Redesigning Democracy

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Two seconds of radio news was enough — suddenly the 2008 presidential campaign collapsed around me in an unrecognizable heap of consumer politics as I ate breakfast.

“Redistribution of the wealth,” John the Candidate was saying. “That’s one of the tenets of . . . socialism.”

This was maybe the ten thousandth time I’d been whacked with that and similar Cold War-era words in the last couple weeks, and the surrealism buildup — the sheer weight of all this empty rhetoric and mock horror, the waste of money and air time and newsprint, the overwork of my own revulsion mechanism, but most of all my exhausted sense of urgency that the nation has serious troubles that need immediate attention — came out in a groan of paralyzing despair.

Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough! Electoral politics at the presidential level — excuse me, this is the most important reassessment of national and global direction taking place on the planet right now — has deteriorated, or at least half-deteriorated (the Karl Rove half), to the level of impulse snack sales at the supermarket checkout aisle.

Now, in handy, sound-bite-sized containers: Fear! Terrorism! Socialism! Bill Ayers! ACORN! Collect them all! Debate with your friends!

This is only going to get worse. A 30-year trend has turned into a free-for-all. Like the theft of democracy — voter purges, intimidation, misinformation, the hacker-friendly vulnerability of computerized voting — the dumbing down of democracy is one of those unacknowledged facts of American life in the 21st century that almost no one at an official level is evincing concern over, much less addressing.

The core of the problem, as I see it, is that the debauched neocon belief in power at all costs — their “dreams of managing history,” as H.D.S. Greenway put it recently in the Boston Globe, quoting theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — has corrupted our system almost beyond recognition. A powerful, ruthless clique that wants to run, uh, keep running, the country has figured out how to game the system, and if they do it for too much longer, the integrity of more than just John the Candidate will be irreparably compromised.

Our system is based on a widespread agreement to put principle above power, and we seem to be stuck in a state of self-congratulatory denial that we have done so in some permanent way. Well, we haven’t, and I know I’m not the only one to notice. A large, passionate citizens movement is growing around the issue of fair elections — thank God. We also need to turn our attention toward relevant elections.

It’s time, in short, to redesign our democracy, in ways that encourage power to be responsive to the public interest, not just its own maintenance; that encourage widespread, creative participation at every level; and that discourage the ever more simplistic sound-bite politics — “that’s (gasp) socialism!” — inundating us in 2008.

To this end, one of the most intriguing alternative election systems I’m aware of is called instant runoff voting, where, in single-winner elections, voters cast a ballot for both their first and second choices; if the first round fails to yield a majority winner among the field, the second choices of the voters whose candidates were not in first or second place are counted accordingly.

Such a system, which is slowly growing in popularity as people become aware of it — and is now in use or soon to be implemented in about a dozen U.S. cities and counties, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Oakland and Santa Fe, and is used in national elections in Australia and Ireland — offers some distinct advantages over the system we have.

For instance, it encourages the proliferation of third parties because their role is now no longer that of counterproductive spoiler; voters, praise the Lord, could vote their consciences without fear of “throwing their vote away.” And it outright eliminates at least part of the reason why campaigns “go negative.” Candidates whose views are relatively close to one another’s are a team rather than mortal enemies; picture Gore vs. Nader in 2000, where the Democrats vented far more spleen on the Greens, to the detriment of both, than they did on the party of Bush. With instant runoff voting, the Dems would have courted Green voters as their second choice.

And here’s where I think such a system would really show its value. It guarantees a voice for candidates who likely will not win. Right now, such candidates are mockingly dismissed as irrelevant, though often they’re the ones who best articulate voters’ deeply held beliefs. While the centrist compromisers will still win most elections, the conscience candidates have more traction to keep them honest — and keep the debate serious.

In 2007, for instance, the Australian Green Party not only helped the Labor Party win the election, but “almost certainly transformed majority opinion on the environment and Iraq and made the Labor Party more responsive to that opinion,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, quoting FairVote director Rob Richie, wrote in the Nation.

Can it happen here? What if it doesn’t?