Why Our Democracy is Broken and How to Fix it

With the gun debate making its routine rounds, it’s time to ask how it is possible for 70 percent and 85 percent of Americans respectively to be in favor of having a gun database and doing background checks, and yet, no laws get passed.

Most blame American culture, the NRA, the military-industrial complex, Citizen’s United, gerrymandering, or the media, and though these are related, the real fundamental reason no legislation is getting passed is because we have a winner takes all election system. It is our election system that enables minority groups to overpower the majority. In fact, most of our problems (or our inability to solve them) can be traced back to our winner takes all election system.

As any game theorist will tell you, a winner takes all election system will always produce a two-party political system. The reason is that it takes 50 percent to win an election, so two coalitions of interest groups will form and jockey over that last 1 percent. If you look at U.S. history, we’ve really only had two relevant parties at any one time for nearly 250 years. Only in periods where the two major coalitions are unstable does a third party even enter the picture. Two-party systems tend towards partisanship as the constituent coalitions stabilize, and partisanship is nothing new in the U.S. Partisanship is a big reason why no Republicans will work with Democrats to pass basic gun legislation.

But our election system is doing much more to distort our democracy than just pushing us towards partisanship. Winner takes all election systems actually disenfranchise minority voters and inefficiently represent the voters in the winning coalition. This is because the losing coalition gets no representative. And while the winning coalition gets a representative, that representative focuses on the majority coalition within their party that elected them in the primary. The primaries are just a second round of winner takes all elections that further amplifying these anti-democratic distortions. This is how half of the Republican Party (25 percent of the population) can control the entire party’s activities on gun control, and thus manage to overpower 75 percent of the population.

Now imagine that our election system has been similarly distorting all other political issues on a state and federal level for nearly 250 years. No wonder we have so many unsolved problems.

So before we can talk about fixing any other issues, we need to move to a proportional party representation election system. There are many different kinds of proportional party representation (PPR) systems, but the basic principle is that voters vote for parties, and that parties win seats proportional to the number of votes they get. This means that if a party gets 10 percent of the vote, rather than getting 0 percent of the seats in Congress, it gets 10 percent. Imagine that! Revolutionary!

Imagine what Congress would look like if voters could realistically vote for not just Republicans and Democrats, but also the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, or the Socialist Party. They would have no choice but to work together to pass legislation, and different combinations of parties would work together to pass legislation on different issues. In the case of basic gun control, Republicans, freed from the Tea Party, could work with Democrats to pass minor reforms.

This isn’t just the stuff of dreams. This is reality in most democracies around the world. Proportional party representation can be a reality in the U.S. too. We just need to convince 2/3rd of the country to change the constitution.

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