|Number 89||October 6, 2000|
I'll be on the radio again this Sunday, for all you radio listeners out there. Once again I will be the guest of my friend Emmanuel Ortiz on RadioActive! on AM 770 Radio K, "Real College Radio." Show time is 9:30 to 10:00 this Sunday, October 8th. It's their fundraising week, so we'll be talking about alternative media and how important it is. Tune in if you like.
This week's edition of Nygaard Notes is unusual for two reasons. First of all, I rarely have an issue that consists of only one piece. And secondly, I rarely do a "reprint" of an earlier piece I have written. The two unusualities* are connected.
Those of you who have been reading Nygaard Notes from the beginning may recall that it used to be much more improvisational in terms of length. Before I started putting out a paper edition, which has a set length, the number of words in each week's issue could vary wildly. Sometimes it would be twice as long as it is now. This week's essay - which is a reprint from Nygaard Notes #7 of October 22, 1998 - is from the days when I just went on for as long as it took, and then quit. So, in the new and streamlined Nygaard Notes, it takes up pretty much the whole issue. That's actually fine with me, too, as I got so much response to it when it first ran that I sort of promised I would run it again when a major election came along. I have edited it slightly, as times have changed a bit, but I did receive permission from the author before I did so.
I know I said I would talk about "the elections," this fall, and I will, next week. But I thought that before I looked at this particular election, I should step back and look at the whole idea of how elections work in this culture.
As with many of my pieces, the ideas in this issue are not "realistic," in political terms, and I say so near the end. But just try to imagine what it would be like if these changes were made in our lifetimes. If you can get excited about imagining what we could do, maybe you can get excited enough to join with others to try to get us to do it. And that, after all, is what Nygaard Notes is all about.
Your political imaginationist,**
* A new word I just made up. I like it!
-- Public Broadcasting anchor Jim Lehrer, quoted in the September 28th Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!). Apparently speaking about his qualifications to host the presidential debates, his comment reveals the dangerous illusion that reporting on the news can be done without using one's "judgement."
Since it's election time again, perhaps it's a good time to offer a few suggestions on how to make elections in the United States a bit more...well, meaningful. Or important. Or relevant. Or at least a little less depressing.
One can't fail to notice that fewer than half of eligible voters voted in the last national election. In years where there is no presidential election to hype, the turnout is more like one-third. Rarely in the United States do much more than one-half of eligible voters take the time to register their opinion at the polls. This is pretty smart. Since the system we have brings out the worst in people, a negative response to it on the part of the majority reinforces my belief that the average American is far more intelligent than most politicians give them credit for.
The average American adult understands quite well that the most powerful political forces affecting his or her life exist outside of the electoral system. The most basic political decisions such as what work we do, where we do it, what gets put in front of our faces, how much of our earnings we need to devote to food, shelter, health, and so on are commonly understood to be under the control of "the market". Considering that fewer than one in ten people in the United States are self-employed, and that only 1 in 4 Americans directly own stocks or bonds of any sort, "the market" is accurately understood to be separate from, and out of the control of, the average person. We certainly can't vote for the people who make many of the most basic decisions, the CEOs of our large companies.
The people for whom we can vote (that is, politicians) are thus left with, at best, a limited role. There are a number of things they can do: They can give gifts ("incentives") to corporations to encourage them to put jobs "here" rather than "there." They can impose some limits on the behavior of corporate entities. They can force corporations to pay a certain minimum wage. All of these are important things, but the deck is stacked: If the corporations don't like what they get, they can leave - the town, the state, the country. And they often do, aided by a political system that elevates "property rights" to the status of religion.
Why, then, is it surprising to anyone that a large number of voters feel powerless? Or that we are angry about this situation? And that we express our anger at the ballot box or, as most do, by not even going to the ballot box? Powerlessness breeds anger. And popular cynicism flows from the corporate cynicism that permeates our political environment. As Lily Tomlin put it, "No matter how cynical I get, I can't keep up."
So, what's the point in working to try and improve our electoral system? Can it make any difference? I think it can, for two reasons. The first is that it is true that the government does retain some capacity to address the injustices that are a part of our economic system. Things like minimum wage laws, environmental regulations, the availability of emergency medical care, food stamps, and Social Security come directly from the government, and they make a difference in the lives of real people. A popular lefty slogan says "Don't vote, it only encourages them." If this seems like a truism to you, you would probably benefit from examining your class background.
The second reason is this: In a winner-take-all system, politicians who want to win need to produce ideas that are immediately attractive to the majority. These, then, are the ideas that are reported on and talked about, and the boundaries of acceptable thought thus remain exceedingly narrow. In a more open political system, parties with ideas that currently have the support of only a minority of people would be able to present those ideas for the majority to consider. They wouldn't necessarily win, but the fact that these ideas would make it onto the table could only serve to broaden the public discourse and challenge the current "conventional wisdom". In short, if we want to give good ideas a chance to grow into politically viable ideas, we need to open up the system.
Any political movement in the U.S. needs an electoral component. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was not primarily an electoral movement, but it always had a legislative agenda as a part of the larger strategy.
Here, then, are seven simple proposals for reform of our system of elections. Please bear in mind that "simple" does not in this case mean "easy." While it is true that most of these steps could be taken by any Congress and could take effect more or less immediately upon passage, it's important to think about the context we're in when thinking about making any effort to enact significant changes in business as usual. And I do mean "business".
I do not offer these reforms as goals in themselves. They are mainly ideas which might usefully be included on the agendas of grassroots groups already working in the community.
LIMIT THE LENGTH OF CAMPAIGNS
From three to six weeks should do it. Many other countries (England, for example, and all the Scandinavian countries) already limit their campaigns in this way.
BAN PAID POLITICAL ADVERTISING
The problem with political advertising is not, as many have been saying, that it's too negative. The problem is that political ads do not and will not educate or inform potential voters because that's not what they're designed to do. The solution? Get rid of them.
REQUIRE EQUAL COVERAGE OF ALL CANDIDATES
Any candidate who meets minimum registration requirements should be accorded equal exposure in the media. This would be easily accomplished by making such balance a requirement of the acquisition or renewal of a broadcasting license. I suggest that all licensed broadcast outlets be required to provide two prime-time hours daily, divided equally among all legal political parties, with this two-hour package broadcast simultaneously on all stations. This suggestion, by the way, is not original. It's lifted directly from recent election law in Brazil.
CHANGE WHO MAKES THE RULES
Currently, the rules governing election campaigns are set legislatively. That is, by the victors of the most recent elections. It is unreasonable to expect the victors to change the rules under which they achieved their victories. So I propose an independent Election Commission, composed of people who have never run for elective office, and who agree not to do so for 10 years after being on the commission. Maybe these people would be elected directly, or maybe we could figure out a way to appoint them by someone who would not have a conflict of interest. Maybe just the fact that commission members cannot run for office would be sufficient.
BAN DIRECT FINANCIAL SUPPORT OF INDIVIDUAL CANDIDATES
If people must give money for elections, allow them to give it directly to the Election Commission, which would be required to disburse it to the party you specify anonymously. That way, everyone gets to support the party of their choice, and the party doesn't owe any individual a thing. I suggest a dollar limit for individuals, as well, to reduce unfair class advantage. Perhaps the equivalent of the wages that one full-time worker earns in a week at the minimum wage. Currently, that's $206.
REQUIRE A TRUE MAJORITY TO WIN
Currently, a majority of the votes that are cast is sufficient to win an election. I propose that no one be allowed to take office with less than 50% of the votes of all possible voters. Not voting, under these rules, would amount to a vote for "none of the above". If an election fails to yield a majority for any candidate, another election is immediately held, either with the same or with different candidates. This system would do away with the so-called "mandates" often earned with 20% of the possible votes. Incidentally, I believe this would go a long way toward limiting the much-bemoaned "negativity" in campaigns, as successful candidates or parties would need to inspire people to actually vote for something rather than against. This seems hard to imagine in modern-day America, but maybe it's still possible. (a milder but still significant reform would be to require, as some nations do, a run-off election if no one receives at least 50% of the votes that were actually cast. I don't know that this would make much difference in the United States.)
MAKE REPRESENTATION PROPORTIONAL
This would be the biggest change and, perhaps, the most significant. Proportional Representation (PR) is the norm in Germany, Italy, and a host of other countries. There is a broad range of PR systems. Some are based on voting for political parties; others for candidates. Some allow very small groupings of voters to win seats; others require higher thresholds of support to win representation. All of the variations are based on the idea that 10 percent of the people deserve 10 percent of the representation. Under our current "winner-take-all" system, 10 percent gets nothing. As far as the chief executive being elected, some systems have the majority legislative party choose the executive (president, governor, etc), while others have a system called Instant Runoff Voting, in which voters cast votes for their 1st, second and third choices, and they all affect the outcome. (Even as we speak, there are organized efforts in several U.S. states to institute a system of Instant Runoff Voting.) The key point is that every voter can cast an effective vote to help elect someone that represents that voter. This has many benefits for diversity, accountability, participation, and elevating the quality of discourse. (Everything you ever wanted to know about Proportional Representation can be found on the website of the Center for Voting and Democracy at www.fairvote.org)
I don't think that any of these changes are actually going to happen in our country in the near future. Any one of these changes would require a groundswell of support based on an organized grassroots campaign of huge proportions. And this sort of organization assumes a political environment which includes a well-developed democratic infrastructure that would create, and be created by, an active and politicized citizenry. Such an infrastructure would include things like strong unions, for example, and broadly-based citizens' groups. The sorts of things that have been declining in the United States for the past few decades.
But until the day when we are able to elect the people who actually make the major political decisions, I offer these proposals for reform of our current system in the hope that they might inspire someone who is currently doing nothing to do something. And to do it by working together with other people. For it seems to me that, unless and until a large number of people are willing to organize themselves to think about, to plan, to propose, and to build alternatives to the current system, alienation will continue to grow. And if that's the case, then we can expect that trivial matters will continue to be elevated to levels of prominence, and business as usual will continue to be conducted.
And I do mean "business".