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Hendrik Hertzberg on Democracy

NewYorker Commentaries

July 2002

Just as the Fourth of July orators say, America has been an inspiration to peoples struggling for democracy. But, when it comes to actually designing the machinery, the American model has had no takers--not among successful democracies, at any rate. (The Philippines, Liberia, and some Latin-American countries, which have copied us, are not good advertisements.) [Robert] Dahl surveys the twenty-two countries that have governed themselves democratically without interruption since 1950. Only six, including the United States, are federal, and in every case "federalism was not so much a free choice as a self-evident necessity imposed by history." Only four, all of them federal, have strong bicameralism. Only the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France do not use one of the many variants of proportional representation, a nineteenth-century invention. We get bad marks in "democratic fairness" and "encouraging consensus."

March 2002

If  (instant runoff voting) begins to take hold, the impact on America's political culture could be profound. It would encourage civility, discourage fratricidal negative campaigning, prevent the election of candidates strongly opposed by majorities, and broaden the range of candidates while eliminating the third-party spoiler phenomenon. The two big parties would retain their primacy, but no one can say which would benefit. The only sure winners would be the voters. Remember them?

November 2000

                But why stop at forty per cent? Why not trying for -- daring thought -- majority rule? The Australians and Irish use something call "instant -- runoff voting," which allows voters to designate not only their top choice but also their second, third, and fourth; if there's no outright majority winner, the losing candidates are eliminated one by one and their supporters' alternative choices redistributed until, bingo, somebody goes over fifty per cent. (The voting is as simple as the counting is complicated, but that's what computers are for.) Although IRV is still below the conventional wisdom's radar, serious moves are under way to adopt it in Vermont, New Mexico, and Alaska. IRV would guarantee us a President elected with at least the grudging support of the majority. As a bonus, it would enable people to express themselves by voting for third parties -- such as the Greens, this year -- without running the awkward risk of helping elect their most unfavorite candidate. Granted, it's a little on the Rube Goldberg side. But, after two hundred years of the Electoral College, aren't we used to that?

May 2000

For Americans, London's instant runoff idea presents especially intriguing possibilities. It's a way of opening up politics to a wider variety of voices without sacrificing the clarity and energy of a single directly elected executive. As a third-party or independent candidate, you can campaign hard without the risk of being a spoiler and handing the election to the candidate most hostile to your views. As a citizen, you can vote your heart without giving up your shot at picking the lesser evil. London's voting system allows the electorate to speak far more subtly and precisely than ours does. Red Ken won fair and square, because he was at least barely acceptable to a majority. He was the people's choice, but not their first choice. The voters gave him the job, but they were able to specify that they were giving it to him grudgingly. And, if there's one thing American voters would dearly love to be able to express, it's grudgingness.

 April 1995     

"We already have term limits," goes the supposedly most withering argument against the idea, flourished over and over during the House debate. "They're called elections." What we generally don't have, however, are competitive elections. The Republican Party did well in the last election, but not nearly so well as the Incumbent Party: a near-Brezhnevian 91% of the incumbent House candidates were reelected. Sixty-four per cent of the "races" were decided by margins of twenty points or higher, which is to say that their outcomes were never in doubt. Is it any wonder that in the most one-sided districts two-thirds or more of the potential electorate decided not to bother voting?

June 1993
                Most of the electorates of Continental Europe, including those of the liberated East, elect their legislatures under some form of proportional representation; so do the Irish, the Italians, and the Israelis; and so will the New Zealanders, who passed a referendum on the subject in November 1993. PR, as its advocates call it, is the very opposite of undemocratic. It not only facilitates minority representation but also virtually guarantees majority rule (the majority most often being a legislative coalition). By contrast, single-member district, winner-take-all systems, like ours and Britain's, often produce minority governments. The last peacetime British government that represented a majority of the British voters was Stanley Baldwin's, elected in 1935; and Bill Clinton himself, it should be remembered, owes his job to forty-three percent of the voters.

For More Information
The Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912
(301) 270-4616,, [email protected]





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     The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave, Suite 610, Takoma Park MD 20912
(301) 270-4616        [email protected]