Martha Coakley thought it was too cold to shake hands outside Fenway Park, and seemed to suggest that devout Catholics shouldn’t work in emergency rooms. Scott Brown drives a truck, appeared shirtless in Cosmo and has a daughter who was on American Idol. She’s a Democrat and would vote mostly like other Democrats, and he’s a Republican and would vote mostly like other Republicans.
That’s really the basic information most Massachusetts voters had about the candidates when they voted last Tuesday.
I’m as depressed as the next Democrat about the results of the election, but what’s even worse is what passed for political dialogue in the course of the campaign. It was hard to watch and be anything but depressed about our country’s ability to wrestle with difficult issues.
But, really, is it any different than any other election? Or any given day on Capitol Hill?
We’re becoming increasingly divided, and have no real way to talk to each other about our divisions. Even typing that feels banal, though – so obvious as to not really be worth mentioning.
What I don’t think we’ve woken up to, though, is who is truly to blame for our current predicament.
As a liberal, I like to blame the empty-headed blowhards on Fox News. They’re just playing to everyone’s fears, after all, whipping everyone into a frenzy of reactionary fervor, right?
True enough, but aren’t Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow just brainier, less effective left-wing counterparts? And if they were more effective, Democrats might win more elections, but would we really have a more robust, thoughtful dialogue about issues? Would people get healthier, better educated? Or would our team be on top for awhile, until the other team was?
There’s always the instinct to blame the politicians, especially those you disagree with, for the vacuous discussion of important issues. It’s even more tempting to blame stupid, uneducated voters, especially those who voted for the "wrong" candidate.
The truth is, though, that the system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to work. It’s just a poorly designed system.
A chief aim of any political system is to dole out power in a more or less fair way, or a way voters see as fair, so the country can run and people feel like they have a say in how it runs.
And anyone seeking power in any political system will do whatever is most effective—whatever the system rewards.
Under the US winner-take-all voting system, winning one more vote than the other candidate means you win 100 percent of the power. The system is efficient and has worked for us for a couple of hundred years, but it has some fundamental flaws:
n It creates a two-party system. If anyone who’s not in one of the two parties comes up with an idea with mass appeal, one of the two parties will scoop it up before the new party has a chance to actually win elections. See Ross Perot – his ideas were popular, but both major parties adopted versions of them and his party died out. The parties will occasionally realign and rename themselves, but under winner-take-all there will ultimately always be only 2.
n In a two-party system, beating up on the other guy is much more effective than actually having ideas. Having ideas is actually a liability, because it gives your opponents something to attack. Voters might not like you if you go negative, but they ultimately don’t have anywhere else to go, except stay home, which usually suits your purposes as a candidate just fine. Why was the 1992 election more substantive than any in recent memory? Because if either Clinton or Bush beat up too much on the other, voters would simply have gone to Perot.
n Third party candidates sometimes bring new ideas into the process, but most often any idea that doesn’t belong to one of the two major parties’ agendas simply gets ignored.
n By definition, at least 49 percent of any electorate is disenfranchised. Democrats in Mississippi or Republicans (until this week) in Massachusetts simply don’t have representation.
n Voters, quite rightly, therefore think their votes don’t count, feel alienated, and don’t come to the polls.
All of these flaws are exacerbated by the lightning-quick pace of the media age. Even though we’ve been a successful country with our old-fashioned system for a long time, we can’t go much further without being able to face real challenges honestly and head-on.
Are there any better alternatives? Sure, there are a lot. Just look at the voting systems adopted by any new democracy in the last, say, 100 years. Nary a one has turned to a US-style winner-take-all voting system. Almost all have some form of proportional representation – win 30 percent of the vote, and you get 30 percent of the power. You usually need to win a base percentage of the vote (say, five percent) to gain any representation, but once you’ve cleared that hurdle you have someone representing your viewpoint. Parties win more and less power, but no one (and no one’s ideas) are ever left out completely.
Imagine a Congressional debate over, say, global warming, in which the Green Party and the Libertarians had a seat at the table. I have no idea what the result might be, but I feel fairly confident that it would be more substantive that what the current two parties have come up with. At the very least more people would feel as if their views were represented.
So if you’re looking for someone to blame for the current state of American politics, don’t look to Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck. Look to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They built us a system that just doesn’t work anymore.
In their defense, they didn’t have a lot of models to look at in 1789. But we do now; no country that can’t wrestle seriously with serious issues will survive over the long run, and our voting system is ill-equipped for the challenges of the 21st century. We can either change it, or eventually lose our status as a global power. It sounds dire, but it’s happened eventually to every country that’s been in a position of leadership – just think of the English, or the Ottomans, or the Romans. Unless we find a way to have more substantive, serious discussions, we truly are an empire in decline.
The Catch 22, of course, is that the very problem is what keeps us from fixing it – we have trouble dealing with serious issues, which we can’t change because we have trouble dealing with serious issues. It's a conundrum, one that recent American politics doesn't leave a lot of hope we're going to find a way to solve.