By Robert A. Vella – April 26th 2022
In a book review of 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s illuminating On Revolution (see: You say you want a revolution; well, what exactly do you mean? (a book review)), I highlighted the widely held opinion that political parties pose existential threats to democracy and the rule of law (i.e. republics) because they serve special interests and are motivated by self-interest in contrast to their necessary role as political institutions which serve the nation’s interest. In his Farewell Address, President George Washington spoke at length about this problem as did Arendt in her book. She also cited the similar views of another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, who suggested the creation of a Ward System (i.e. a community-level subdivision of counties to foster public participation in governance, see: Ward republic). Jefferson’s proposal, which followed the varied efforts of civic engagement during the early French Revolution (i.e. the Council System) – and was derived more distantly from the Social Contracts of the pre-revolutionary American colonists – was never fully developed before his death in 1826. Considering the intensely polarized cultural and political environment in the United States today, which has already caused persistent dysfunction in the federal government and has come very close to destroying its constitutional foundations (i.e. Donald Trump’s attempted coup d’état on January 6th, 2021), it is long past the time to revive and flesh-out Jefferson’s innovative idea.
What America’s Founding Fathers achieved in establishing a democratic republic upon the U.S. Constitution was most remarkably a delicate balancing act between two opposing social forces which are inherently tyrannical (i.e. violent mass movements and corrupt concentrations of power). Although the longevity of the nation they created is self-evident, its sustainability is by no means assured. The governmental structure has its limits which was severely stressed during the Civil War of 1861-1865 and is similarly being tested now. One of the major concerns of Washington and Jefferson was that the system of representative democracy specified in the Constitution could become disconnected from the people and cause a growing and destabilizing rift between government and the populace; and, this is precisely what America has been experiencing since the 1980s. Whereas Washington pointed to a likely threat (i.e. radicalizing political parties), Jefferson pointed towards a possible solution (i.e. increasing public participation). Therefore, the following plan is tailored to address those issues.
First of all, it would be highly improbable to reconfigure the legislative branch of the federal government (i.e. the U.S. Congress) with representation based on the Ward System because the U.S. Constitution limits the number of members in the House of Representatives to no more than 1 member per each 30,000 residents (a theoretical limit of 11,033 members based on the current U.S. population of 331 million), and because it delegates most of the authority to manage federal elections to the states. Obviously, amending the Constitution to incorporate the Ward System would be exceedingly difficult considering the enormous political opposition it would face. However, it would be procedurally easier – although no less politically contested – for Congress to pass a law to replace the Reapportionment Act of 1929 which would expand the number of House members from 435 (currently 1 member for each 761,000 residents) to a figure closer to the representative spirit of the Ward System (note: Republicans passed that act in 1929 to dilute the representation of immigrants which they feared would vote for Democrats; and, that act also enabled gerrymandering which has allowed the partisan and discriminatory redrawing of congressional districts ever since). Therefore, it simply wouldn’t be practical to pursue either of these more fundamental solutions at the present time (but, never say never!).
The average size U.S. county has approximately 105,000 residents (there are an estimated 3,143 counties in the U.S., 3,243 including its territorial equivalents) which could be subdivided into one or more wards of 10,000 residents each (which would currently create 33,100 wards in the U.S). This is a size more representative of local communities/neighborhoods and more conducive to public participation. The most effective strategy to incorporate these wards into the governmental and political structures of the nation would be an indirect and bottom-up approach rather than direct and top-down. The latter approach, although potentially quicker and constitutionally sturdier (if it could be achieved), would be met with fierce opposition from majorities in both political parties as well as from a vast array of special interests determined to maintain the status quo. Perhaps the roughly 40% of congressional Democrats who are ideologically progressive, and maybe the 10-15% of congressional Republicans who are ideologically libertarian, might support a direct strategy for the Ward System (a very big if); but, that wouldn’t be nearly enough by a long shot. Political parties are analogous to political animals, self-survival is their top priority. For example, Senate Majority Leader (now Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell (R-KY) openly condemned President Donald Trump for inciting the violent January 6th 2021 insurrection which attempted to overturn the legally certified result of the 2020 presidential election (and even inquired about removing him from office via the 25th Amendment), and then only weeks later he urged his caucus to vote against convicting Trump in the 2nd impeachment trial and subsequently even stated his support for Trump’s possible campaign for president in 2024 (see: New details lay bare GOP’s post-Jan. 6 cravenness — and miscalculation). Although I’d like to believe Democrats wouldn’t be so cowardly unprincipled, it’s hard to imagine they would willingly concede their party’s entrenched power for any conceivable reason.
That leaves us with an indirect strategy. Interestingly, the Ward System has been used in many countries – including some U.S. municipalities – for city council and special district (e.g. school) elections for a very long time (instead of at-large elections which do not necessarily reflect the vote of individual districts, see: Ward (electoral subdivision)); so, implementing it on a wider scale would not set any new legal or constitutional precedent. The rationale is straightforward. While a city mayor should be elected by all its citizens, a city councilmember who represents a single district or ward should be elected only by its residents. The obstacle to this Ward System is primarily state law, and in some cases state constitutions, which also typically give unfair advantages to the Democratic and Republican parties (i.e. the de facto two-party system which is not in any manner specified in the U.S. Constitution). Consequently, local residents are not directly represented in many cases, have far fewer voting options, and are often constrained to choose between what is idiomatically referred to as “the lesser of two evils.”
The first step in replacing the Party System would be to organize grassroots campaigns advocating changes to state election laws – and state constitutions, if necessary – which would rescind the existing structural advantages of the two major political parties. The most important of these reforms would be for states to eliminate party-specific or party-centric primary elections (i.e. first-past-the-post voting) and instead hold nonpartisan preliminary elections using more democratic methods such as ranked-choice voting or instant-runoff voting (which are already popularly supported). Organizing these campaigns would obviously require money, but there is typically no shortage of wealthy pro-democracy donors especially in America. Furthermore, if such movements gain traction with the populace, pressure would naturally mount on state lawmakers to take action. In contrast to the U.S. Congress, state legislatures are generally more responsive to the citizenry because its representatives are closer – electorally and physically – to the people. On the other hand, some states which are dominated by one political party (particularly GOP-controlled states) would predictably oppose these efforts; however, public pressure would still build especially if other states succeeded in making the reforms.
If the first step was able to resonate with the public and initiate the process of reforming (i.e. democratizing) state election laws, the effect on the way political candidates are selected to run in general elections (which would remain unchanged, at least in the short-term) might be imperceptible in the beginning but would gradually become more prominent as it spread across the country. Political parties (which cannot be outlawed because the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of association) could still do everything they currently do (e.g. nominating candidates based on their own rules), but would lose their monopoly over state-run primary (i.e. preliminary) elections. For example, Washington state will hold separate primary elections in 2024 for partisan voting on March 12th (for the two major parties) and for nonpartisan voting on August 6th (for everyone else) which assures – for all practical purposes – that a Democratic Party candidate and a Republican Party candidate will be on the general election ballot. Instead, the reforms would authorize just one primary election which would erase this major party advantage and allow the top two vote-getting candidates to advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation. The news media, which plays such a critical role in U.S. elections (and generally so in all democratic nations) would be compelled (eagerly or not) to report on such a significant change and start paying attention to independent and minor party candidates. Americans everywhere would take note (either objectively or subjectively) which would stimulate debate about the relative fairness of the new system versus the old system. It would, I believe, open many eyes.
The second step would be to set up local community wards in as much of the country as possible. If these could not be formally established in state law or in state constitutions, local residents could do so informally. It is vitally important that each ward be comprised of a similar number of residents to ensure equal proportional representation (see the third step). Residents would hold meetings (physical or virtual) to elect a chairperson (who would function as a meeting facilitator) and councilpersons (who would represent each neighborhood of the ward), to openly discuss the current issues facing both the community and the nation, and to potentially nominate candidates to represent the ward in the state legislature (see the third step).
The third step would entail modifying state laws and/or constitutions to give wards direct representation in state legislative houses/assemblies and possibly more representation in each state senate. Achieving this would be more difficult, and it would logically depend on the level of success of the first two steps. If successful, even if in just a few states, such a momentous democratic reform would undoubtedly spread to other states and exert tremendous public pressure on the federal government to do likewise (e.g. abolishing the undemocratic Electoral College). If the U.S. Congress stubbornly refused to reform (i.e. increase the number of members in the House, abolish gerrymandering, and mandate equal population size for congressional districts) under these circumstances, the Ward System would still be in place and everyone would know it. The news media would be less inclined to focus so heavily on the Democratic and Republican party nominations for President, for example, and more inclined to poll the wards for insight into the electability of each candidate. This is the benefit of an indirect strategy. Once a big ball starts rolling, it becomes increasingly harder to stop.
The old proverb – Nothing ventured, nothing gained – applies here. Aside from some organizational and operational expenditures, there is little or nothing to lose in the attempt. Should this strategy fail, the political status quo remains. Should it succeed, the threat to the republic (from political parties) cited by Washington would be retarded and the concern (over a destabilizing disconnect between government and the people) which Jefferson considered to resolve would be relieved. Furthermore, there is an unfortunate myth that has infected the American psyche since the 1980s in which people are led to believe that civic engagement and public participation in governance are passé or mere illusion. The truth of the matter is that the United States would never have come into existence, or lasted as long as it has, without it. Voter turnout (i.e. the percentage of all eligible citizens who vote in elections) was consistently high in the U.S. until the 1980s (note: the 2018 and 2020 elections began to reverse this decline), and in other contemporary democracies (e.g. western Europe, Greece, Israel, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand). In fact, persistently low voter turnout motivates politicians to ignore low-participation demographic groups (e.g. young people, and certain minorities) and to heed higher-participation groups (e.g. wealthy people, and ideological mass movements) which tends to move the political climate away from democracy and towards authoritarianism (see: Why Is Voter Turnout In The United States Lower Than That In Most Developed Nations?). So, the myth serves the purpose of autocratic interests while disempowering the very people most susceptible to it. Human nature is actually inclined towards social engagement; but, such motivation is quickly lost amid circumstances in which people cannot perceive any tangible result.
Since I am much more familiar with the U.S. political system, I chose it to investigate how this plan might be implemented; however, the basic idea could also be applied to any other democratic nation.