What is Progress?
For Real Progress, America Needs Better Democracy
by Steven Hill and Rob Richie
The bellicose oil men in the White House have pushed the world into another war, and the progressive agenda has slid even further off the nation's radar screen. But for years now that agenda has had little traction in national politics. Healthcare, the environment, housing, homelessness, labor law, women's rights, foreign policy -- all have suffered under both Democratic and Republican administrations, as the political center has shifted rightward.
The reasons for this shift are intimately connected to the most fundamental aspect of our political system -- our elections. We have a "winner take all" electoral system that underrepresents progressives in our legislatures, fosters a loss of political ideas, and exacerbates splits between cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
Often the quest for fair policies on, say, the economy, or the environment, is best undertaken by first answering a simple question: who will benefit from change? But in the "winner take all" system such nuanced discussions are not usually permitted to take place. This is particularly the case under the sway of modern campaign tactics like polls and focus groups, which are sinisterly suited to carving up the electorate and targeting campaign spin to small slices of undecided voters. Issues like transportation, housing, education and healthcare are pressing needs everywhere -- but due to �winner take all� incentives, these issues are largely framed to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs. This is because the suburbs are 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 rather than as a problem for urban dwellers riding dilapidated public transit systems two hours each way to work. That's because most urban inhabitants aren't swing voters. Many are poor and 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 by demonizing Republicans rather than with positive policy proposals for cities or the poor, because such proposals might alienate suburban swing voters. For the thousands upon thousands of urban voters, Democratic candidates rely more on fear than hope.
Similarly, the healthcare debate mostly ignores how to insure the 44 million people without insurance. Instead the focus is on a patients' "Bill of Rights," on prescription drugs, and on HMOs -- in other words, the debate focuses on how to help people who already have insurance. The people without healthcare are disproportionately poor, and in our �winner take all� system, that�s not who politicians appeal to for votes and campaign donations. With Democrats no longer committed to "healthcare for all," and with no viable third party yet raising the banner, that policy option and the voters who care about it have 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 campaigns necessary to winning �winner take all� elections ignore and erase the progressive agenda.
With Real Elections, We Might Actually Get Somewhere
In contrast, in Europe, full representation voting systems (also known as proportional representation) have contributed to moving the political center to where American progressives would love for it to be. On a host of issues, including healthcare, war in Iraq, the environment, food safety, labor law, child poverty rates, and education, multi-party democracy founded on full representation has pushed the European center toward the left. Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent higher than it is in the United States, including universal healthcare and free university education.
For example, in most full representation systems, when a party wins five percent of the popular vote, it wins five percent of the 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 Künast 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, she has implemented alternative energy sources like wind and solar power, and has made transitioning Europe from an oil-based economy to a hydrogen-based economy a mainstream issue. These issues were marginal not long ago, yet they were able to percolate to the surface and finally root themselves firmly because of full representation.
The fact that Europe is on the progressive edge of a world movement is thus greatly due to full representation. They also enjoy public financing of elections, which further enables the broadest spectrum of views to be represented in the legislatures, and thus to be publicly debated. This in turn makes it easier to reach the critical national consensus.
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. Pushing for a more representative system is a winning strategy that can bring together women, people of color, independents, third parties, and disaffected supporters of the major parties.
And progress will follow.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.
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