We are destined to live in real democracies.
Doughnut economics presents us a model for economic sustainability; it was conceptualized by Kate Raworth. This “playfully serious” concept is based on two natural economic lines we should not cross. On the outside of the doughnut, there is planet Earth and we will have to live within its given means and not deplete the natural (economic) resources. On the inside of the doughnut, we should not let anyone fall into the (economic) doughnut hole and look the other way.
In politics, the same two natural lines exist. On the outside, our politicians should not extend ourselves beyond our political means, both in light of our domestic and foreign policies. On the inside, nobody should be left behind without reasonable political representation.
First off, the answer to global and national political problems does not lie in having one very specific political system in place. Political diversity can be a good thing among nations. Yet by accepting the boundaries of the doughnut as vital, we can improve the political landscape within our own nations and promote a healthier world.
Today, we do not live in that politically better world. The boundaries of the political doughnut are crossed too often to effectively produce a sustainable world for all of us. Too many nations have either a winner or a group of winners in full control (think Russia and China) or they have winner-take-all elections with some political groups exclusively making all the decisions (think USA and UK). Not only do we see these nations strong-arm their self-interests on the international stage — involved in races to win — but there are large holes internally as well with substantial groups of people not being represented.
In particular, nations that are engaged in full-out competition can drag other nations toward their level of full-out competition. The stronger the competitive drive, the greater the chance we will deplete some of our natural resources, and the greater the chance we will export that kind of competition to the rest of the world.
If you live in the USA or the UK, it may surprise you that you belong to a nation with a sizeable political hole in the center. You may know about ‘subtle’ discrimination occurring in your voting system. The actual political discrimination is rather large, however, and yet it can easily fit in a blind spot.
Large groups of voters never make it to the table of decision makers in either US or UK. They cannot voice their concerns by themselves, not even as a minority, because the system forces them through rather small political doorways, denaturing their political selves. Only the majority gets the seat.
The struggle in the US and the UK is a deep and dividing political struggle, plus it promotes competition to more extreme levels.
The simplest way to spot a political doughnut hole is to look for third parties. They need not be powerful at all times, but for starters they need to be present and able to speak up in the decision chambers. Neither US or UK has much of a history with third parties influencing the national political outcomes. When a third party is already acknowledged as influential, this will entail a one-time importance. There are no long-lasting influential third parties; most are allowed to speak but do not obtain real political powers. The one exception is geo-culturally determined — think Scotland and its National Party in the UK.
Having a third party falling into the political hole is not the real problem here. It is the voters falling in the hole. The lack of empowered third parties presents us a direct symptom of voters being under-empowered. The system of winners-taking-all ends up dictating parts of the outcome, more so than the voters can control.
Where folks in the Netherlands have a 99.3 percent chance — minimum — of having their votes translate into their person or party at the table, that percentage for people in the UK and the US is far slimmer. When talking about majority rule, 50 percent plus one vote will do. When voting first-past-the-post (plurality), then this number can be smaller further still.
Powers not in the hands of the voters end up strengthening the two parties over all other parties and benefit the special interests behind these two parties.
In 2006, calculating the electoral support for each senator in the US Senate, the number of voters getting their pick fell just shy of 60 percent of the voters. A little over 40 percent of the voters went home empty handed. That 40 percent represents the size of the political doughnut hole in the US and UK. The exact numbers differ for each location and for each election, but the simple take away is that the hole is sizeable. This truly matters.
That 2006 US Senate was dominated by Republican Senators who had 30 percent of all voters who voted for them in person. The majority decision in the Senate is supported therefore by a minority of all voters in the nation. That is the political doughnut hole. Majority decisions are made, but that majority includes the empty hole and is in reality a minority. Simply put, the voters are under-empowered while the parties are controlling the hole.
Any nation in the world, no matter its political system, can make the same political decisions. While this freedom is absolutely available to anyone in control, reality tells us that the system itself influences who the people are that make these decisions. Specific people end up sitting at the table of decision making.
Winner-take-all can be compared to basketball.
Anyone can play basketball, agreed? It is a fun game and it doesn’t really matter who you are as long as you can get yourself on the court and play.
Let’s add some importance to the game. The winning team gets a good prize plus all the honor. All of a sudden, coaches start looking at who can play the game well. Selections are made and the chances to win are upped, but so are the chances to win for the other teams. Some folks are no longer picked.
In the top league of basketball, we find fully-optimized teams that play the game real well. Competition is maximized, and it turns out that there is a sizeable doughnut hole in representation when playing basketball at this level. It is already extremely rare to see a person of average height in the national league. If you are 5 feet tall? No way you will play a role in this game.
Imagine basketball players in the seats of our political decision makers. They may do alright, but over time it is likely that people 5 feet tall will experience setbacks and discrimination — socially, economically, and likely even legally.
Our politicians in Washington and London are all tall basketball players. They may not look it, but they fit the political court to a T. The political basket is ten feet high and the closer they are in height themselves, compared to the basket, the better chances they have for scoring a goal — or blocking a smaller opponent.
Of course, the political courts do not have a basket ten feet high. Yet the playing field will have specific boundaries. It is no surprise that the US Senate is dominated by white, old, rich guys. They ‘fell upward’ because of the voting system. Just by focusing on the money, the restrictions in place become obvious: These senators are on average multimillionaires.
Women are minorities in Congress, but when they do make it to Congress, they are on average richer than their male counterparts. This fun fact confirms the political ten-foot high basket. Even political minorities can make it — but only if they have even more dough.
The voters? They cannot influence this dynamic in any sufficient manner. The voters in the US and the UK are under-empowered. The system’s requirements influence the system’s outcomes.
Let’s address one political item that is actually quite important:
The international poverty threshold is put at 50 percent of the medium income in a nation.
The EU decided that this threshold did not capture enough people and upped it to 60 percent of the medium income in a nation.
When US poverty thresholds are expressed in light of the medium income in our nation, then we sit near a 40 percent level.
It is a political decision to declare this definition.
If we were to use the EU standard for poverty, then one in three people in the USA would fall below the poverty threshold. That number would create enormous political upheaval. But it is the exact same number of people not making a dime more or less, upheaval or not. According to the EU, one in three people in the USA lives in poverty.
It truly matters who sits at the steering wheel of our democracy. In our system, definitions are spun more than in a system with full representation. They are spun to support certain kinds of agendas. They are spun to not make revolutions happen.
Let’s have a look how our system decides who gets to steer our political automobile by comparing ourselves to others.
When New Zealand changed its two-party system in 1996 into a mixed voting system that reduced the political doughnut hole considerably, the number of female representatives jumped almost 50 percent overnight.
Where prior there had been 21 females out of 100 representatives (21 percent), the new electoral system put 37 females in the now 120 seats (30.8 percent). The jump from 21 percent to 30.8 percent is almost half as many more than before.
Today, New Zealand has normalized sex in its chamber.
The number of female representatives is very close to 50 percent of all representatives. It’s 47.5 percent in 2021. The level of female representation in the United States in 2021 is close to where New Zealand was before it decided to embrace the new voting system, in the lower 20 percent range (which is pretty good given US history of having an extremely low level of female representatives; it is now in 76th position in the world).
By voting in a better system, representatives in New Zealand became more representative of the population at large.
Some more political information about New Zealand. It has one House only — unicameral with a (female) prime-minister leading the government. The head of the government is not elected in New Zealand. Prime-ministers come forth from the political body, elected by the voters. The head is therefore fully connected to he body. Same for the governing cabinet: it is supported by the majority of the elected representatives.
Because New Zealand voters vote for just one nationally empowered political entity (and not for a Presidency, a Senate ánd a House), the voters are the grounding force. Their votes don’t end up fighting with additional votes they cast.
In New Zealand, the hole of voters not receiving representation was made smaller. But there is still a hole. Today, the number of parties is five, with one of them just one person strong. The political playing court in New Zealand still has a specific setup that will benefit some political powers over others. The majority decision by the House can still dip below the majority of the actual voters behind that political majority because of the (smaller) hole. Yet having five parties surely beats having just two parties.
There are always personal opportunities to help decrease the size of the political doughnut hole. For instance, when starting to vote for a party that wants political voting reform, then you just increased the chance that change will indeed happen. If there is no such party saying they want to reform the voting system, then start a party yourself. Make sure to go for political change at the local level first because this is where changing the voting system is easiest (*particularly so if you offer close to the same program the most popular party offers — just add reform). An additional benefit is that the ensuing discussion can be held at a level where the political powers are not exactly like the national levels, and this tempers the influences at play.
The local level is also a very safe level to learn how a different voting system works. When moving, for instance, from winner-take-all to proportional voting, this resembles the change from walking to bicycling. Once you get the hang of bicycling, there is nothing to it. Yet learning to bike in a quiet street with few people around is easier than along the hustle and bustle of a busy street. Once you get the hang of equal representation, voter empowerment follows swiftly with voters then participating all natural.
In the United States many people believe the US Constitution blocks political change, but that is incorrect. Historically, a good number of local governments have toyed with the voting format in their cities. Many states hold elections the same way representatives are selected for the Federal level — but not all. The US Constitution may actually already demand proportional elections.
Here is the scoop:
The 14th Amendment has been ruled to demand that governments cannot have discriminating systems in place — if there is a better system available. This by itself means that proportional voting should be the voting system in place because there is no greater voter empowerment possible than with proportional voting. It is definitively better for all voters than winner-take-all.
There are some obstructions in place established by that same US Constitution. It declares in specifics, for instance, that each state sends two senators to Washington, D.C. This cannot be overruled by the 14th Amendment, even if everyone and their mother agrees how this benefits voters in New Hampshire and hurts voters in California. The voters in our states are treated differently for the US Senate, and the states are made each others equals instead. That is the way it is set up, and changing the US Constitution represents a major hurdle that I do not recommend anyone taking. Don’t beat your head against a cement wall that is twenty feet thick.
The States are given wide freedoms to do as they please in the US Constitution. While that means opportunity for those desiring change, it also means those that like it the way it is have equal opportunity to keep it that way. Long story short: the States are available for changing their voting systems, but it requires a majority of the voters to make it so. Before that can happen, education about voting systems is crucial. People cannot embrace something they don’t know about.
For the local level, the US Constitution does not grant any extra freedoms, nor did it give the States the specific freedom to hand out constitutional freedoms to the local levels. The 14th Amendment applies to the local level therefore without any other overruling designation, without any other detour available. The light of the US Constitution shines brightly on the local level if you believe in voter empowerment. Not only does this specific position explain the experimentation going on with voting systems at the local level, but it also points to local governments applying a freedom for themselves right now where in reality a clear direction was put in place. They ought to use the better system that delivers more power and freedom to the voters, not themselves.
If there is any governmental level where voter equality should be put in place today, then it is the local level. It happens to be the safest environment in which to learn how that better democracy functions.
If only the Founding Fathers were here to help us sort this out.
Interestingly, the Founding Fathers were called into action once more when Americans sat down with Germans right after World War II. The goal was to give the Germans a system that the Founding Fathers would have written had they been alive in the late 1940s.
The result they came up with is a political system very similar to the American system, while voter equality is inserted as the new and cherished item.
The Germans have States, and the Germans vote in districts. Yet they also fixed up the lopsided results of winner-take-all so they didn’t have to deal with the limitations of a two-party system. New Zealand ended up incorporating this approach with some modifications.
Let’s explain this voting system with a simplified example. If California has 40 Senators, then each of the forty districts sends their winner to Sacramento. Next, all votes cast in California for the Senate are added up. In this example, it turns out that the Green Party got ten percent of all votes, but they did not win any of the districts. To overcome this deficiency in voter equality, 4 Green Party Senators are added to the 40 already in place to have ten percent of the Senators represent ten percent of the voters.
Each district still has their own winner, while Sacramento reflects then (better than today) what all Californians voted for.
It is very easy to recognize that gerrymandering just lost its demeaning punch, because all votes are counted toward the actual outcome of seats this way. Gerrymander as much as you want; it does not change the overall outcome in this American-German system because the seats are then based on all the votes. The voters hold the power and not the geographical restrictions put in place.
Since Germany did not want to end up with twenty parties, a threshold got established as well. Parties must have more than 5 percent of the overall votes before seats can get added. If the Green Party won 4 percent of the overall votes, it would not receive any seats. But… if the Green Party won a single district and then did not get to that 5 percent of the overall votes, it would at least get to keep the one seat it had won straight out.
Voting systems do not need to be the same throughout the world. Yet the political doughnut hole must be made smaller than the large hole in winner-take-all systems. Too many people fall into the political hole, and the power they miss out on is handed directly to the two dominant parties and indirectly to the special interests grooming these two parties. To aggravate the situation, the battle to win (or better: the battle not to lose) makes winner-take-all competition more extreme than humanly desired.
We are destined to all live in real democracies. Planet Earth demands we remove the political restrictions that make us compete at unnecessarily extreme levels and that allow some of us to dictate the lives of many others. We cannot afford to leave people stuck inside the political doughnut hole and ask them to be good and nice citizens. The political struggle needs to be played out above board by our elected representatives in the true meaning of that word, and not be pushed to the underworld, out of reach of the voters.
Lastly, a warning about voting systems because there are some pitfalls to avoid. While winner-take-all obviously restricts voter equality and should be overturned anywhere in the world, voting in multi-seat districts is a very specific form that contains the danger of promoting a centrist party, much like promoting a queen bee that all end up serving. Nations with multi-seat district voting often see a single centrist party in control for decades. Not having any turmoil in a democracy is the first indication that the political hole is still real.
It is smart for large nations to not want many parties, to ensure stability and political fortitude. Yet multi-seat districts removes political freedom unnecessarily. As discussed, the American-German system prevents a centrist party as the sole party governing for decades, while also ensuring stability.
For small nations, themselves encapsulated in a larger global setting, the purest form of democracy is just peachy dandy. The same for local governments. If you are small or smallish: Get the full version of democracy!
The political doughnut is real. Ignoring its boundaries is not good for the planet, not good for mankind and not good for (too) many individuals.
Voter equality may be the last American civil right that can finally end the long roadway to political emancipation.