What I Learned in Intro to American Politics

by Andrew Desiderio - George Washington University on December 13, 2013

OPINION

Yesterday I completed my first semester as a freshman at The George Washington University. As a journalism major, one course I was required to take was Introduction to American Politics.

My professor Danny Hayes is not only a columnist for The Washington Post, but also an intelligent political scientist who opened my eyes to the institutions (established and not established) of the United States government.

One thing we learned is that – yes – our government is currently extremely dysfunctional.

America has an established single-member, simple plurality system in which congressional districts are geographically defined. Politicians are beholden to their constituents, not their party – or, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be – and a two-party system is the result.

While our system has its faults, it could be a lot worse. You could be living in Europe, where the proportional representation system is used by most nations.

In a proportional representation system, there are no geographic divisions even remotely similar to congressional districts in the United States.

Voters in those nations cast their ballots for a party, not a candidate. And sometimes there are up to 50, even 100 parties, to choose from. So, for example, if one party wins 45 percent of the vote, that party gets 45 percent of the seats in the Parliament.

Basically, these politicians are beholden to their party, not voters. There’s no such thing as constituents. Also as a result, smaller, less-popular minority parties form “coalitions” based on common interests.

Dysfunctional government is practically the norm in countries that abide by this system. Take Italy as an example, which had a general election earlier this year.

Italy’s proportional representation system does not guarantee any particular party a majority in the Italian Senate. Therefore, when no party wins a majority – as did happen as a result of the 2013 elections in Italy – coalitions must be formed among minority parties.

They try to find common interests to unite around. But a significant issue arises when different parties in the coalition disagree on other important policies. When this occurs, the government is at a standstill and nothing gets done. This happens all the time in Italy, as well as in other nations that follow a proportional representation system.

What about third-parties in the United States? Yes, they are pretty much drowned out in American politics. But America’s problem is not its single-member, simple plurality system. The politicians aren’t even the source of the problem.

We, the voters, are the problem.

Why, you ask?

Who put these politicians in office? Who voted for divided government the past two national elections?

We, the voters.

But what happens when American voters are forced to choose between two candidates? We have to choose the “lesser of two evils.” Or, we could vote third party — but according to the elites, we would supposedly be “wasting” or “throwing away” our votes on these candidates. If enough voters want a third party, that party will win office! It’s as simple as that. All politics is local, and mobilization of voters is key.

Would term limits help ease the dysfunction in Congress? Based on what I learned in Professor Hayes’ class, probably not.

All terms limits do is impose limits on the actual politicians themselves. If they come from a reliable Democratic district, for example, another Democrat will be elected. Same deal with Republican districts. The voices and faces may be different, but the status quo, when it comes to the majority party in Congress, will remain the same, and dysfunction will continue in divided government.

As for crony capitalism and special interests, these exist everywhere, not just in America, and politicians are always influenced by outside lobbying forces and interest groups.

I learned a lot in my American Politics class. But the most important thing Professor Hayes taught me is that, yes, our government may be dysfunctional at a moment in time, but I would much prefer America’s system of government to that of any other nation on Earth.

Fix contributor Andrew Desiderio is a student at The George Washington University.

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