America marked a little-noticed milestone last year, as Paul Ryan became our first Prime Minister. Not unlike the head of a European Parliament, Ryan rose to leadership by assembling a coalition with a sub-party, the House Freedom Caucus. That sub-party had unique demands, a distinct (if not well-known) identity, and it’s own goals independent of the GOP. And Ryan must maintain their loyalty to keep his job.
This form of parliamentary organization is unique because Ryan’s coalition partners belong, at least technically, to his own political party. We might be on a cusp of a new era of multi-party democracy, in which numerous sub-entities within each major party compete against each other more openly in primaries and vie for power in Congress. While not quite consistent with parliamentary practices elsewhere in the world, this innovation could help us adapt to the needs of an increasingly diverse electorate, giving voters many more choices and more capable representation.
A particularly bruising election season has exposed the limitations of our two-party system. The structure of our Constitution constrains our options for parliamentary politics. However, the fight over Ryan’s ascension demonstrates a potential opening. Emerging from the growing divisions in both parties, a model of open sub-partisan competition may create a unique form of multi-party democracy within our existing two-party system.
In European systems, seats in the legislative body are assigned on an explicitly proportional basis. Details vary, but in most countries citizens cast a vote for a party rather than for a candidate, or some combination of the two. Parties might or might not publish a slate indicating which candidates they are proposing for each local jurisdiction. A party that wins 10% of the vote gets approximately 10% of the seats in parliament or a state-level assembly. Members of parliament do not necessarily live in the districts they represent. Parties generally send their best (favorite) leaders to parliament, rather than those representatives being directly chosen by voters.
There is no American-style President in these systems. The party earning the largest share of the popular vote gets the first opportunity to build a coalition with other parties and select a Prime Minister. That Prime Minister wields executive power in the government so long as he or she retains support of a parliamentary majority.
One shouldn’t assume a parliamentary model would be more effective or more democratic than our Presidential model. That question deserves a more thorough discussion in another setting. We can conclude with confidence though that our binary system has become far too constrained to deliver meaningful representation in such a large, complex country. We need more choices, but the structure of our representative government makes this challenging.
Americans select their legislative leaders in binary elections for single-member districts. Instead of pooling seats across a wide geography, each seat is decided in a single election with one winner. In theory, a political party could win 49% of the votes in Congressional Districts across a state and, unless they had won a majority in at least one of the districts, seat zero representatives in Congress.
Our founders constructed this system in a calculated attempt to block the emergence of political parties, a specific reaction to abuses they perceived in the British House of Commons. They wanted to build a republic of ‘great men’ elected individually for their virtue. That effort to avoid partisanship had failed before the ink was dry on the Constitution, yet we continue to live within its awkward constraints.
Our system of government is dependent on party politics for its survival. Yet it is structured to make those parties as weak, incoherent, and dysfunctional as possible. There are some very good reasons why none of the countries that democratized after our revolution adopted our system of government. We were an early test case in popular rule. Others have learned from our experiment and refined the model.
A first step toward reform could potentially come from the states. In theory, any state could adopt a proportional system for their legislature tomorrow morning. It might require them to amend their state constitutions, but nothing in federal law would stop them. For Congress, however, the Constitution limits us to single member districts, organized on geographic/population terms. Reform at the state level might produce helpful changes in our political parties, but it wouldn’t change the way we elect Congressional representatives.
Some relief could come from a geographic breakup of the two national parties into sub-parties. True, only one candidate can win in any single district, but there is no law stating that a Democrat who wins an election in Memphis has to be ideologically identical to a Democrat in San Francisco. Emergence of what we’ll call “hyphenated identities” could be at least an interim key to a more diverse, more democratically accountable slate of representatives.
Picture an African-American business leader in Baltimore or Hartford. She may be a Democrat only because the influence of the Tea Party and white nationalists in the GOP has made it very difficult to be a Republican. That same influence from elsewhere in the country makes the Republican brand hopelessly toxic to voters in Baltimore, trapping an entire city of diverse interests under one-party Democratic rule.
What if she launched a run for office under a distinct brand? An organization of “Urban Republicans” with a clearly stated identity distinct from the national Republican Party might be able to offer trapped voters a credible alternative to the two major national parties.
In a place like Baltimore where Republican organizations at the higher levels are so hopelessly weak that they have ceased to be influential, there is little that state or county organizations could do to stop them. An influx of business-friendly minority voters could take control of the local party apparatus in a single election, providing support and cover for an insurgency.
It might sound odd, but its been done before. Until the 80’s there was virtually no local Republican presence across most of the South. Under organizational leadership from fundamentalist churches, an entire generation of Dixiecrats flooded that empty structure, manufacturing a new Republican identity. They were so successful that they haven’t needed to give themselves a hyphen. Today, they own and define the Republican brand.
In a country of 320 million people spanning six time zones, no ‘big tent’ can represent a credible electoral majority while remaining structurally sound. Our parties have grown so weak that even at the top of the ticket Presidential contenders are emerging from outside the parties’ ranks. Neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders are members of the parties from which they seek the nomination.
Imagine a national Republican or Democratic convention in which delegates from five or eight distinct regional sub-parties negotiated to select a single Presidential nominee. Likewise, picture a Congress in which a third or more of the members were elected under a hyphenated brand. No Speaker could be nominated without assembling a cross-partisan coalition that might combine Urban Republicans, Gulf Coast Democrats, and three or four other designations across party lines.
Embracing the emergence of hyphenated party affiliations at the local level could grant our existing political structure the flexibility to adapt to an increasingly diverse electorate. Such a change may already be developing out of the earthquakes shaking our parties. There’s a chance that we might look back on the otherwise unremarkable tenure of House Speaker Paul Ryan as the moment when our multi-party democracy was born.