Posted February 26, 2016
Americans are thoroughly disenchanted with their Congress, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. That may explain the improbable success of outsiders in the Presidential primaries, and give pause to thinking about changes to Canada’s system of voting.
The approval rating of Congress is a measly 14% (with 81% disapproving), and it has been like that for years. The boundaries for seats are shamelessly manipulated to improve the prospects of incumbents. The result is that there is no serious competition in 80% of the races. In 2014, one or the other party did not even bother putting up a candidate in 69 out of 538 House seats.
Thus, the only real competition in most cases is for the party nomination. For Republicans, those races are often dominated by the most conservative members. The candidates so chosen have little in common with elected Democrats, and even less with President Obama—whom they cordially loathe.
Not much gets done in Washington. House Republicans have voted more than 50 times to repeal “Obamacare” to no effect, since the Senate has not been able to pass a similar motion until recently. The result will be vetoed by Obama in any event.
Voters feel little ownership of the choice of who represents them, and little satisfaction with the chosen. There is a strong appetite for real change, which manifests itself in the improbable success of Presidential contenders Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont, and Donald Trump, the bombastic real estate investor.
Sanders wants to double the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, make public universities tuition-free, and introduce Canadian-style health care.
All of this is to be paid for by vast new taxes on corporations, the wealthy, employers—and, of course, Wall Street. The forecasts of revenue from those proposals are entirely unrealistic.
Sanders has galvanized energetic support from young Democrats, and has campaigned more effectively than the sometimes-wooden Hillary Clinton.
Nevertheless, she is likely to prevail. Sanders lacks her financial resources, trails badly in endorsements from senior Democrats, and is unelectable.
Trump is doing much better in a field that started with 17 wannabes and still has five candidates.
A voter interested in Trump’s policy positions will find nothing on his website. That is not to say he has none.
He has announced a wall between the USA and Mexico (to be paid for by Mexico, although he does not say how that would be brought about), China is to be bullied into assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (ditto), he will restore waterboarding and harsher forms of torture, he will ban Muslims (including U.S. citizens) from entering the country, he is going to charge a 45% duty to imports from China, cancel NAFTA and other trade treaties, et cetera.
Trump invents history to suit his purpose. His utterly unsupported and/or revisionist claims include a mass of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attacks, himself opposing the invasion of Iraq, illegal immigrants costing the country $200 billion per year, and vaccinations causing autism.
Trump has been a gift for the media—especially television—so they don’t give him the scrutiny he deserves. At the moment, he is the favourite to be the Republican candidate.
Whether he can win the presidency is still uncertain, but the fact that it is even possible speaks poorly of the operation of democracy in the United States. It is the voice of voters looking for a way to express their deep dissatisfaction with Washington, and finding the Presidency to be their only outlet.
Life is simpler in Canada. Under our first-past-the-post system, we usually elect governments in which the Prime Minister has a parliamentary majority. If voters don’t like the way things are going, they can (and do) hold the government accountable. Thusly, we had abrupt changes of government in Nova Scotia in 2013 and at the federal level in 2015.
Prime Minister Trudeau has promised that the next election will be under a different system, without making the case that there is a better alternative. Of course, nobody in Canada is proposing the dysfunctional gridlock prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.
But, it will be hugely unfortunate if we end up with a system providing the diffuse accountability that is dismaying our American neighbours.
Proportional representation proposals bring that risk. In that system, all seats are allocated among parties based on their share of the vote. The parties pick who gets those seats—not the voters—and the members so chosen are not accountable to any geographic constituency.
In such a system, the people at the top of their party’s list are likely to retain their positions regardless of individual merit. The clear accountability of a majority government would be a thing of the past. Single-issue parties whose votes are needed to sustain a government would have outsized influence.
It is not at all clear that a different system will leave voters feeling a greater ownership of the government that is chosen. Any proposal for change must meet that test.
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Member’s Manual: Members’ Compensation, Expenses and Constituency Administration from House of Assembly Nova Scotia