Is the system working?
By Janet Jordan
Editorial note: The following is approved as a statement from the local Green Party.
Bernie Sanders has proposed the most progressive program we have heard in many years, including more taxes for the rich, taxes on Wall Street transactions, reducing the size of banks, free college tuition for all, big money out of politics, and on and on. It has been fantastic to see so many voters, especially young ones, who feel that their concerns are being heard; there hasn’t been this much interest in a long time.
Bernie isn’t perfect; however, one can support a candidate with whom one does not completely agree. Hillary Clinton is less acceptable as she has supported the Iraq war, welfare “reform,” expanded prisons, more police on the streets, and so forth. Yet with at least one unusually honest candidate, people have been happy.
As time goes on though, and the Democratic primary process moves ahead, gloom is taking over. As I write this, following the Nevada convention, Hillary Clinton’s lead is considered by many to be insurmountable.
It looks likely that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee. For all the emotions expended in Nevada, there were only two delegates at stake–not enough to change things. Bernie’s supporters said they were angered that the process was tilted to favor Hillary, but underneath, the anger and dismay was probably caused by a dawning recognition that their candidate just could not take control of the Democratic Party–it’s too entrenched– and what a waste that is. So many good ideas, indeed necessary ideas, and so much energy; and it’s all over, at least for this four-year cycle. We won’t get to vote for Bernie in the fall election.
When that happens, Bernie’s function will be to shepherd loyal Democrats into the fold of the winning candidate, in spite of her obvious flaws. He will encourage them to ignore better independent or minor party candidates.
Indeed that urging has already begun. He’s aware that many Bernie supporters say they won’t vote in the General Election if they can’t vote for him (thus creating a kind of third party of Bernie hold-outs), and he’s speaking out about how “stupid” that would be. He says it will ensure Trump’s election.
And party regulars want even more compliance than that. Even though he could still win (by earning two-thirds of all remaining delegates), he is being urged to quit the race for the sake of party unity.
The problems of a two-party system
In a two-party system, a party can demand that sort of knuckling under and both parties can work a sort of hostage deal on the rest of the country: Those who don’t vote for the official party candidate will be delivering the country to the evil Other Party. The Democratic candidate holds the country’s well-being in front of her as a body shield.
Voters have fallen for this regularly over the years. Looking just at the years since Bill Clinton, we gave a few votes to Ralph Nader in 2000. It was not enough to change the outcome of the election, but the narrative of the Democratic Party has reduced support for third parties and so their candidates have come to expect that they will receive less than one percent of the vote. Pleading with third-party candidates not to run is standard these days.
For minor parties like the Green Party and the Bernie hold-outs, the hostage phenomenon is a problem. There is slight though unlikely chance that the Democrat establishment candidate’s chances might be harmed. It didn’t happen in 2000, but it could someday. It could only take one vote.
For this reason, you hear Green Party people saying now and then they will only run in “safe states”–only in states where they are guaranteed not to have any influence over the final scores. It might make the Democratic Party happy, but what a recipe for irrelevance!
There is talk among Green Party people that maybe Bernie will want to be a Green Party candidate after his Democratic Party run is over. No, he won’t. He doesn’t want to throw the election to the Republican. Jill Stein has called him 12 times and he has never once picked up the phone.
So for the voter after the primary, the problem will be a lack of choice. From twelve Republicans, five Democrats and umpteen small party candidates, we’re down to only one Republican and one Democrat, and the likelihood that either one will represent your values are very small. As Works In Progress readers, the likelihood is much greater that the Green Party more closely matches your values; but you can’t vote for the Greens because of that hostage thing.
Over the years when voters have to vote for a candidate they don’t really like, it gives the candidate and the party the ability to move even further away from the majority’s values. Eventually neither party comes close to a reasonable platform for its base. This has already happened. The Democratic Party now takes in as much corporate money as the GOP and is sponsoring the TPP–the largest corporate giveaway in the history of the country.
How can the Democrats base take the party back? They have no leverage; they have “nowhere else to go.” After Bernie is no longer in the race, Hillary Clinton will have no reason to mention inequality, or student debt, or money in politics–Bernie’s issues. She will say those are important issues only for as long as it takes to get into office.
Numerous political commenters say the United States does not have a democracy anymore, that the wishes of the average person have zero weight in the eyes of elected officials and their parties.
This horrible predicament cannot be resolved by any kind of party politics. Voting for one candidate or another won’t help. If Bernie were to win, you’d be happy for as long as he is in office, but the same situation will await you on the other side. You cannot solve the problem while you are inside the problem.
In addition, getting “money out of politics” won’t solve it either. The influence of money cropped up worldwide in the 1970’s; some countries solved it; the United States didn’t. With only two parties, voters cannot demand any action from either of them. The countries that solved the problem were countries where more than two parties compete.
The answer, then, is outside the problem–outside the system.
A look at other systems
With the many critical issues in today’s world, we need a system in which leaders reflect the voters’ wishes, and that’s going to be one that allows more than two parties or two candidates to participate. This is necessary to encourage candidates to be honest. If a political party were to move too far from a platform the voters like, another party will come in and gain those voters’ support. Cause and effect! Accountability!
Examples include Iceland, Australia, and Brazil. Each has multiple parties and each has some type of two-step system: one step to pick a party that represents you and a second step to form a governing coalition.
Iceland has a parliamentary system. The steps here are first vote for your Member of Parliament, who is a member of some party or other; then you hope your party becomes a part of the governing coalition. To form such a coalition, a group of parties big enough to represent 50 percent or more of the people agree to act together. There’s a pretty good chance your party will be in the coalition.
The party with the most votes chooses the Prime Minister. That party can choose other parties have the most or the most important values in common. In Iceland, the two biggest parties are currently out of favor because of bad calls in the past–for example, the Prime Minister was implicated in the Panama Papers. It looks as if the Pirate Party has become the most popular with its issues of open government and accountability. It’s a tiny party that received just 5.1 percent in the last election, but that doesn’t matter. It has the same chance as any other party of being a member of the governing coalition.
None of the marginalizing tactics of the two major US political parties would work in Iceland. Each party has its own personality, its own values, and no party is considered the little brother of any other party. Bright Future at 8.25 percent is not the little brother of the Progressive Party (24.43 percent) and the Progressive Party does not own their votes. Nobody reproaches them for not supporting the Progressive Party in an election (or for just staying home).
Brazil has a two-round election system. In the first round, people say who they want, or who best represents their values. They can do that because it’s not the final vote. It just ranks the parties by popularity. Then all but the top two drop out and the people who were in them vote for the coalition-type party that can become big enough to take over the government. They either pick one of the final remaining candidates, or they stay home in protest.
That might sound a little like the Top Two system in Washington State, but it’s not. Our system selects the top two through the primary, an election that has no standing. Statistics will not record what your minor party won in that primary—only the two winners. It rewards the two largest parties and makes the smaller ones disappear.
Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president is being ousted from office by the Far Right in a slow- moving coup. But her party, the progressive Workers Party, will remain. It will not be co-opted by any other party and it will be available for action as the movement regains strength.
Australia has an instant run-off system. That’s the same as a two-round election, except that the second choice party is already listed on the ballot (you check off your first choice, and then your second choice). Australia has 17 parties, including 12 with either 1 or 2 members in their legislature. Those parties had enough voters in their home districts to elect a representative or a senator, and that adds to the diversity of those bodies. The remaining five parties have 11 or more members.
These systems all have a common feature: they require two steps to electing a leader. One step lets the voter identify the party that best represents him or her; the next step encourages that voter to join in a bigger coalition—hopefully including that party—big enough to overcome the opposition. The voter’s first choice is still on record and remains to give validity to that party. If the coalition doesn’t perform, there are other parties to go to.
Any one of these three systems would allow us a choice of candidates and a probability that at least one of the parties would act with integrity and in the public interest. Any one of these electoral systems would be better than the one that exists in the United States.
So what should Bernie do?
Article after article appears with advice for Bernie: He should continue as an Independent—as a Green; he should lead a movement, a non-political but powerful grassroots movement for the things we want; he should support Hillary.
All of these are choices from within the system and they are all bad choices. None of them will gain for us a government that is strong for the things the US wants and needs right now. Some of these choices will put us at risk of a Republican government with its 1800’s values, and one that will all but guarantee we get the second-rate Hillary as our leader.
We need to free ourselves from the dysfunctional voting system that delivers these bad results. If Bernie speaks up for a better system, it will go a long way towards a public understanding that the voting system is holding us back and that it can be changed.
We usually don’t question the voting system. It’s American so “it’s the best’ is the general thinking. Or at least, “it’s American so it’s what we’ve got, period.” But it’s not working for us. It’s at the root of our persistent horrible problems because it keeps us from choosing a better governing party—permanently, or until the system changes.
It’s a long path towards changing the voting system, with twists and turns impossible to predict, but it starts with recognition that it needs changing. Bernie can help with that.
NEWSFLASH, May 23, 2016: Austria has just elected a Green Party President, Alexander Van Der Bellen, over Norbert Hofer, his far-right, anti-immigrant, neo Nazi opponent. The Green Party only had about 12 percent of the Austrian Parliament but it was a viable and visible party, and in this election, its particular values were recognized. Salon Magazine reports this as a Sanders win over a Trump opponent.
It happened in a country with a parliamentary voting system.
Janet Jordan is a resident of Thurston County and an active member of the Green Party of South Puget Sound.