The election conundrum

All government must heed James Madison’s age-old warning that democratic government, in the absence of proper institutional design, can promote faction or the tyranny of some parties over others. Madison and the other Founding Fathers wisely declared that in a large country like the U.S., “the multitude of interests” was one of the best safeguards against faction, as it created the necessity for “transcendent compromise” and prevented the development of a majority so large that it could tyrannically rule over the minority.

But since the New Deal, almost all major legislation in the U.S. has been characterized by the tyranny of one party over another and not the cooperation between them. Today, this phenomenon has become worse than ever. The last two major pieces of legislation in the U.S., Dodd Frank and Obamacare, were forcefully passed by a majority over a minority. Obamacare did not claim a single Republican vote in the House, while Dodd Frank boasted an impressive three Republican votes in the Senate.

What makes this even more frightening is that the problem of faction is equally unsettling in the absence of a majority in Congress. The gridlock that currently dominates Washington (and which often does in the absence of an overwhelming majority) is characterized by the tyranny of a minority of a majority. The two parties each dominate each other through antagonism and exert control over each other through sabotage. This form of faction is just as grave and in fact, often more grave than the other.

Everything in Washington, from the innate characteristics of politicians to politics itself, has been blamed for this faction. But in reality, we must look no further than the causes of faction that the Founding Fathers saw. It is clear that the absence of negotiation and compromise in Washington is due to the two-party system and the silencing of “the multitude” of interests that it creates.

The plurality voting system set forth by the Constitution has been proven by international comparison to be the cause of the two-party system. In this system, politicians (and their accompanying political party) need a plurality or simple majority in their state or district in order to be represented in either house of Congress.

In this two-party system, groups compromise on issues of secondary importance to them in order to promote issues of primary importance to them. This results in wide areas of agreement between members of the different parties, which people within them cannot promote for the sake of building majorities. This promotes a convergence of interests within the party toward the mainstream views of the party. It also results in a culture of allegiance to the party and not to the specific views of the members within the party. This not only prevents bipartisan support for legislation with which factions within each party agree, but it also encourages the parties to antagonize each other on issues that they should not even disagree about in the first place.

On the other hand, the elimination of a plurality system in the House of Representatives and its replacement with a proportionality system would break the two-party system without affecting the power of the states in Senate. In such a proportionality system, people would cast their votes for individual political parties. The percentage of the vote that each party received would then determine the number of representatives that each party got to appoint from a previously published party list. This would lead to the proliferation of various different, currently unrepresented political parties such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and others. These newly created parties would be able to represent the real interests of their constituents rather than the current, artificial party platforms that result from compromise and conformation. These interest groups could then compromise with others on issues that they agree on to pass legislation.

In the end, it is evident that the plurality voting system in the House of Representatives is broken and harmful. Nevertheless, this brokenness is not a result of any inherently negative qualities of a plurality voting system or because of any superior ones characteristic of a proportional representation system. Instead, the desirability of electoral systems depends on the characteristics of the communities in which they are employed. The plurality voting system, for example, only has a tendency to create a two-party system in large countries like the U.S., where political parties are a necessary reality. This, however, is not a fact of all electoral systems.

In smaller communities such as Williams, candidates for student government do not need to group themselves into political parties in order to inform voters about their views but instead can do so directly. Thus, the plurality voting system does not have many of the negatives attached to it in a country like the U.S. As a result, an electoral system involving smaller local elections like the one that Frosh Council employs among entries does not have many of the same negative consequences that it might have when employed on a larger scale. Thus, maybe in a place like Williams, such a system of small localist elections could actually bring the benefits that the Founders saw in it. As a result, small, local elections, like those employed by Frosh Council, could bring significant benefits if applied on a greater scale, throughout College Council, for example.

Ben Rosen ’17 is from Cos Cob, Conn. He lives in Dennett.