29 December 2014

How to fix America's broken democracy

America has changed since the days of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Money is splurged on elections and, many argue, this corrupts lawmaking. The parties are far more polarised and suspicious of each other. America’s political architecture is part of the problem, for two reasons. First, the electoral system rewards extremists. Many members of the House represent gerrymandered districts which their party cannot lose. Their only fear is that they might lose a party primary to a challenger who accuses them of being soft on the other side. So they pander to the zealots who vote in primaries and treat opportunities for compromise like invitations to burn Old Glory.

Second, the federal government has so many checks and balances that it is all but paralysed. The Senate filibuster gives 41 out of 100 senators the ability to block anything except a budget (they could in theory represent just 11% of the population). Attempts to limit campaign spending tend to fail—and to infringe the constitution’s free-speech guarantee. The best one can hope for is that donors will have to reveal who they are. More can be accomplished with reforms that empower the centre and remove road blocks, without requiring a federal constitutional amendment. Here are three suggestions:

First, scrap the filibuster in the Senate. Second, stop gerrymandering. Four states have already handed control of redistricting to independent commissions. California did so in 2010. Between 2002 and 2010 the state’s House members held on to their seats 99.6% of the time; in 2012 a quarter of them retired or got the boot. The reforms also moderated California’s state legislature. Once dominated by doctrinaire Democrats, last year it rejected 39 out of the 40 bills that the Chamber of Commerce said would kill jobs. One day, with luck, computers will design voting districts without taking party preferences into account.

Third, other states should copy California’s open primaries. Instead of letting just registered Republicans pick a Republican candidate and Democrats pick a Democrat, the Golden State now holds primaries in which anyone can vote. The top two candidates then proceed to the general election, even if they are both of the same party. This gives candidates an incentive to pitch to the political centre from the very start.

- The Economist, 8 November 2014, p.13
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