Partisan polarization and the case for PR

The quote that I recently added to the right sidebar of Fruits and Votes comes from Henry Droop’s essay, “On the Political and Social Effects of Different Methods of Electing Representatives,” published originally in 1869. The essay includes some rather remarkable and still-timely insights into the functioning of two-party politics and how various forms of proportional representation would improve representation and governance.

Unlike most contemporary advocates of electoral reform, Droop emphasized not the representation of minority views from outside the mainstream (think Greens, Libertarians, etc.) but the enhanced representation of moderate and nonpartisan voters that proportional representation would bring about.

The full paragraph from which the sidebar quote is drawn reads as follows:

As every representative is elected to represent one of these two parties, the nation, as represented in the assembly, appears to consist only of these two parties, each bent on carrying out its own programme. But, in fact, a large proportion of the electors who vote for the candidates of the one party or the other really care much more about the country being honestly and wisely governed than about the particular points at issue between the two parties; and if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

As an American voter, frustrated by the current polarization of our two parties–the “win at all costs model” decried in an excellent post on December 23 by James Joyner about the “Kosification” of party politics–Droop’s words ring true. Moderate, or swing voters, indeed are faced with giving a lease on power to an “out” party that they do not fully trust and that does not really represent them, or else seeing the incumbents continuing to push their advantage too far.

Joyner notes that one of his own core premises is “that policy matters and that honest debate over policy is essential to good governance,” and decries the focus of blogosphere activists like Kos for their almost total focus on tactics, rather than policy. As he also notes, it is not just Kos and Democrats; it is a bipartisan phenomenon, but Democrats are currently the party needing to win before they can get serious about policy.

Nonetheless, the “win at all costs” polarization is corrosive. Joyner again:

Ordinary voters are more likely to be turned off by the rancorous atmosphere and the core electorate will likely be more energized than ever to make sure that the “bad guys” lose.

What the “Droopian” logic quoted here highlights is the extent to which the climate Joyner decries is a product precisely of a politics that creates no room for other parties to gain access to the policy-making processes–other parties that might care more about ideas than about “win at all costs,” precisely because in a multiparty context, “winning” is not being the sole party responsible for governing. Rather, winning is a complex process of building alliances in a context in which power is not so starkly defined as winners vs. losers.

Prior to some time in the last two decades–some time before the 1992 election, as I have argued before–the two US parties were not so sharply differentiated, and so there were many more openings in the center for cross-party policy coalitions. Obviously, the prominence of politicians willing to reach across the partisan divided before 1992 was helped by the fact that it was an era usually characterized by divided govenrment, and when power was not divided, the Democrats were such a “big tent” that even the Carter (and to a lesser extent, Johnson) years often looked like divided government.

There is at present no break in the sharp differentiation of partisan lines foreseeable. But, despite appearances, this nation manifestly does not consist of “only these two parties.” Most voters care more about good governance, and not about the conflicts between party leaders increasingly beholden to their sharply differentiated activist cores.

Only with multiple parties can the real diversty of interests that exists in society check and balance each other in our representative institutions, and thereby depolarize the increasingly ugly bipartisan climate that turns off more and more “ordinary voters.” It is for this reason that I consider Droop’s ideas to be an expansion of James Madison’s famous treatise on “factions” in Federalist 10.

(This post is a variant of my overview of Droop and representation that is linked at the sidebar quote; I also develop some of these ideas in the page I recently linked to the blog’s banner.)

7 thoughts on “Partisan polarization and the case for PR

  1. It’s a nice theory, but I’m not sure it is empirically true of any existing PR-using democracy. I’d be hard pressed to name any “centrist” party in a PR system that is more moderate than either the Democratic or Republican parties-in-government (activists are extremists by definition, so “Kossification” is only a serious issue if the major party’s elected officials behave like activists).

    Nor am I really sure that a “mushy middle” party full of elected officials who reflect the nonattitudes and/or contradictory attitudes of their supporters is going to provide good governance (which requires attention to policy).

  2. PR systems indeed produce more centrist policy than do non-PR systems (see Huber and Powell and also Powell’s 2000 book). And there are indeed centrist parties in PR systems that are not “mushy middle,” but principled. The German FDP, for example. It is ‘centrist’ on most policy issues, though actually to the right on things like budgetary policy (if you define commitment to fiscal responsibility as “right”, which apparently is no longer the case here). I have little doubt that a similar party–liberal in the classical sense of promoting both personal freedoms and sane fiscal policy–would do very well in the USA if we had PR.

    But the point is not just that there might be a centrist party in such a system. It is that voters with views on policy that are off the main axis of electoral competition repersented by our current two parties would have the ability to be represented by alternative parties. That’s the essential “Droopian” and “Shugartian” thesis.

    Personally, I could imagine voting in some elections for an FDP-like party, in others for the Greens, and in others for the Democratic or Republican parties (which would remain, in altered form–as I noted in three (!) tracbacks to a Signifying Nothing post some time ago; I see the trackbacks are now gone).

    My choice of party in any given election would depend on the issues at stake that mattered for me most and the direction in which I wanted to “push” the big parties in the upcoming term.

    Now, on the other hand, I have no choice–literally, because my state is currently perfectly safe for one party in presidential and senate elections and my districts are perfectly safe for the other major party in House and state legislative elections.

    But even leaving aside the “safe seat” problem, which is inherent to winner-take-all voting, I still have no choice. The current Republican party is anathema to me for many reasons related to its need to satisfy its base–“extremists by definition,” as Chris put it –and the Democrats are only a little better in my view. The Greens have no chance of any representation, and there is no FDP-like party.

    The bottom line is that I am too incompatible with either major party to favor either having a legislative majority. A situation in which neither party has a majority will better represent voters, like me and–based on survey results and partisan voter registration trends–an increasing number of Americans, who are not committed to either party. That really is a basic empirical, and not just theoretical, finding of the literature on existing PR-using democracies.

    Thanks, Chris for the comment, and see what happens when you get me started!

  3. A centrist depolarizing party under PR? The classic recent example is the Alliance Party, “Northern Ireland’s cross-community party.” In its first Assembly election in 1973 it won two seats in seven-seat North Down, and one seat in each of six other districts (four six-seaters, one seven-seater and one eight-seater.) In North Down it got only 16.2% of the vote, worth 1.3 quotas, but the Northern Ireland Labour Party got 3.2% (0.3 quotas) and the SDLP got only 4.6% (0.4 quotas) in this most unionist district in Northern Ireland, and those voters no doubt transferred mostly to Alliance, along with some surplus pro-White Paper Unionist votes. Obviously it could never have won a seat under First-Past-The-Post. This is the pattern repeated ever since.

    However, the theory that the Single Transferable Vote would make Alliance everyone’s second preference, and eventually make it a major player, did not happen. It remains a key niche player. For example, it currently holds the balance of power on Belfast City Council, but with only 4 of the 51 councillors. The claims by STV proponents that STV causes parties and candidates to moderate their views in order to attract second preferences has not been proven in the polarized politics of Northern Ireland. PR-STV in Northern Ireland works much like any PR system.

  4. Thanks, Wilfred, for the NorIre example. I agree that advocates of STV (or IRV/AV) over-sell the effects of second preference transfers on moderation in polarized environments. PR in general–STV or list–will allow parties representing views that are off the main axis of bipartisan competition to flourish, but only to the extent that there are significant cross-cutting cleavages. Northern Ireland is a place where there are not a lot of those, and thus the ability of the Alliance to carve out a niche for itself is indeed a good byproduct of PR-STV. But STV advocates who expected much more–e.g. that the Alliance would become a major party as a result of transfers–were over-selling what STV (or any electoral system) realistically can do. (Obviously, the USA is far less polarized than Nothern Ireland.)

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