A shift to proportional representation in the U.S. would open up new possibilities — not just on guns, but on climate, immigration and democracy itself.
BY LEE DRUTMAN
Lee Drutman is the author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.” He is a senior fellow at the think tank New America, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, co-host of the podcast Politics in Question and the co-founder of Fix Our House, a campaign for proportional representation in America.
After every mass shooting in the U.S., there’s a familiar cycle: Grief, outrage and frustration, followed by helplessness and the predictable sinking feeling that it will happen again, and soon, because our political system is incapable of doing something — anything — to stop it. Comparable democracies — Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom — have passed common-sense gun reforms in the wake of mass shootings. But in the U.S., even the most marginal of meager reforms are fraught and controversial.
It doesn’t seem to matter that majorities of Americans support common sense gun reform, or that majorities of Americans vote for the party that promises common sense gun reform. Even majority support is not enough to pass national laws in what has become an anti-majoritarian system. Especially when those majorities support Democrats, nothing happens.
It is easy for supporters of gun control to feel like there is nothing that could break through. Republicans seem more convinced than ever that everything but the guns is the problem. And the necessary filibuster-busting majorities in the Senate feel out of reach for Democrats anytime soon.
The path to sensible gun reform isn’t just to elect more Democrats, lobby Republicans harder or donate to gun reform groups. We need to understand why, despite shooting after shooting, the prospects for meaningful national gun reform just seem to grow more dispiriting. We need to understand why we keep banging our heads into the same brick wall and winding up with the same dizzying concussions.
The way out involves the political system itself — namely, our binary two-party system and the single-member district electoral system that preserves it. Change that, and new possibilities open up. Not just on guns, but on almost every other issue that is gridlocked and divided now for the same reason. Climate. Immigration. Democracy itself.
If we break the binary and open up the party system by switching to multi-member districts with seats allocated through proportional representation (like most advanced democracies in the world already have), we can scramble and realign the divides that prevent progress on so many issues. It’s a straightforward solution that doesn’t require a constitutional amendment.
And as a bonus, it would have a bunch of other benefits as well, such as ending gerrymandering and increasing voter turnout (since under proportional representation, every vote would matter, motivating voters to show up to the polls at greater rates).
“The way out involves the political system itself — namely, our binary two-party system and the single-member district electoral system that preserves it.”
Now imagine, for a second, if instead of deciding between Democrats and Republicans this November, voters were instead choosing between six parties, representing a broader array of perspectives on a broad range of issues. Likely, there would be one hard-right MAGA party, which would also be the staunch gun rights party. But such a party would top out at around 20% — not enough to control anything on its own.
Other parties on the political right would be more open to modest gun reforms, since there would now be parties on the right that compete for voters in the professional class suburbs and even cities. In a proportional, multi-party system, politics is not zero-sum. Parties can work together. In fact, they have to work together.
New parties would supply new and innovative solutions and new compromises. In a strict duopoly, there is little imperative to innovate and a strong imperative to keep politics one-dimensional.
The fastest way to proportional representation would be for Congress to pass a law, which it could do tomorrow. Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress wide latitude in deciding the rules for its own elections, a power Congress has used throughout American history. Indeed, the only reason we use single-member districts today is because Congress mandated it. Congress could mandate five-to-seven member districts (as possible) and could also increase the size of the House (ideally to 700). The Senate is a more difficult problem, but starting with reform in the House is likely to open up new possibilities as the binary breaks up.
Proportional representation may seem like a long shot, but we’re in a strange political moment. The system itself has become the problem. But because the system itself is now the problem, it is also ripe for reform…