country will only continue to deteriorate, with the rich continuing to serve their own interests and the other 99.5 percent being tossed the ever-diminishing crumbs of publicly funded social services.

The question remains: do we want to be a true society that uses its taxpayer funds for the public interest or not? After all, a society that does not provide social services for its people is no society at all.

To learn more about proportional representation and how to initiate its adoption in your city or state, go to http://www.fairvote.org.