(This is written as part of the Youth Media Blog-a-thon, sponsored by Youth Outlook and WireTap.)
In a country that was built on genocide, slavery and a system of legalized racism that was only abolished some forty years ago, Barack Obama’s Presidential victory is indeed a historical breakthrough and cause for celebration. I also celebrate because the man appears to be an outstanding individual with liberal politics and an organizer’s instincts. His regular YouTube addresses to the people, like the one below, demonstrate not only a firm grasp of utilizing modern technology to communicate with the masses but also great messaging for empowerment and organizing.
I believe there is also something to be said for the fact that, while not being the diametric opposite of Bush and Republican policies that we would like to think, we are witnessing a significant, bloodless regime change with the incoming regime having markedly different policy approaches than the last. Many places and different conditions require violent revolution or coups for this to happen.
Still, we as progressives have to acknowledge that Obama has clearly demonstrated his willingness to “move to the center” on many issues important to us, as have countless left-supported Democrats before him. Take for example, how his political activities as an Illinois politician seemed to indicate a sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but has changed to the status quo, “Israel is our strongest ally” rhetoric with his ascendancy to the White House.
Again, this is not a singular trait of Barack Obama. Many Democrats that we on the left have supported in the past have compromised their campaign promises and the will of the people in the interest of other bureaucrats, money, greed, their own political ambitions or simply to “get something done” no matter how marginally beneficial or detrimentally harmful the result.
Although there are meaningful differences between the two most powerful US political parties in terms of policy approaches, the undeniable reality is that the Democrats and the Republicans are run by essentially the same people: the rich. At least 35 percent of members of Congress were millionaires in 2005, according to the Center for Responsive Politics–compared with 1 percent for the population at large–and senators had a median net worth of $1.1 million. Furthermore, without publicly financed elections, it often takes a good deal of personal wealth and connections to run for office–the average Senate campaign in 2006 cost about $5.8 million.
Which brings us to the regime’s, or rather the American political system’s, root problem: money rules. The two ruling parties are run by the rich, and thus, it is in their interest to keep the two parties in power, and marginalize any individual or independent political party that tries to challenge them. That’s not democracy, that’s an oligarchy, a plutocracy.
We on the left are told that we should support the Democrats because they are the only ones who can win. We are told we have no other choice but to support them, even when they act against our interests. We are told a vote for a third party candidate is a vote for the Republicans, as if the Democrats are entitled to our votes, even if they haven’t earned them.
I say this all still in support of Obama, but with the full realization that he is only one man. However well-intentioned, he leads an imperialist empire that is in full effect, but a democracy that is broken.
For real progressive change, I believe we need many things. In combination with Obama’s leadership, we need empowered and engaged communities. We need a unified mass movement for progressive change. We need a political system that truly represents the diverse spectrum of political thought that exists today in America.
Here’s a few small reforms that could push us towards a more equitable electoral system and a healthier democracy:
1) Publicly Funded Campaigns
We have to put the voters, we the people, back in control of politics, instead of lobbyists, special interest money and donors with deep pockets. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s actually already happening in a small way through the movement for publicly funded campaigns.
2) Proportional Representation
Basically, proportional representation is an electoral system that believes that all voters deserve representation and that all political groups in society deserve to be represented in our legislatures in proportion to their strength in the electorate. In other words, everyone should have the right to fair representation. To do this, multi-member voting districts are used instead of electing one person in each district like we do in the US. Then, seats in these multi-member voting districts are divided up according to the proportion of votes received by the various parties or groups running candidates. Thus if the candidates of a party win 40% of the vote in a 10 member district, they receive four of the ten seats — or 40% of the seats. If another party wins 20% of the vote, they get two seats, and so on. This leads to a government that is much more representative of the spectrum of political thought in the electorate, instead of being solely dominated by two parties (when a third of the US voting population identifies as “independent).
You can read a much more in depth explanation of how proportional representation works here.
3. Instant Runoff
In conjunction with proportional representation, instant runoff voting is a method that aims to make the electoral system more equitable. The FairVote organization states that:
“Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (i.e. first, second, third, fourth and so on). Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish, but can vote without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidates. First choices are then tabulated, and if a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If nobody has a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoffs are simulated, using each voter’s preferences indicated on the ballot. The candidate who received the fewest first place choices is eliminated. All ballots are then retabulated, with each ballot counting as one vote for each voter’s highest ranked candidate who has not been eliminated. Specifically, voters who chose the now-eliminated candidate will now have their ballots counted for their second ranked candidate — just as if they were voting in a traditional two-round runoff election — but all other voters get to continue supporting their top candidate. The weakest candidates are successively eliminated and their voters’ ballots are redistributed to next choices until a candidate crosses a majority of votes.
Instant runoff voting allows for better voter choice and wider voter participation by accommodating multiple candidates in single seat races and assuring that a “spoiler effect” will not result in undemocratic outcomes. IRV allows all voters to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate, and it ensures that the winner enjoys true support from a majority of the voters. Plurality voting, as used in most American elections, does not meet these basic requirements for a fair election system that promotes cost-saving elections with wider participation.”
Instant runoff voting is already used around the world and in the US in places like San Francisco, California; Burlington, Vermont; and Takoma Park, Maryland.
You can read more about instant runoff voting (IRV) and other reforms at FairVote’s website here.
I realize that these solutions aren’t perfect and won’t fix everything, but I think they are steps in the right direction in terms of the electoral system. For the sweeping progress we want, the regime change will only go so far unless the roots of the problem are addressed. Fortunately, we the people always have the power to make that change.