The Reform That Dare Not Speak Its Name

The virtues of proportional representation.

Joel Bleifuss

Because no one is talking about proportional representation, people don’t think it is possible. (WIN MCNAMEE/AFP/Getty Images)

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According to a recent analysis by two political scientists, Democrats stand no chance of recapturing the House in the near future.

The Republican dominance is not because GOP-controlled state legislatures are adept at gerrymandering congressional districts (though they are).

This Republican dominance, they say, is not because GOP-controlled state legislatures are adept at gerrymandering congressional districts (though they are). The Democrats’ geography problem is bigger than their gerrymandering problem,” write Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden in a January op-ed in the New York Times. They explain that Democrats are densely concentrated in urban centers, while Republicans are spread out in more sparsely populated areas where a significant number of Democrats also live. Such a geographic distribution of voters makes it all but impossible to draw district lines that would result in a Democratic congressional majority.

Chen and Rodden go on to suggest that the only way for reformers to solve this problem is to take more radical steps that would require a party’s seat share to approximate its vote share.” What they don’t say (but mean) is that those radical steps” must include forcing Congress to change current federal law to require that House members be elected through a system of proportional representation — the preferred voting system in the civilized world.

A crazy idea? Not quite. The Center for Voting and Democracy, a Beltway-based nonprofit, has just such legislation in the hopper and is currently deciding which Democratic member of the House would be its most effective sponsor in 2014.

If you are a New York Times reader, you may not have heard much about proportional representation.” The paper is no fan, these days.

In the 1870s, the Times extolled proportional representation for its small-“d” democratic virtues. That changed in 1947, when the Times decided that proportional representation, which it had previously endorsed and which New York City had enjoyed for 10 years, was not such a good thing after all. The Times urged New Yorkers to vote it out in a citywide referendum because, among other reasons, it had resulted in seating Communists and other radicals [on the City Council] who could not, by normal majority and district voting methods, have hoped to become members.” And voters did so.

Yet in recent years, political scientists have explored the virtues of proportional representation. G. Bingham Powell Jr. of the University of Rochester has demonstrated that proportional representation is more successful than majoritarian systems — like that of the United States — at creating public policies that voters favor. Northwestern University’s David Austen-Smith has shown that Western European democracies with proportional representation have more progressive income-tax systems and less income inequality than countries with majority rule. But somehow this information has not reached the mainstream.

It is a vicious cycle of expectations,” says Rob Richie, the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. People don’t think proportional representation is possible, so they don’t suggest that it should be done, and then because no one is talking about it, people don’t think it is possible.”

It’s clear: If we are ever to get rid of the Tea Party Congress, one of the first steps will be for small-“d” democrats of all political persuasions to begin talking about proportional representation.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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