Over the last 21 years that I’ve lived in New Zealand I’m always asked my opinion about the current US election. I try to explain how vast the US is, by land mass and population. The range of ethnic and religious groups living in different geographies of topography and climate with their unique beliefs and customs creates huge challenges when assembling an inclusive central government. The best US government will be one that celebrates that diversity as the main principle of a strong democracy. That principle has been lacking in US politics for decades.
I know I’m an idealist but I’d like to think I’m also realistic when looking at issues. One of the reasons I became a social studies teacher is because I believe so passionately in informed choice for those of us lucky enough to live in democracies. But in 2016 I am struggling to find realistic optimism in the current US elections.
In New Zealand we have a system of democracy called MMP which stands for Mixed Member Proportional. On Election Day we have two votes, one for a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent our district, and one for a party that we support to lead the government. For example: I may vote for a Maori Party candidate here in Northland because s/he best represents our area but my party vote may be for the larger and older Labour Party to lead the government. It’s a very effective way of balancing local choice with national interests.
Most democracies practice what is called First Past the Post (FPP), essentially whoever gains the most votes leads the government. Time and history have proven that this leads to a predominantly two party system. You need numbers to win and smaller parties won’t be able to have a say unless they’re a part of a larger machine.
What’s wrong with this?
For me, the biggest concern is that each of the two major parties have a broad range of values and beliefs in their party members. A liberal party can have members with extreme Green leanings and a conservative party can have members with extreme religious beliefs. I may support either parties for their more centrist policies but I have to accept their more extreme members as part of the deal.
With MMP coalitions are formed where the larger parties have to negotiate with smaller parties to form the government. Political negotiations are more transparent and I can see quite clearly what the ruling party is willing to compromise on, or not. I can vote for a major party if I’m happy with everything they represent or I can vote for a smaller party in the hopes they become part of a coalition with the ruling party.
A few elections ago I was concerned about indigenous Maori rights being compromised. The Maori party had not yet been part of any coalition and the current co-leaders were people I respected. It was the perfect time to see how they would act as part of the government so I cast my party vote for them. I have been more than happy with their measured and proactive work as part of the last two governments.
It is not a perfect system. There are parties with only 1 or a small handful of members who become part of the coalition and behave as though they represent more than a single digit percentage of the general electorate. Their power expands or contracts depending on the leading party.
Imagine if New Zealand’s system were applied to the current US election.
Instead of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz having to give way to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each would represent parties with clear agendas who would have to negotiate to share power through a coalition. The American public would be able to vote for the party who fully represented their values. A government would be formed where those parties would have to learn to work together to represent the broad–and diverse–beliefs of a country noted for its diversity.
In 2016 I see a country I love at its most divided. Family and friends talk of voting against a candidate rather than for one. Racism, bigotry, sexism and mono-culture are embraced and exalted. And the only way to be considered for the Presidency is through entrenched connections and deep financial pockets.
I wish you all the best.