Grassroots/Hank Kalet

Systemic Repair Needed

American politics needs a realignment. And not just a recasting of the major parties. Changes are needed to expand the register of allowable voices in the American debate, to force the major parties to listen to their disparate elements and to ensure that the opinions that the Beltway pundits view as outside the mainstream get a fair hearing.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw from the Democrats’ inability to redirect the debate on Iraq and impose the will of a majority of Americans on an administration that has lost all credibility.

The Democrats, elected to a majority in both houses of Congress because of anger over the war in Iraq, talked a good game, talked about timelines and holding the administration’s feet to the fire, but in the end they caved in to a Bush veto and to fears that they would be seen as weak, that they could be accused of abandoning the troops.

And so the war continues and, as Robert Borosage wrote on Tom Paine, the Democrats who refused to impose even the most flexible of timelines are as complicit as their Republican colleagues in the failure to begin bringing troops home.

“Those who vote for it are voting to enable a rogue president,” he wrote just before the vote. “They are sacrificing the nation’s security and the lives of many young soldiers to stand with George Bush.”

It was, as Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) said, a “real turn in the wrong direction,” “a big mistake” and a step “backward.”

“Instead of forcing the president to safely redeploy our troops, instead of coming up with a strategy providing assistance to a post-redeployment Iraq, and instead of a renewed focus on the global fight against al-Qaeda,” the senator told John Nichols of The Nation, “We are faced with a spending bill that kicks the can down the road and buys the administration time.”

But what does it buy the Democrats? The party remains mired in the kind of fear that has stymied its efforts for much of the last two decades, worried more about what the Beltway pundits have to say than about the majority of Americans who want the war to end.

David Sirota summed it up this way on Working for Change:

“A Democratic Party that six months ago was elected on a promise to end the war first tried to hide their complicity in continuing the war in the House, and then gave a few token speeches as the blank check sailed through the Senate club,” he wrote. “And it all happened, as the New York Times reported today, because these Democrats believed criticism from President Bush — the man who polls show is the most unpopular president in three decades — ‘seemed more politically threatening to them than the anger Democrats knew they would draw from the left.’”

Part of the problem is that there is no effective left party in the United States that could challenge moderate Democrats — especially in close districts — without opening the possibility for a Republican win. That’s because we use a first-past-the-post format that puts third-party candidates in the role of spoiler.

Several options exist that could open the system to third parties:

Proportional representation: This format grants seats in the legislature based upon the proportion of the vote a political party receives. This could boost the prospects of a variety of alternate parties, both progressive and conservative by lessening the likelihood that the two major parties would gain a majority thereby forcing politicians to reach beyond their parties to form coalitions.

Instant run-off voting: Voters would rank their choices from among multiple candidates. First choices would be tallied and, if one candidate failed to earn a majority, the lowest vote getter would be eliminated and second-choice votes would be counted, then third and so on until one candidate wins a majority. This would allow voters to cast their ballots for the Green Party, for instance, without fearing that it would allow a more conservative to win office with less than 50% of the vote.

Fusion voting or cross-endorsements: Under this system, more than one party can endorse the same candidate — the Working Family Party, for instance, could endorse the Democrat in a close race, hopeful that it would win enough votes on its line to convince the Democrat that it needs to take WFP concerns seriously. Fusion’s record, unfortunately, has been mixed — there have been instances of collusion between the major parties to thwart third parties, while some alternative parties have become nothing more than patronage mills.

There are benefits and detriments to all three formats, and others, and I’m not sure that any will ultimately fix a system that allows a minority from thwarting the wishes of the majority — as it did with the Iraq vote.

But it is important, if we are to reinvigorate our democracy, that we explore the alternatives and involve the public in a debate on whether we should alter our voting system and what changes might make the most sense.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2007

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