Conservatives, Progressives and the future of representative democracy: what would an American Parliament look like?

Part one in a series.

A little thought experiment for a Tuesday morning…

Over the past few years I have tried to make as much sense as I could out of the American political landscape. By nature, I’m a theoretically minded thinker, and the point of these exercises has been to try and articulate the structures, shapes, motivators and dynamics the define who we are so that I might develop better theories about why so that I might then think more effectively about how we might be nudged in a more productive direction. Facts → Theory → Action, in other words.

I have observed a few things along the way.

I have also been wondering, perhaps as a result of Wufnik‘s analyses of last year’s elections in Britain, whether the US might be better off with a different electoral system. Perhaps a UK-style parliamentary process would be an improvement, or maybe we could do a better job representing the full spectrum of American political perspectives via one of the other approaches being used by various democracies around the world. I don’t know as much about these other forms of government as I’d like, but what I do know suggests that there certainly better ways of affording minority constituencies representation that’s more in proportion to their numbers than is strictly the case in the two-party system. All systems require the construction of coalitions, but where they are constructed and how makes a great deal of difference. More on this in a second.

It’s also true that the American two-party system is subject to distortions that can allow a particularly noisy and militant minority with significant financial backing to exert influence all out of proportion to its actual numbers while other groups, perhaps even larger ones, find their own perspectives under-represented in the legislature. That a constituency should have representation reflecting its actual size instead of an emotional quotient that’s so easily and cynically manipulated strikes me as inherently democratic.

Proportionality vs. Plurality

I rarely recommend Wikipedia for nuanced research, but its overview on proportional representation is a helpful 101-level resource with plenty of links to more detailed information. As this page explains, the US and UK employ plurality systems, “where disproportional seat distribution results from the division of voters into multiple electoral districts, especially ‘winner takes all’ plurality (‘first-past-the-post’ or FPTP) districts.” In other words, in a given situation, the winner of an election can represent a minority constituency while the various competing perspectives, which together comprise a majority, go completely unrepresented. Most Americans can probably think of multiple examples of this phenomenon, at local, state and national levels.

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