How To Enact Progressive Policy

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published March 1st 2003 in Progressive Populist
As the bellicose oil men in the White House edge the world closer to war, the progressive agenda has slid even further off the nation's radar screen. And yet, for years that agenda for years has had little traction in national politics. Whether health care, energy, housing, homelessness, labor law, women's rights, or foreign policy, all have suffered under both Democratic and Republican administrations as the political center has shifted rightward.

The reasons for this are intimately connected with the most fundamental aspects of our political system --  "winner take all" elections. Our "winner take all" system underrepresents progressives in our legislatures, deforms public debate and legislative policy, fosters a debilitating loss of political ideas, and exacerbates splits between cities, suburbs and rural areas.

The quest for fair policies on the economy, taxes, health care, energy, housing and the like can be put in its proper perspective by answering a simple question: who benefits? But the "winner take all" system usually does not permit such nuanced discussions to take place in electoral politics, particularly under the sway of modern campaign tactics like polls and focus groups, which are so sinisterly-suited to carving up the electorate and targeting campaign spin to small slices of undecided voters in efforts to obtain 50.1% of the vote.

Issues like transportation, housing, education and health care are pressing everywhere -- but due to "winner take all" incentives these issues are largely framed to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs, the segment of the country where the major parties are relatively balanced and where party leaders believe elections are won and lost. So when Al Gore talked in Campaign 2000 about reducing traffic, he framed road congestion as a suburban family issue, not about urban dwellers riding a dilapidated public transit system for two hours each way to work. That's because most urban inhabitants aren't swing voters. Many are poor, racial minority, some speak English as a second language, and practically all vote Democratic when they vote at all.

Consequently, in "winner take all" calculations, Democrats; take these voters for granted. When they try to mobilize them at all, they do so;  who mobilize them through by demonizing Republicans rather than with positive policy proposals for cities or the poor, because such proposals that might alienate suburban swing voters. Democratic candidates rely more on fear more than hope to rally urban voters.

Similarly, the health care debate mostly ignores  how to insure the 44 million people without insurance and insteads focuses  on patients' Bill of Rights, prescription drugs for Medicare, and HMOs -- in other words, how to help people who already HAVE insurance. With Democrats no longer committed to "health care for all," and no viable third party to raise that banner, that policy option mostly has fallen by the wayside.

Millions of such "demographic dropouts" litter the American political landscape, not only during campaigns but in the ongoing "permanent campaign" known as the legislative process. In many ways, the incentives of how to win "winner- take -all" elections have completely shipwrecked the progressive agenda.

In contrast, in Europe, full "proportional" representation voting systems have contributed to the political center being where American progressives would love to be. On a host of issues, including health care, war in Iraq, the environment, food safety, labor law, child poverty rates, education, and more, multi-party democracy founded on full representation has pushed the European center toward the left. Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent above that in the United States, including universal health care and free university education.

For example, in most full representationl systems, five percent of the popular vote results in a political party winning five percent of legislative seats. The result is that progressive parties like the Green Party and others get elected and have a seat at the table in most European legislatures. This allows them to push progressive issues into the mainstream of debate and discussion, and see those issues become part of national policy.

In Germany's government, where the Green Party is the junior coalition partner, a remarkable woman named Renata Kunaste is the Cabinet-level Minister of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs -- and a Green. She is one of Germany's most popular politicians and has used her high profile platform during a time of great concern over mad cow disease and genetically modified foods to push small-scale, organic farming to the point where it is a central part of the German government's policy on agriculture. Similarly with alternative energy sources like wind and solar power, and transitioning Europe from an oil-based economy to a hydrogen-based economy -- all are becoming mainstream issues, yet they started out as marginal issues that were able to percolate to the surface and root themselves because of full representation.

The fact that Europe is at the progressive edge of where the world needs to go is greatly due to full representation and public financing of elections where all points of view are represented in the legislatures, and ideas are publicly debated, making it easier to reach a national consensus on important issues.

If American progressives hope to be real players in politics again, they must focus more energy, financial resources, media, and activism on converting our 18th-century "winner take all" electoral system to full representation. It's a winning strategy that can bring together women, people of color, independents, and disaffected supporters of the major parties.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy( and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.