Is Electoral Reform the Answer?

Commentary (December 1968).


For the first time since the Progressive era of sixty years ago, the American political system may be at a point of significant mutation. The Progressive era gave us women’s suffrage and the popular election of senators, without which the federal government would surely now seem hopelessly anachronistic; the direct primary, which has become a domesticated household creature; and also the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, which have survived here and there, but for the most part wildly, in a state of nature, owing to lack of regular contact with humans. These reforms answered essentially to the populist idea—identified in the American political tradition with Andrew Jackson and in some measure with everyone else ever since—that the ills of society and its government will be cured by giving a stronger and more certain direction of affairs to a popular majority. Today, as earlier, this idea remains the battle cry of reform. It alone inspired the Supreme Court’s reapportionment decisions from 1962 onward, which may be viewed either as having inaugurated the current age of political reform or as a reflection of it; and it alone is the overt inspiration of proposals, for which the performance of the system this season has generated much support, to abolish the electoral college and the Presidential nominating conventions.