Our social contract is broken. Under the contract’s terms, “Consent at the ballot box confers both democratic credentials and democratic legitimacy,” as described by Hélène Landemore in her book “Open Democracy.” The contract breaches are numerous and obvious.
The first breach: democratic credentials. Have you ever wondered how a member of Congress can claim to represent all 747,000 (more of less) of their constituents? Even in the best-case scenario, in a district that hasn’t been gerrymandered and in a place with high voter turnout, the member will have only received direct electoral support from a small fraction of the whole eligible electorate. For Landemore (and the rest of us) that begs the question: “How can the authorization of some, even a large majority, confer the authorization of all?”
The second breach: democratic legitimacy. Under our current electoral framework and contract, there’s an assumption that simply by virtue of being a member of the public you’ve consented to the winner of an election representing your views, speaking on your behalf, wielding your sovereign power. Increasingly, though, that concept of hypothetical consent rings hollow; in the words of Landemore, “Hypothetical consent is, simply put, no consent at all.”
For democratic legitimacy to exist, according to Hanna Pitkin, the representative “must (1) be authorized to act; (2) act in a way that promotes the interests of the represented; and (3) be accountable to the represented.”
Our current elections clearly don’t confer this sort of legitimacy. First, only a small segment participates in “authorizing” the representative to act by participating in elections. Second, elected officials frequently are forced, predominately by special interests, to act counter to the interests of those they claim to represent. Third, elections, because of a lack of participation and excessive influence of partisan and monied entities, are a poor means of holding officials accountable.
How, then, can and should we rewrite the contract?
The answer isn’t direct democracy, which is “always at risk of being hijacked by individuals with time, money and intense preferences,” according to Landemore. Nor is the answer as simple as taking money out of politics, or some variant of a plea for marginal changes to our current system. At a minimum, we need to adopt reforms capable of establishing democratic credentials and democratic legitimacy.
A transition to proportional representation is the easiest (though admittedly difficult) step to take to realize democratic credentials and legitimacy. If the social contract really has been breached, then this reform has the chance to restore the bonds between we, the people, and our elected representatives.
As outlined by Lee Drutman, proportional representation could work by electing the top three voter-getters in each congressional district.
On democratic credentials, the election of more representatives would provide the election winners with a much sturdier democratic credential to act on the behalf of their (effectively fewer) constituents. On democratic legitimacy, the proposal would (1) permit House members more authority to act by virtue of fewer voters feeling as though they had not provided their consent for that representative to act; (2) make it easier for representatives to act in the interest of the specific voters that elected them; (3) increase the ability of voters to hold their officials accountable through more-competitive elections and a greater capacity to monitor the fidelity of the official to their interests.
Proportional representation is not a wild step; in fact, a move to proportional representation would bring the United States into alignment with most democracies. Some, such as Drutman, even argue that proportional representation would allow Congress to get back to its Golden Era (roughly 1950-1970), in which both the Democrats and Republicans contained conservative and liberal factions — thus effectively creating a four-party system in which cross-partisan compromises were possible.
The people, as sovereigns, should demand more from their social contract. The current terms have fallen woefully short of the aspirations of the people. Decades of underperformance justify meaningful consideration of a new approach. Proportional representation is the most tenable approach that sufficiently warrants the people entrusting their power to their representatives.
Kevin Frazier, a student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, runs The Oregon Way, a nonpartisan blog.
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