Last year, I pushed the constitutional envelope by suggesting lots of really small congressional districts as a remedy to the disconnection between citizens and their representatives. Today, I want to keep pushing, but in a slightly different direction.
For the past twenty years or so, techno-philosophers have been announcing/critiquing the “destruction of distance” or the “demise of geography;” the idea that in a world with ubiquitous telecommunications connectivity and internet capabilities, physical location is a lot less important than it used to be. Our recent pandemic experience has accelerated our shift in this direction with tele-learning (or at least tele-teaching), tele-medicine, tele-boring business meeting, zoom cocktail parties, etc.
However, there is another way in which physical location is still the touch-stone: the definition of groups of people who elect their representatives. Municipal wards, state legislative and congressional districts are all drawn on a geographic map and everyone inside the boundaries is lumped together to choose their leader/public servant. The adage: “All politics is local,” (often attributed to the great politician Tip O’Neil) is certainly true, at least in the sense of being derived from small groups and personal relationships. Yet, the phrase itself is redolent of geography: “locality” implies physical proximity. As the basis of political organization, does this still make sense?
True, we are territorial creatures, even if not as odiferous about it as leopards, lemurs, or lynx.. Early political organization naturally emerged out of extended family groups who lived in close proximity. In Europe, social groupings centered on parishes and feudal structures. In a pre-motorized age, few connections more than 20 miles away had much significance from a political perspective. Still, there is a tradition of political representation on a non-geographic basis: guilds of artisans or groups of traders would name a representative to some larger political body. But, for the most part, democracy has been built on locality.
Some interests remain acutely local (i.e. geographically bounded); local schools, roads, economic alignments (e.g. ranching in Wyoming, coastal environments in California), but the larger the overall political entity, the more likely that individual voter’s interests will align with others outside their own neighborhood. For some, geographically-rooted affinities may take priority, but for others, issues ranging from gender basis, or environment, or ethnic communities, are more important regardless of physical location. Why should the State force citizens to exercise their franchise based solely on where they live rather than what they care about?
Indeed, our political structures make little room for this variation in interests and self-identification. Occasionally, special districts are created with a transit or tax focus, that are larger or smaller than the usual municipal/county structures. But these special purpose entities are clearly side-lights in terms of voter attention/participation and their effect on peoples’ lives.
Another framework for approaching this issue is the use of proportional representation in legislative bodies. This method, in contrast to my earlier argument in favor of small geographic districts (although plausibly as a complimentary system) has the benefit of extensive real-world experience, most notably in Germany and a few dozen other parliamentary systems around the world. The concept is to treat the electorate (at either a national or regional level) as a single body, sometimes as the exclusive mode of election or sometimes mixed with election of some members by local district. Typically, political parties compile a list of potential candidates and if the “Truth and Freedom” party gets 40% of the vote, then the top 40% of their list is elected, along with 28% of the “Justice and Progress” party, 16% of the Greens, and a smattering of smaller groups, totaling 100%.
Political parties are another name for a collection of voters who agree to a more-or-less coalition of representation driven by a more-or-less coherent political philosophy. Some voters, whose views on, e.g., gun rights, school taxes, social justice, or foreign policy are sufficiently important, might choose to align in a narrowly-targeted party, but most seem to have a broader range of interests and choose larger groupings. (Ours are highly sclerotic and corrupted, as I have noted elsewhere; but there’s nothing like changing the electoral system to re-shuffle that deck!)
As a result, such parties become the vehicles for participation in pollical systems and, while, at the local level a particular individual candidate might swing votes by comparison with their direct competitors, at the “party-list, proportional representation level, it’s all about the ideological coalition.
Some countries use just national lists and full proportional representation, but some use mixed systems, combining the local focus and the relative ideological “coherence” of political parties. For example, in New Zealand, 71 seats are chosen in local districts and 49 are chose from party lists. As you might imagine, each country (or state/province) has its own variations. There are no such large-scale systems in place in the US has, as far as I know. This half-step balances traditional geographic mind-sets with the more flexible affinity-choice model. I can imagine systems in which this approach is combined with multi-member districts, so as to allow voters to prioritize multiple issue preferences.
Whether half-steps or full, there are downsides, to be sure, including 1) increasing the effective power of political parties as an intermediate institution of politics, 2) the potential for proliferation of single-issue parties, and 3) having to endure seemingly endless debates by political “scientists” and the general commentariat about the specifics. Against these risks are the benefits of 1) letting electors define and choose their own affiliations, 2) providing a much-needed shock to our body-politic (e.g., deflating some of the “big-tent” political parties in which individual elected officials make back-room trade-offs between issue preferences), and 3) freeing ourselves from an outmoded form of politics which demarcates voters by where they happen to live.