Amid Defensive Organizing, We Must Think Through a New Politics

The Trump team grows larger and, with it, the weight of just how grand defensive actions will need to be. Everything appears at risk — the economy, the planet, safety, well-being, the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

The big orange elephant in the room is that this is bigger than Donald Trump. Our political system can’t find the common good, and this relates to design, not just him. The winner-take-all electoral system divides us into winners and losers and creates a situation where no one really wins. Instead of orienting us toward finding consensus in difference and then moving policy forward, we end up in a pattern of doing then undoing as governments change hands.

The Trump factor ramps up the level of panic, and activism and advocacy will focus on immediate issues as they arise in the Trump presidency. At the same time, the door to doing something about the political system might have just opened, even if merely to set the stage for a future change.

There are transformational ideas already in circulation to help us seize this moment. The late political scientist Robert Dahl thought the answer to our political problems was multi-party-ism, and his 2003 book proposed a switch to European-style proportional representation, PR for short. Very briefly, PR allows multiple representatives per electoral district, relative to their shares of the popular vote. What happens, then, is multiple parties — including small ones representing minority views — can win in districts even when they have a small base of support. To Dahl, PR is simply superior because it doesn’t discard many votes, and even small parties take their seat at the table. Because a single party is unlikely to monopolize government, larger and smaller parties have no choice but to ally in order to pass laws.

PR has its detractors and an uneven record. The substance of what could result in the United States would depend entirely on the sorts of new parties that would form, as well as the coalitions that would emerge. Change brings risks, of course, but if multiple parties compel a more holistic politics, it might just be time to think through what PR could mean here.

Of course, by itself, party restructuring does not take the money from politics, or make citizens reasoned or equalize participation. An idea called participatory budgeting is taking root in some US cities, creating deeper citizen engagement in decision-making than is evident in party politics or in the referendum process.

With participatory budgeting, residents control a portion of government spending. A Next City article described the process in Chicago’s 49th ward, where residents decided how to allocate $1 million for capital improvements deliberatively and together. Chicago has restricted participatory budgeting to small infrastructure projects but, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, six other cities also use it. One of those, San Francisco, allows residents to control some program funding.

Getting people to participate has been the difficulty, requiring significant mobilization efforts stymied in Chicago by the relatively narrow range of projects residents are empowered to budget, according to Next City. A mid-point between such deep citizen control and formal restructure of the two-party system is the community rights charter advocated by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. About 200 cities and towns have passed such charters that typically affirm existing local governments, but assert that the rights of citizens and nature supersede those of special interests to frack, build pipelines, degrade ecosystems or otherwise threaten the community; by charter, elected officials are obligated to enforce those community rights.

Ultimately, charters are a back-door redo of the basic theory underlying the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution, explained in Federalist #10, thought that larger territories would do better at controlling tyranny, specifically tyranny by majorities like the number of states printing paper money and relieving the debts of a growing poor population. Bigger is better was their theory of how to stop a wildfire of such policies overtaking more states. That communities might need to protect themselves from a tyrannical minority, like corporations, did not figure. Counties, cities and towns are not empowered by the Constitution; only states and the federal government.

Community rights charters may not be enough to recalibrate US politics. Certainly, there are grounds for legal challenges. And, more generally, charters only curb corporate rights if communities pass and enforce them. What about communities that don’t?

These options in play are not perfected, but give us new tools for thinking through a better politics. Thinking may seem like a luxury right now, but looming human and environmental calamities demand forward momentum. Would these options produce different outcomes than the current system? Do these ideas disrupt control by corporate or special interests? What institutional ecology would they need to forge a positive-sum process balancing ideological differences? The answers may help sketch a more serious and committed politics than our current partisan system.