If you’ve been paying attention to anything in America over the past few years, you know that our political system is failing us. Gone are the days of fair representation and altruistic politicians wanting nothing more than to serve the people who elected them. However, while our first instinct may point to recent events as the cause, I believe the issue is much more foundational and lies with a crumbling governmental system long outdated and in need of reform.
You see, when our country was founded, it was the model of democracy and a champion of, “by the people, for the people.” As time’s progressed, however, our governmental structure has remained too static, propped up by politicians incentivized to save a failing system and causing people to become misrepresented in modern times. For this reason, I’ve identified five issues with our government and discuss how we can (and should) change each of them.
Plurality, also known as “winner-take-all” or “first past the post”, is a voting system used in the United States since the time of its founding. In this system of voting, political candidates win seats in the House, Senate, and other offices, based on a simple majority vote. For example, if three Congresspeople are running against each other in the same district, the candidate with the most votes wins outright and represents 100% of that district.
This means that in a two-party or candidate race, the winner needs 51% of the total votes. As more political parties or candidates are added to the race, however, the winning vote-getter may need as little as 25% - 33% of the votes, or less. Presidential elections are slightly different, but this is the default voting system in America, at both the local and national level.
This type of voting system, while straight forward, is wrought with issues, the largest one being the issue of misrepresentation. With plurality, there is always an outright winner, thus the moniker “winner-take-all.” What happens with this system is that it causes large portions of people to be represented by politicians they didn’t vote for or agree with - most notably in Congress.
The United States is broken down into small Congressional districts, each represented by a specific Congressperson. When the people in a district vote for a candidate, they can typically vote for either a Democratic or a Republican candidate, although there can be other political parties, too. At the end of voting, the candidate who receives the most votes wins, and represents that entire district.
This has a lot of downstream effects. For example, because a candidate only needs a simple majority, it cheapens third-party candidates due to the fact that people rightfully assume they have little-to-no shot at winning outright, and therefore don’t vote for them. It can then create a polarized political environment as politicians are incentivized to join one of the two dominant political parties and stick with their chosen party line, often at the expense of their constituents.
Further, plurality results in many “no-choice” elections where one party has a permanent monopoly on power, due to the winner-take-all nature of the vote. As a result, two in five legislative races are run uncontested, and nearly 99% of incumbents win re-election by a wide margin. This will lead to “wasted votes” cast for someone who can’t win as well as decreased voter turnout as constituents become demoralized at their lack of representation.
When America was small, perhaps this simple, winner-take-all system made sense. At the size and scale of our current nation, however, a simple majority doesn’t make sense and often marginalizes large cohorts of people. Instead of plurality, we need to adopt a system of voting similar to proportional representation and/or the party list system. Combined, these aim to create a more representative government than our current system.
Under the proportional representation (PR) method of voting, the country is broken down into slightly larger Congressional districts than we’re used to today. Each of these districts are given a specific number of representative seats in the House of Representatives. Then, rather than a winner-take-all system, votes are tallied and seats are allocated proportionally based on those votes.
When the party-list system is added to PR, people instead vote for parties rather than candidates. For example, if there is a district with 10 total seats and two parties on the ballot, 40% of votes may go to Party A and 60% of votes may go to Party B. This means that Party A is awarded four seats and Party B six seats. Candidates are then appointed by the heads of each political party.
The result is that the district will have fairer representation than under a system of plurality. In a winner-take-all system, Party B would win outright and represent 100% of the district, even though 40% of the constituents didn’t vote for them. The benefits extend even further when you add more parties or candidates, because it allows smaller political parties a chance at some representation, even if that’s only one out of 10 seats - one more than they’d get otherwise.
For more information on how proportional representation (PR) works and why it’s beneficial, check out my article on why America needs PR today, including benefits and drawbacks.
Whether plurality is to blame for our two-party system, the fact of the matter is that a two-party system is what we’ve got, and what we need to change. Under a two-party system, there are typically only two legitimate candidates running against each other in a political race, both at the state and national level, all the way up to the Presidential elections. While this type of system is fairly straight-forward, it causes a lot of issues, the main one being extreme partisanship.
Because we only have two legitimate parties in any given election, it perpetuates the notion that there are only two sides to a particular issue - that everything in politics is black and white, bad or good. This typically gives the American people only two options on issues that are much more nuanced than a simple “yes” or “no”.
This not only forces people to vote for the lesser of two evils rather than for their true choice, but it also causes the two political parties to become extremely polarized on many issues as they take part in radical one-upsmanship and attack each other's views. Rational people in the middle are often overlooked, and the legislative branch can reach consistent gridlock as the two parties stand opposed to each other, or work to undo the progress made by a previous administration.
The solution to the two-party political system is to make it easier for third- and even fourth-party candidates win elections - but how? One of the answers, believe it or not, is proportional representation (PR), which, as its name implies, works to fairly represent voters and constituents. If you need more information on what proportional representation is or why it’s important, go back to step one or read this article on PR and its benefits and drawbacks.
However, proportional representation isn’t the only solution, mainly because it largely affects only Congress and not other legislative branches like the Senate. To break free of our two-party system, then, we have to also adopt a Parliamentary legislative structure, which either only has legislative body (rather than our two) or has two legislative bodies (like our Congress and Senate), but a much weaker “upper house”, i.e., a weaker Senate when compared to Congress.
Currently, western countries such as Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom employ one or more of the strategies above. For example, Canada and Mexico have between 6 - 7 relevant political parties that represent 2% or more of each country’s population, and the U.K. has a Parliamentary government with a stronger lower house and a weaker upper House of Lords.
Contrary to many peoples’ beliefs, America isn’t a democracy but rather a representative republic. This means that citizens vote for people to represent their political interests, specifically Congresspeople and Senators. However, the size, scope, and general makeup of the legislative branch are outdated and old, inadequately representing the very people voting for fair representation.
First, Congress is too small to accurately represent
Let’s start with the first point. The first American Congress was made up of 65 members, each representing no more than roughly 30,000 citizens. From there, the size of Congress grew every decade, proportional to population growth, until 1911, when Congress stopped growing its seats at 435 representatives. At that time, each Congressperson represented roughly 200,000 people. Now, that number is around 750,000 citizens per Congressperson - the most out of any western democracy.
This would be shocking to our constitutional framers. In fact, James Madison himself proposed a Constitutional amendment requiring that the House of Representatives grow with America’s population. While it was never passed, but Congress still voted to expand the House of Representatives continuously through the first half of our nation's existence.
Bigger issues arise when you look at the actual breakdown of Congressional districts and how underrepresented some are. While the average Congressperson represents 750,000 people, the actual numbers are much different. For example, the entire state of Montana with a population of over 1 million has one seat in Congress, while Rhode Island, with a population also around 1 million, has two seats. How is that fair?
The result is a grossly misrepresented voting base that’s susceptible to things like gerrymandering, which is the act of drawing the lines of large Congressional districts specifically so that district votes a certain way. If there were more seats in Congress, things like this would be harder to achieve, and the American people would be more fairly represented.
The second issue with the size and scope of our legislative branch is the power and makeup of America’s Senate. Created in an effort to give smaller states more representation, the Senate has morphed our legislative branch into a top-heavy house more powerful than Congress and comprised of two seats per state, meaning that Rhode Island’s 1 million residents have the same representation as California’s nearly 40 million residents, a 40 to 1 disparity.
Ultimately, there are 4x more seats in the House than the Senate, meaning that if Congress misrepresents the American people, the Senate surely does. This brings up a major issue of power. Not only does each state get two Senate seats, but Senators are given special privileges not shared by Congress, putting more power into the hands of the few.
For example, the Senate votes second on various bills, meaning that as long as they have a two-thirds majority over the President, they can pass any law or measure without fear of a Presidential veto. This is also true for international treaties. Not only this, but the Senate is given the power to confirm or reject Presidential appointments such as Supreme Court Judges and Cabinet members, as well as pass final judgment on impeachment trials.
Ultimately, this gives the smaller Senate too much power over a larger Congress - one that already does a poor job of representing its constituents.
The solution to the above problems are simple in concept but hard to implement in the real world. Still, change is not only possible, but it’s probable if American citizens call for it loud enough. First, we need to expand the size of Congress, and second, we need to either reduce the power of the Senate or consider moving to a unicameral legislative branch (a branch with only one combined House).
The first part is the easier of the two. Other western democracies typically adhere to a Congress or Parliament proportional to the cube root of their national populations. This would mean expanding Congress to 593 members by 2020 - 158 more than today. The result would be a more fairly represented constituency that’s protected against political actors seeking to control politics through things like gerrymandering. And, hey, 593 is less than the roughly 6,000 - 11,000 members that would represent Congress under James Madison’s proposed amendment.
For the Senate, the path to fairness is much harder. We would either need to limit their power, expand the number of seats so it more fairly represents the actual population, or reduce our bicameral legislative branch to a single, unicameral one. However, as you can probably see, adding seats to the Senate would have the adverse effect of taking power away from smaller states, so that’s likely out.
The other two options, however, are sound. The first step, I think, is to better balance the power between Congress and Senate. Only then can we discuss reducing the number of houses in our legislature from two to one. For more information on some of these changes, check out these articles from the New York Times and Vox Media.
Once upon a time, our Founding Fathers decided that Supreme Court Justices should have lifetime appointments to remove the chance that the Justices would be influenced by elections and political agendas. However, while their thinking was altruistic, lifetime appointments have had almost the complete opposite effect, causing many justices to become - or to be used as - political actors that further the ideals of a specific political party.
The major issue with lifetime appointments is that Presidents often use their nominating power to create a judicial majority that favors their own political party. For example, while judges aren’t supposed to have a political bias, many of them do, with the media denoting them as a “Democratic judge” or a “Republican judge.” Presidents, who have the power of appointing Supreme Court Justices, will use this to further entrench their party’s political ideals.
This becomes even more pronounced when the President’s party has a majority in the Senate, meaning that they can approve any Presidential appointment. The result is that when a Democratic President is in office and has a chance to appoint a Justice, they’ll choose a left-leaning judge, and vice versa, with the hope of gaining a political majority on the bench.
The result of this is multi-sided. First, Justices strategically retire so they can be replaced by someone of like-mind. Second, President’s try to appoint younger Judges who can stay on the bench for longer. And third, the Supreme Court has become a place where policy is formed, rather than a place where justice is served based on the policy of the legislature, a huge problem when there are only nine judges without term limits - abortion rights, anyone?
The solution to this problem is a simple one: Limit Supreme Court appointments. However, while this is simple in theory becomes harder in actual practice. For example, can Judges run for election, and heaven forbid, re-election? This might cause them to become even more politically active. Should they be appointed by the President with an end-date, let’s say, of 20 years?
One interesting idea is to give each President two appointments every four years. This would grow the size of the Supreme Court and create a multi-level court. The nine most recently appointed judges would serve on the bench, and the others would serve as senior justices that can fill in for sitting justices who might be recused from certain cases and to provide general counsel to the nine sitting Justices.
This might be a little too out there to catch hold. The other option is to limit Justices to 18 years on the bench, after which they cannot serve as a Supreme Court Justice again. This would, at least, stop Justices from sitting on the bench for 30+ years. However, this would not stop situations known as “hot spots”, such as when President Nixon appointed four Supreme Court Justices, followed by Jimmy Carter, who appointed none.
Did you know that the political candidate who raises the most money during an American political campaign wins the election roughly 90% of the time? Yes, you read that correctly. This becomes even more alarming when you look at our campaign finance laws, which treat donations as freedom of speech, recognize corporations as if they were people, and allow for Political Action Committees (PACs) to donate to a candidate, either directly or indirectly.
The first problem is the statistic above - that if a political candidate fundraises well, they almost ensure themselves a political victory. This incentivizes politicians to pander to people, corporations, and organizations known as PACs in an effort to support their political objectives in return for donations that’ll help them win an election. Of course, this means that our politics increasingly represent those with money, rather than those without it.
This problem is then exacerbated by the way we treat political donations. First, we consider these donations to be “soft money” and protected by freedom of speech, meaning that individuals can vote with their dollars and support candidates they like. However, we also consider corporations to fall under this soft money umbrella, meaning they too are protected by freedom of speech and can donate to whomever they choose.
To make it worse, groups called PACs and Super PACs have formed, which are allowed to either directly or indirectly pool money together from its members to donate to a candidate. Of the indirect methods, many Super PACs create politically-motivated attack ads that hurt the opponent of the candidate they support. This is all very alarming when you realize how much money these large groups have and how reliant politicians are on campaign financing to win.
I’m not sure if fundraising laws will ever change to the point where corporations and PACs lose their power and influence. This is because companies and PACs are so powerful now that they won’t let it happen. Instead, we might need to limit the scope of spending of those donations by candidates and organizations. For example, donations might be unlimited, but you only might be able to spend a specific amount on TV ads, radio ads, etc, each with an individual cap.
Another way to improve this is to ensure that no political donations constitute “dark money”, which is money coming from either silent donors or groups trying to hide their true political motivations. For example, a PAC called “People for a Better America” could be funded by right-wing extremists hiding behind a positive-sounding group, and then that PAC could spend money on attack ads denigrating a left-wing candidate.
Overall, America is a great nation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Our political and governmental system is outdated and warped, causing many issues it was actually created to solve. If we can address the five problems above we can create a political system that better represents its people.