How To Enact Progressive Policy
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
As the bellicose oil men in the White
House edge the world closer to
war, the progressive agenda has slid even further off the nation's radar
screen. And yet that agenda for years has had little traction in
national politics. Whether health care, energy, the environment,
housing, homelessness, labor law, women's rights, or foreign policy, all
have suffered under both Democratic and Republican administrations as
the political center has shifted rightward.
The reasons for this are intimately connected to the most fundamental
aspects of our political system -- "winner take all" elections. Our
"winner take all" system underrepresents progressives in our
legislatures, deforms public debate and legislative policy, fosters a
debilitating loss of political ideas, and exacerbates splits between
cities, suburbs and rural areas.
The quest for fair policies on the economy, taxes, health care and the
like can be put in its proper perspective by answering a simple
question: who will benefit? But the "winner take all" system usually
does not permit such nuanced discussions to take place in electoral
politics, particularly under the sway of modern campaign tactics like
polls and focus groups, which are so sinisterly suited to carving up the
electorate and targeting campaign spin to small slices of undecided
voters. Issues like transportation, housing, education and health care
are pressing everywhere but due to "winner take all" incentives these
issues are largely framed to appeal to swing voters in the suburbs.
That's because the suburbs are where the major parties are relatively
balanced and where party leaders believe elections are won and lost.
So when Al Gore talked in Campaign 2000 about reducing traffic, he
framed road congestion as a suburban family issue, not about urban
dwellers riding a dilapidated public transit system for two hours each
way to work. That's because most urban inhabitants aren't swing voters.
Many are poor and minority, some speak English as a second language, and
practically all vote Democratic when they vote at all. Consequently, in
"winner take all" calculations, Democrats take these voters for granted.
When they try to mobilize them at all, they do so by demonizing
Republicans rather than with positive policy proposals for cities or the
poor, because such proposals might alienate suburban swing voters. For
the many urban voters, Democratic candidates rely more on fear than
Similarly, the health care debate mostly ignores how to insure the 44
million people without insurance, and instead focuses on patients' Bill
of Rights, prescription drugs, and HMOs -- in other words, how to help
people who already HAVE insurance. Most people without health care are
disproportionately poor and children, and in our "winner take all"
system that's not who politicians appeal to for votes and campaign
donations. With Democrats no longer committed to "health care for all,"
and no viable third party to raise that banner, that policy option and
the voters who care about them have fallen by the wayside.
Millions of such "demographic dropouts" litter the American political
landscape, not only during campaigns but in the ongoing permanent
campaign known as the legislative process. In many ways, the incentives
of how to win "winner take all" elections have shipwrecked the
In contrast, in Europe, full representation voting systems (also known
as proportional representation) have contributed to the political center
being where American progressives would love to be. On a host of issues,
including health care, war in Iraq, the environment, food safety, labor
law, child poverty rates, education, and more, multi-party democracy
founded on full representation has pushed the European center toward the
left. Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent above that in the
United States, including universal health care and free university
For example, in most full representation systems, five percent of the
popular vote results in a political party winning five percent of
legislative seats. The result is that progressive parties like the Green
Party and others get elected and have a seat at the table in most
European legislatures. This allows them to push progressive issues into
the mainstream of debate and discussion, and see those issues become
part of national policy.
In Germany's government, where the Green Party is the junior coalition
partner, a remarkable woman named Renata Kuenast is the Cabinet level
Minister of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs and a Green. She is one
of Germany's most popular politicians and has used her high profile
platform during a time of great concern over mad cow disease and
genetically modified foods to push small scale, organic farming to the
point where it is a central part of the German government's policy on
agriculture. Similarly with alternative energy sources like wind and
solar power, and transitioning Europe from an oil based economy to a
hydrogen based economy all are becoming mainstream issues, yet they
started out as marginal issues that were able to percolate to the
surface and root themselves because of full representation.
The fact that Europe is at the progressive edge of where the world needs
to go is greatly due to full representation and public financing of
elections. These two reforms in combination permit all points of view
to be represented in the legislatures, and facilitate the open
discussion and debate of ideas, making it easier to forge a national
consensus on important issues.
If American progressives hope to be real players in politics again, they
must focus more energy, financial resources, media, and activism on
converting our 18th century "winner take all" electoral system to full
representation. It's a winning strategy that can bring together women,
people of color, independents, third parties, and disaffected supporters
of the major parties.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy
(www.fairvote.org) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of
America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press,
www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is executive director of the