Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

On Wisconsin: Budget Battles and Adversarial Politics

David T. Koyzis


March 4, 2011
David T. Koyzis

Just as historic popular uprisings have swept across the Middle East and North Africa, a similar, if less violent, wave of discontent has engulfed the state of Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has moved to rein in public spending by trimming public employee benefits and removing them from the collective bargaining process. Massive protests have been held in the state capital of Madison. The nearby state of Indiana looks set to experience similar turmoil.

Last week Michael Gerson raised the issue of entitlement reform as a way of bringing federal spending under control. However, as I wrote last autumn, it is no simple matter to curtail entitlement programs, many of which were begun to protect the most vulnerable in our societies. All governments are forced to make tough decisions that will have a negative impact on someone or some group. There are no ready solutions that will make these easier.

But how should such decisions be made? In the Wisconsin State Assembly, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 60 to 38, with one independent. In the State Senate Republicans possess 19 seats to the Democrats’ 14. The traditional adversarial relationship between the two parties has done little to encourage cooperation across partisan lines. It is tempting for the party with a majority to enact its agenda over the objections of the minority. In such an environment both sides portray the contest as one of hallowed principles. Supporters of the unions claim that Walker and the Legislature are threatening their hard-earned rights of collective bargaining and are thus a danger to the livelihoods of working citizens. By contrast, Walker is claiming that the only fiscally responsible alternative to his proposal is to lay off public employees, something he prefers to avoid.

With this degree of antipathy between the two sides, the chances of coming to a general agreement on the direction of the state budget are slim. As James Madison understood more than two centuries ago, it is inevitable that factions will arise within a legislative body. Yet he feared the possibility of a single faction winning the day and thereby calling the shots, to the detriment of the public interest. Majoritarian politics is ill-suited to times of crisis, which is why Great Britain, for example, had multiparty National Governments between 1931 and 1945. The back-to-back crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War called for something other than ordinary partisanship.

The current crises in Madison, Indianapolis and Washington, DC, are exacerbated by an electoral system based on winners and losers rather than on just representation for citizens. Political scientists call our electoral system single-member-plurality, but popularly it is known as “winner-take-all.” If you vote for a Republican in your district, but the Democrat wins the seat, your vote literally does not count. This system depresses voter turnout and contributes to a sense of alienation on the part of many voters from their political leaders.

What if we were to adopt an electoral system in which all citizens could count on having their views represented in their legislative bodies? Might it encourage our political leaders to cooperate on such crucial matters as setting budget priorities? According to the Center’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship, “Only an electoral system that allows for adequate representation of all organized voices can do justice to citizens in a democracy.” A system based on proportional representation would have two advantages over our current arrangement: (1) it would prevent any party from attaining majority status, thus addressing Madison’s principal concern; and (2) it would force the parties to negotiate with each other rather than to rely on an unattainable majority status. This would not, of course, alleviate the budget crises in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but it could serve to dampen the level of partisanship and to give everyone a sense of ownership over difficult policy decisions that might otherwise divide them.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”