It’s the Electoral System, Stupid!

This is the third title that I’ve come up with for this column in the last two days. The first one was, “A Rift Whose Time Has Come.” The second was, “Two Dates in November.” But I’ve decided to put the main point of this particular column right up front.

Why are progressives divided, confused, bitter and/or at each others’ throats as we come down to the wire towards election day? It’s the electoral system, stupid!

What has become of the coalition of trade unionists, young people, environmentalists, fair trade campaigners and others which stunned the country and the world last November 30th through mass action in the streets of Seattle on the first day of the World Trade Organization’s meeting? It’s the electoral system, stupid!

And why is it likely, as this column is being written, that the election day results, whatever they are, are going to exacerbate tactical and strategic differences within the overall progressive movement? It’s the electoral system, stupid!

Don’t get me wrong: I have no illusions that all of us who call ourselves “progressive” really see things in the same way. Those who are attacking Nader as if he were the anti-Christ and speaking of Gore as if he were the reincarnation of Martin Luther King, Jr. may have similar views as the Nader movement on a number of issues, but in the final analysis, when push comes to shove, they’re more concerned with not rocking the boat than with doing the right thing on those issues. They genuinely deserve Nader’s appellation, “frightened liberals.”

But there are many, many more people who will be voting for Gore who share many of Nader’s views and who are, without question, long-term allies of those of us, myself included, who will be voting for Nader (and I’d be voting for Nader whichever state I lived in).

Those of us who are crystal clear on the bankruptcy of the two-party system need to be able to distinguish between these two groups. It’s a question of reliable and unreliable allies. We need to continue to work with the reliable allies, maintaining cordial or friendly relationships, finding common ground across the board in the coming months and years as we fight against either Gore or Bush on the issues.

We also need to interact with the unreliable allies. Sometimes it will be to criticize them for their timidity and fear, their willingness to sell out principles and basic beliefs under the guise of “realism” and “practical politics.” And sometimes we will find ourselves in situations, usually short-term, where we are working together.

If we are ever going to get to the kind of broadly-based and effective pro-justice party, or alliance of parties, that can seriously contend for power, we need to learn how to distinguish between these two types of allies. Noting what they are saying now, and how they say it, about Gore and Nader is one way to make those distinctions. Class, culture, nationality, gender, sexuality, age, income-these are other considerations. Past histories of principled, or not-so-principled activism, are another way.

We need to make these distinctions because we need to internalize some lessons from the experiences of the last several months. One of the most significant lessons is that as long as we are forced to compete electorally under a winner-take-all system, it will be extremely difficult to build up the critical mass of electoral victories necessary to sustain our incipient third party movement.

The U.S. electoral system is a throwback to the past. The vast majority of countries in the world use some form of proportional representation
(PR) in choosing government representatives. Under such systems parties are represented in government roughly proportional to the number of votes they receive. It’s common sense: governments that are truly democratic should represent the entire electorate, not the 51%, or whatever it is, which votes for the winner.

We need to come off of this November, 2000 election building up some steam to unfold a Pro-Democracy Movement. At the top of its agenda should be work at local, state and national levels to educate the public on this and related issues, like same day voter registration, easier ballot access, and voting rights for ex-prisoners and immigrants. We need to mount local campaigns to change electoral laws from winner-take-all to PR or Instant Runoff Voting, either legislatively or through an initiative campaign. The summer of 2001 should become Democracy Summer, with hundreds of young people and others participating in a national campaign to reach out widely on this set of issues.

Some may object: this is too technical, not a survival issue, not “sexy” enough. People won’t respond.

Similar arguments were made 10 years ago when campaign finance reform, especially public financing of elections, was hardly on anyone’s radar screen. I remember being at a meeting on the Gulf Coast in southern Mississippi organized by Randy Kehler, Gwen Patton, Ben Senturia and others in the Working Group on Electoral Democracy. They had invited an impressive cross-section of progressive activists from around the country to a weekend retreat to discuss whether or not this issue had any possibility of resonating with people at the grassroots, and if so, how. Today, public financing reforms have been enacted in four states, there is a major national organization, Public Campaign, working with groups all over the country to expand upon those victories, and John McCain almost won the Republican nomination for President on the strength of this issue.

Proportional representation, including instant runoff voting, is an issue whose time has come. Let’s not be stupid anymore. As we work on the survival, justice and other democracy issues, let’s also be about the work of changing the electoral system which continues to divide us and make us feel much weaker than we are. There is extensive support for a genuinely progressive political agenda in this country. Whoever we vote for on November 7, let’s undertake the work following the election that will allow that support to achieve practical results in the future.