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Proportional Representation in American Politics

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As humans, we all have different viewpoints and opinions on an infinite number of subjects. Our unique ideas are the cause of daily debates and new controversy. If we only ever had two given viewpoints when debating, or if there were only two sides to every story, our opinions would be minimized and simplified. We allow America’s current political system puts us in this exact situation. For the past 200 years, the established two-party system has politically constricted America. While this system seems to be a crucial part of America’s democracy, it has flaws. Throughout its whole existence, the system has only ever represented two systems at a time, hence the two-party system term. The opportunity to choose seems like an improvement from a monarchy or dictatorship; however, it forces the people to choose between two viewpoints, when in reality there are many more.

Currently, America is politically divided between the Republicans and the Democrats. Take this interactive pole to see exactly how many of us are represented by the Republican or Democratic title, and how many of us are not.

Do either of America’s current political parties completely represent your political wants of viewpoints? Or are you neither/somewhere in between.

Yes, I completely identify as Republican.
Yes, I completely identify as Democratic.
No, neither of these parties completely represent my views.
Created with PollMaker

You can compare these results to the statistics which show that currently 42% of American voters politically identify as independent while 28% identify as Republican and 27% Democrat (Gallup). This statistic proves that there is a lack proportional representation. Proportional representation is defined as “an electoral system in which the number of seats held by a political group or party in a legislative body is determined by the number of popular votes received”(“Proportional Representation”). I have always taken an interest in politics, especially political debates. I think each current political topic brought up in government is multifaceted, but we are forced to choose between two extremes, instead of being able to stand on the middle ground. So many of these debated topics, abortion, immigration, gun control, etc. are too complicated to vote a simple yes or no. There need to be compromises and more than just two options, two people representing everyone, and two parties to align with. Through this site, I hope to open the eyes of many others to an issue that is rarely brought up or spoken of, yet could drastically change our democracy. 

History of America’s Two-Party System

America’s two-party system and the controversy that comes along with it have existed almost as long as it has. The country’s first president, George Washington, was the first and only president who did not belong to a political party because he thought of political parties as threats to the republic (“Two Parties Emerge”) and there was universal agreement that he should be president (Crashcourse). Some Founding Fathers believed that political parties meant possible “opposition to the new nation’s political leadership” which “meant opposition to the government — treason” (Randall). Others, like Thomas Jefferson, specifically encouraged a two-party system: “men are naturally divided into two parties. Those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all power from them into the hands of the higher classes [and] those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests” (Randall). Despite his efforts to avoid the separation of the nation, within Washington’s own cabinet, the country’s first political rivalry formed, setting the stage for all two-party systems to follow. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, led the Federalists, whose supporters were largely merchants, artisans, and creditors who built the northeast’s growing commercial economy (Boundless), while Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of State, spoke for the Democratic-Republicans who were made up of “the South and the West, the farmers, the workers, [and] other debtors” (Randall). Despite this rivalry beginning in the cabinet around 1789, the first party system did not officially begin until the Election of 1796, in which John Adams of the Federalist Party was elected. Since then America has stuck to the same pattern of a two-party system, and we are now on our Fifth party system.   

The First party system lasted from 1796-1824. After Adams’ disastrous presidency Jefferson and Madison each held office for eight years as the Federalists’ popularity diminished with the death of Hamilton. After the Federalists completely died out, the Era of Good Feelings came around. Although during this era only one significant political party existed, still the Democratic-Republicans, and it seemed as though the population was in agreement, hence the title of the era, the presidents of the time still ran as part of a party. There was no party to oppose them, yet all the presidents of this time continued to identify with the only party. The first party system only began to end when the Era of Good Feelings did, with the election of 1824. In the election of 1824, the most important candidates were John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay. None of the candidates won the minimum amount of electoral votes to win, giving the House of Representatives the ability to select the president. Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House at the time, and therefore could not vote for himself, so the election was between Adams and Jackson. After Adams victory, Jackson declared the election a corrupt bargain in that Adams put Henry Clay in his cabinet immediately after the election (Crashcourse).

This conflict sparked the second party system between the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs led by Henry Clay (Boundless) which officially began in 1829 when Jackson was elected and ended in 1860 (Crashcourse). During this party system, Democrats dominated the presidential elections showing their overall popularity in comparison to the Whigs.

As slavery became a widely debated issue, the Whig party died with the Election of Abraham Lincoln, and the beginning of the third party system, lasting from 1860-1896 (Crahscourse). Lincoln election in 1860 brought forward the anti-slavery Republican Party. Since this election, every presidential election has been between Democrats and Republicans. The republicans shared similar ideas to the Whigs for example, “national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads and aid to land grant colleges” (Boundless). After the ratification of the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, the Republicans were seen as responsible for ending slavery (Crashcourse). White racist southerners, and working-class immigrants in the north were the Democratic parties biggest supporters (Crashcourse). Many immigrants at this time did not support the Republicans because of their disapproval of immigrants (Crashcourse). The third-party system did not end with a change in political parties, but rather a change in the makeup of the Democratic party.

Here is a table showing the election results from the past 85 years (Lazaroff).

In the late 1880’s and the early 1890’s a political party known as the Populists formed in the southern and western parts of America. The populists, or the people’s party, was concerned with the regulation of farm prices, railroad shipping rates, and supported a national income tax (Crashcourse).  The fourth party system, coinciding with the Progressive Era, lasted from 1896-1932 began when the Populists merged with the Democrats. Representing them, William Jennings Bryan ran for president in 1896 (Boundless). Most Americans thought the populists were too radical, causing the Democrats lost popularity during this party system and there was only one Democratic president during the whole party system (Crashcourse). Yet, starting with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the Democrats were back in the race (Crashcourse). Franklin was elected, in part, because the Republicans’ economic policies lost credit when the Great Depression began in 1929 (Crashcourse). The Democratic party saw another shift in its “composition and priorities” as new groups we attracted to the party (Crashcourse). Many of these new additions to the party were thanks to the New Deal policy of 1933 which Roosevelt launched, creating federal programs in response to the Great Depression (“The New Deal”). For example, after the Wagner Act, supporting organized labor, the Democrats drew in union workers (Crashcourse). The Democrats idea that research and planning could help alleviate poverty attracted some socialists and members of the middle class (Crashcourse). The southern farmers continued to side with the Democrats because of the New Deal farm policies (Crashcourse). In addition to the New Deal support for jobs, Roosevelt’s repealing of prohibition brought urban immigrants and Catholics into the democratic party (Crashcourse). Lastly, the Democrats’ acknowledgment of African American hardships shifted African American support away from Republicans (Crashcourse).  The end of the fifth party system is debated but usually considered to be one of these: the mid-1960s when the New Deal Coalition ended, the early 1980s when the Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan Coalition formed, mid-1990s during the Republican revolution, or that it continues today (Boundless).

How to Achieve Proportional Representation

There are many options outside of a two-party system used in different democracies which proportionally represent more people. This video summarizes my topic and the problems with it while highlighting simple solutions.

(“How to Break the Two-Party Hold on American Politics.” )

Party List System

Party list systems are the most common methods of proportional representation used around the world”(“Variations of Party List Proportional Systems: Closed List, Open List, and Free List”). As the video said, the party-list system allows voters to elect parliament by selecting their preferred political party. The percentage of votes that go towards one party would be proportional to the number of representatives in Congress.

The biggest flaw in party list systems is the lack of ability to chose the person representing you. While the political party you vote for is proportionally represented in government, you do not have an input in who represents the political party. This can lead to discord between the politicians and the voters (“Party List Proportional Representation”).

Alternative Vote System

While alternative vote system does allow representatives from several parties be elected, it is technically not a form of proportional representation (“Alternative Vote”). This form of voting, also known as Instant Runoff voting has been used in America before. In this system, you rank the individual candidates. This causes less extreme campaigns, as candidates want to be second on most lists. Overall, when used it is found to not truly be proportional to the country as a whole. It is thought to be a better way to elect mayors or presidents but is flawed overall for an election of Congress (“Alternative Vote”). For these reasons, I do not see the Alternative vote system as the best solution.

Call to Action

How does this affect you? Proportional representation in parliament is vital in a democracy, therefore America’s lack of it is a huge issue. Without proportional representation, it is easier for your opinion to go unnoticed, even if you do align with one of the standing political parties. Say you are a Republican, but you are only one of several Republicans in your area; the area is mostly democratic. You will likely not be represented at all as Republican politicians will not even attempt to represent your area, and if your state is the same, your whole state will not be proportionally represented. With proportional representation, third or fourth parties can be represented in Congress. This will introduce several new views and voices.

How can you help? Well, there is nothing stopping our individual areas from voting this way. It would be perfectly legal to begin representing our area proportionally by having a party list system or alternative vote system. So write or call your state representatives or congressmen. Ask them about changing the way we vote for our congressmen, and one step at a time, proportional representation will be achieved.

 

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Works Cited

“Alternative Vote.” Electoral Reform Society, www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voting-systems/types-of-voting-

system/alternative-vote/.

Boundless. “The Two-Party System.” The Two-Party System | Boundless Political Science,

courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-politicalscience/chapter/the-two-party-system/.

Crashcourse, director. Party Systems: Crash Course Government and Politics #41. YouTube,

2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkltAl_cO5Y.

“How to Break the Two-Party Hold on American Politics.” Youtube, Vox, 6 Nov. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nd-

9op64t2M.

Lazaroff, Peter. “Democrats Vs. Republicans: Who Is Better For The Stock Market?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 16 Aug.

2017, www.forbes.com/sites/peterlazaroff/2016/07/26/democrats-vs-republicans-who-is-better-for-the-stock-market/.

“Party List Proportional Representation.” Electoral Reform Society, www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voting-systems/types-

of-voting-system/party-list-pr/.

“Proportional Representation.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-

webster.com/dictionary/proportional%20representation.

Randall, Willard Sterne. “Did the Founding Fathers Really Want Two Parties?” The Huffington

Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 31 Aug. 2012,

www.huffingtonpost.com/willard-sterne-randall/founding-fathers-political-parties_b_1843593.html.

“Two Parties Emerge.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association,

www.ushistory.org/us/19c.asp.

“Variations of Party List Proportional Systems: Closed List, Open List, and Free List.” Party List Systems,

archive.fairvote.org/factshts/partylst.htm.

 

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