Taxation without Representation

third partyOver two-hundred years ago, the phrase “No taxation without representation” became the battle cry for an increasingly numerous and increasingly unsatisfied group of British citizens living on the North American continent. Although the reasons for the  incipient revolution was far more complex than the centuries-old meme would suggest, the idea had resonance and far-reaching consequences on both sides of the Atlantic.

The phrase is still taught to school children, along with narrative of David vs Goliath– lowly colonists vs a vast empire– when discussing the history of the American Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, little reflection is given to modern times, and how our representation has been slowly removed from the average tax payer.

Certainly, we are no longer subject to fund the war chest of a far-off king, but I have serious reservations about how much the average citizen is represented in Washington (the obvious question of funding our own bloated war chest not withstanding).

A necessary part of representative democracy is the ability to fire any politician for any particular reason, be it a controversial vote, or tweeted controversial photo. Whether we actually have that power, is a subject of great debate. Most members of Congress have Saddam Hussain-like incumbency rates; yes, they are more likely to die in office than be voted out of it. Gerrymandering has always been an evil inherent in our system of democracy, one that–due to ever more sophisticated data collection in our technological age–is getting worse, not better. The same could be said for our extremely polarized two-party system, and a strong case could be made that a vicious cycle has been created, wherein extreme party loyalty leads to less competition and less tolerance of moderates within the parties, which in turn leads to even greater polarization. Indeed, when most politicians have more to worry about from challenges of more extreme members within their own party, rather than opponents from the other party, our democracy faces a serious existential problem.

I am not the first to point out that much of our political dysfunction comes from our entrenched two party system.

For a country that extols the virtues of the free market, we don’t have a free market of ideas. Americans are left with two choices, and the choices are often between “Uninspiring” (at best), and “Horrific” (at worst). How can one of two choices possibly represent the full breadth of an individual’s political ideals? The short answer is: It doesn’t. In the most recent poll by Gallup: only 24% of Americans considered themselves Republicans, and only 29% considered themselves Democrats. The plurality of Americans (45%) considers themselves to be independents.

I would love to see this poll conducted if viable third, fourth, or sixth parties actually existed in U.S. politics. How many would consider themselves “Greens” or “Libertarians” or “Moderates?” We certainly wouldn’t have nearly half the populace listed, essentially, as “Undecided.”

Of course, this is pure fantasy based on the way the parties have firmly entrenched themselves in the halls of power. Our winner-take-all system of electing representatives, and unlimited campaign contributions from anonymous donors only exacerbate the problems we have with the two-party system. But what if we had proportional representation, instead of direct representation? It is the preferred method throughout almost all the world’s democracies, and just because it wasn’t implemented by the Founding Fathers, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work in the United States.

Which is more important, local representation or ideological? Two hundred years ago, a much stronger case could have been made about the importance of local representation. The nation was far more disjointed and communities were further removed–both from Washington and each other. Now, “Your local congressman” represents far more people, and often (again, thanks to gerrymandering) people from very different locales. And the attention he does pay to the local district is often pandering in form of the much reviled “Pork.” His sole focus is to get reelected, and if he’s in a safe district, he has no incentive to compromise on legislation that could, in turn, cost him a difficult primary challenge within his district.

The world is much more interconnected and smaller, and local representation should give way to ideological representation in the United States. Even for the minority of Americans that would usually vote Republican, or usually vote Democrat, far more would consider themselves “conservative” or “liberal,” instead of a strict party affiliation. We might think of these terms as synonymous, but the difference is telling. Libertarians, for instance, must face the distasteful choice of voting for  a Republican, who will vote against their social interests, or a Democrat who will vote against their economic principles.

As someone with a very liberal bias, my annoyance with the Democratic Party is almost as severe as with Republicans. From my viewpoint, neither party cares about the environment, reducing military spending, or about gun control (and no, I’m not talking about paying lip-service to all of the above by the Democrats). Furthermore, they’re both shitty and corrupt, and it makes me think that George Carlin had a point about the meaninglessness of voting. I’m sure that’s the case for many Americans, and in the absence of a choice that actually reflects their values, why not just stay home and not participate at all?

Proportional representation does not represent a magic bullet for the problems we face in America. We would still have corruption, and greedy politicians who only care about staying in office at all costs. We would still have intractable problems, and unending debates over the tax rates, entitlements, and foreign policy. However,  it would give us a more representative democracy, a principle that we have sought to achieve since the founding of our nation.

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