Another nation is having an election today, which means it’s time for Why Can’t The US Be Like ____ Day. Today, the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor fills in the blank with “Israel,” whose parliamentary elections use party slates, for which citizens across the country vote rather than for a representative from their own community. Tharoor thinks that would improve governance in the US, and that proportional representation instead of geographic representation would be “refreshing” to Americans.
Proportional representation — as well as parliamentary politics — privileges ideological votes over geographic ones. Israelis will choose between more than two dozen lists of candidates, some of whom stand on very specific platforms or represent narrow interests, such as those of a particular ultra-Orthodox religious community.
Sure, there will be plenty of political cynicism and compromise on display after the election, when the leading parties are compelled to form a coalition government. But the Knesset itself is a more genuine reflection ofIsrael’s political spectrum than a system such as that in the United States, with two iron-clad, dominant parties battling it out in winner-takes-all contests.
First, let’s note the obvious: Israel is not the US, nor the other way around. Israel is a small country with just 7 million people. There are 330 million people in the US, spread out over a much larger and diverse geographic landscape. How, exactly, would those lists of representatives get made, and who would get to make them? There’s nothing very “refreshing” about self-sustaining establishments, whether within two parties or twenty of them, but that’s exactly what one would get with such as system in the US, because it would be impractical for any other process to be employed.
Furthermore, that would not solve the gridlock in Washington but amplify it exponentially, as well as make cronyism practically a predetermined outcome. The parliamentary system in the UK is relatively stable, but in Israel it’s usually a form of paralysis, with shifting coalitions undermining compromises in ways that put the extreme parties in control of policy. There’s a reason why the ultra-religious right in Israel gets exempted from military duty and welfare for being “religious scholars,” and that’s because their party is usually needed to form the governing coalition. In a country this size, we’d see that fragmentation on a wide scale, and endless infighting rather than any governance at all.
The way the US solves that problem — and the UK as well — is to tie representation to specific geographical districts. That, however, is passé in Tharoor’s vision:
Because of the electoral college system in the United States, the simple fact of where you live could mean your vote just doesn’t matter in a presidential election. Some of the country’s most important urban centers get completely bypassed by national campaigns because they happen to not sit in swing states. The practice of gerrymandering districts shapes congressional politics and creates entrenched power bases for the parties.
In a system with proportional representation, none of these artificial checks on a more direct form of democracy would exist.
Well, I hate to break it to Tharoor, but the presidential election isn’t the end-all, be-all of American politics. Congressional elections are much more important, or at least should be. The House is the people’s chamber, and the representational form allows each community to have their own person to hold accountable for the legislature’s actions. The concern over urban representation is wildly misplaced, since the concentration of populations in urban centers means that those cities are if anything overrepresented in the House, which is why the balance of the Senate is so necessary.
Besides, how many people from the exurbs and farmland would end up on those party lists? And does Tharoor understand that he suggests replacing a system where individual direct votes for President supposedly count less in some states with a system in which no individual gets to vote directly for the head of state at all?
Finally, Tharoor argues that the Israeli system would improve voter turnout and get more women involved in politics. There are no barriers to the latter now, and in fact both parties have plenty of incentives to get more women involved as it is. Israel’s Knesset is hardly a great model for that parity anyway, with only 21.6% being women — almost identical to Congress now (19.3% in the House and 20% in the Senate, according to a fact sheet that Tharoor oddly links in support of his argument).
It might get a better voter turnout here in the US, to be sure, but voter turnout isn’t the point of the US electoral system. Its mission is to deliver representative and accountable governance to the people, a form of government that allows a free people to govern themselves in a responsible manner. Those free people are also free to actively participate in that process if they desire (and qualify), and free to choose not to participate either. Confusing participation rates with outcomes is a fallacy … but it’s one we’ll keep hearing every time another nation holds an election.