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.