Some More Political Imagination, Please!

The big orange elephant in the room is that our political system can’t find the common good. Supposedly, the Trump win was a demand to change this, but was it? Trump winning means decisions are still concentrated in a wealthy elite and, at this time, a lone, single, wild card of one. He ran on pure personality, outside of the discipline of a political party and, seemingly, with ideas little more than in-the-moment ramblings about how things would be in a world according to Trump, a world that had no facts or consequences to tie it down.

While the exact figure might adjust slightly, just 26% of the voting age population voted for Trump, leaving the vast majority of the population voting for someone else or not voting at all. Only a small minority of the population wants him, but the reality of the winner-take-all U.S. electoral system is that votes don’t count when cast for a loser. There is nothing besides possible electoral fallout next time to encourage the winners to consider, deliberate with, and integrate the perspectives of the losers or of the alienated. In the recent past, split ticket voting became an antidote, allowing voters to feel represented. But, dividing the government hardly helps governance. Usually, the cost of feeling represented via divided government is gridlock and inertia, a government that can do nothing.

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While the Trump factor surely ramps up the level of panic, the problem of representation is a longstanding problem in American-style republican government. It is certainly reasonable that more activism and advocacy should mobilize to tackle immediate issues as they arise in the Trump presidency. At the same time, the door to doing something about politics might have just opened, even if it is merely to think, reflect, and set the stage for a future change.

There are transformational ideas already in circulation to supply the food for thought. The late political scientist Robert Dahl thought the answer to the U.S. representation problem was multi-partyism and, among other ideas, his 2003 book proposed that we switch to European-style proportional representation, PR for short. Very briefly, PR allows multiple representatives per electoral district, relative to their shares of the popular vote. What happens, then, is multiple parties- including small ones representing minority views- can win in districts even when they have a small base of support. To Dahl, PR is simply superior because it doesn’t discard many votes, and even small parties take their seat at the table. Because a single party is unlikely to monopolize government, the larger and smaller parties have no choice but to cooperate and ally in order to pass laws.

PR has its detractors plus a storied history in some nations but a positive one in many others. The substance of what could result in the United States would depend entirely on the sorts of new parties forming in response to a new set of incentives and possibilities, as well as the coalitions that would emerge between them. Change brings risks, of course, but if we value fuller representation and want viable third party options, it might just be time for more concrete proportional representation talk.

Of course, politics driven by party, even multiple and not-so-hegemonic parties, is susceptible to corruption. By itself, party restructuring does not take the money from politics, or make citizens informed or reasoned, or equalize participation, or remove the intermediary between citizens and control. An idea called participatory budgeting is taking root, worldwide and in U.S. cities, creating much deeper citizen engagement in decision-making than is evident in party politics or in the referendum process.

With participatory budgeting, residents control a portion of government spending. A Next City article described the process in Chicago’s 49th ward, where residents decided how to allocate $1 million of the $1.3 million allocated for capital improvements in 2014. The allocations process was deliberative, with residents attending assemblies, making presentations, then voting on the winning projects. In Chicago, this has been restricted to small infrastructure projects but, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, six other cities also use participatory budgeting. One of those, San Francisco, allows residents to control some program funding.

Getting people to participate has been the difficulty, requiring significant efforts to mobilize residents, attracting relatively small numbers, and stymied in Chicago by the relatively narrow range of projects residents are empowered to budget, according to Next City.  A mid-point between such deep citizen control and formal restructure of the two-party system is the community rights charter advocated by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). About 200 cities and towns have passed community rights charters that, typically, affirm the existing methods for selecting local officials but assert that the rights of citizens and nature supercede those of special interests to frack, build pipelines, degrade ecosystems, or otherwise threaten the community; by charter, elected officials are obligated to enforce those community rights.

Ultimately, such precepts are a back-door re-do of the basic theory underlying the Constitution. The nation’s founders, explained in Federalist #10, thought that larger territories would do better at controlling tyranny than small territories because of a naturally larger diversity of opinion in a larger area. Mostly, they were worried about tyranny by a majority at a time when post-Independence recession had created a very large poor population that some states helped by printing paper money, relieving debts, and other “improper or wicked” projects. The theory of bigger- is- better was the founders’ solution to containing a wildfire of states replicating such policies to help debtors. That communities might need to protect themselves from a tyrannical minority, like corporations, did not seem to figure. Counties, cities, and towns are not empowered by the Constitution, only states and the new federal government.

Whether community rights charters are enough to recalibrate American politics remains an open question. In Ohio, for instance, the Secretary of State, upheld by the state Supreme Court, has twice refused to place charter referendums on the ballot in multiple counties; they may be easy to squash. But, more generally, charters are only effective at making corporate rights secondary if communities pass them and make sure they are enforced. They certainly offer new tools to those communities concerned about how business treats the environment, but what about those that aren’t? Institutions to facilitate community dialog and environmental/economic development education might be one way of helping build a consensus about the desirability of elevating nature through charters.

Attending to the problem of representation might seem like a luxury when there are, potentially, such high stakes coming in this Trump presidency. Plus, a true re-vamp of winner-take-all politics seems about as likely as Mexico paying for that wall. At the same time, there are options already in play, and more rumination on those options might help us work through the limitations, get us to versions that can be scaled, and even help people see there are options beyond putting all hope in someone who claims he alone can save it.

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