A good case for PR

As Steven notes in a post putting New York’s special House election in perspective, the authoritarian absolutists (or “movement conservatives,” as Steven calls them) ought to be pushing for proportional representation.

Also recommended for perspective on the unusual contest is Hans Noel, writing at The Monkey Cage. (Also various other posts at that blog in recent days.)

20 thoughts on “A good case for PR

  1. It’s an interesting proposition, but I just can’t see it happening anytime soon, mainly because conservatives are by definition skeptical of change, and diehard conservatives distinctly hostile to it (unless the change in question entails turning back the clock, in whose case they’re all for it).

    Moreover, even if the U.S. were to enter an era of Democratic political dominance – a distinct possibility if the Republicans evolve into a conservatives-only party – I’d be inclined to think that they would remain a sizable political minority, still capable of carrying parts of the South and the West. In turn, that could be enough to sustain the belief that sooner or later the existing electoral system would work to their advantage, in whose case they would show very little interest in changing it.

  2. There’s also an ideological disinclination among many conservatives (even when theire party is in a minority) to support PR. Some see it as too much like affirmative action (“quotas” – in both senses – versus “we just want the best individuals, regardless of party”). Others see it as too mushy and wimpy – fudged consensus versus stout-hearted, take-your-knock, stalwart “winner take all”. To the Social Darwinist, if you don’t win, you shouldn’t whine; just work harder next time.

    The latter does have some credence given that two of the major players in the US and UK began as minor parties and nudged aside rivals occupying their same ecological niche (Republicans -> Whigs and Labour -? Liberals). However, once in 100-150 is like waiting for an asteroid strike, electorally speaking.

    And how often have we heard the cliche that “Using PR is like insisting that every runner in the race – even the slowest – must get a prize”? No, what’s it’s like is having a silver and a bronze medal as well as just a gold, so that even if Red China wins the most first places, you can still take comfort in pointing out that “USA! USA!” for more points overall at the Olympics.

  3. … that could be enough to sustain the belief that sooner or later the existing electoral system would work to their advantage, in which case they would show very little interest in changing it.

    I have heard Republican Party activists say exactly this and add — even more explicitly — that they would rather have unchecked power part of the time than have their proportional share of power all of the time. I can’t recall hearing Democrats say the same thing but my experience is rather limited.

  4. Well, Republicans have proven they know how to exercise unchecked power, so such a sentiment is something less than a surprise. On the other hand, for the authoritarian absolutists, even that was not good enough! (Seems that many have already written off GWB as not having been true enough to the cause.) Would they have more or less influence under PR? That’s an interesting question to ponder. If the answer is more, perhaps I should rethink my electoral-system preferences for this country. But I think the answer is more. Hmmm…

  5. (Sorry for my typos – using a sticky keyboard)

    I did once read,in a book about and by “conservative Christians in politics” (ed by one Skillen and by Dr Dobson himself), an argument in favour of PR, for basically the same grounds given in the articles cited.

    IIRC, the authors (if it was they – or else some other pro-PR Christian Right figure) cited the Biblical precedent that the land in Israel was divided among the Twelve Tribes in proportion to their numbers!

  6. Other reasons why conservatives (independently of how their party is polling) disfavour PR are:

    1. PR is less traditional – FPTP has been around for centuries and “just grew” (never mind that often-uncontested elections of two representatives by a few dozen burghers at a town meeting operates in practice very differently from selection of one representative by dozens of thousands of voters in a partisan secret ballot), while STV and PR-List have been devised ex nihilo as rationalistic exercises by suspicious-sounding intellectuals; and

    2. FPTP is more “Anglo-Saxon”, whereas PR is “Continental” and therefore alien. See Roger Scruton or David Willetts, and throw in some dark mutterings about Weimar.

  7. The academic defense of winner-take-all resonates with the distaste of many (I don’t think all) conservatives for active participation in government by the unwashed masses. Instead, they view the role of ordinary citizens — even in a democracy — as passively choosing among elites. (See especially Schumpeter.) The purpose of the binary choices induced by winner-take-all is to make sure that the voters can always replace the party currently in power with the (exactly one) party currently out of power. PR undermines this concept of the proper relationship between ruler and subject.

  8. It would be better for the religious right to hold seats in Congress and in the state legislatures. They would need to perform as legislators and subject their ideas to debate in forums they do not control. That would benefit the country s a whole enormously. Doubting whether that would be a good idea is not doubting proportional representation, it is doubting if the people are competent to elect their government.

    Recall also the unhappy electoral history of Northern Ireland. The treaty imposed STV for a limited time. The majority abolished it as soon as they could. That not only eliminated minority MPs, it also eliminated moderates within the majority. There is no reason to think moving in the other direction would not, as it has in Northern Ireland, calm all those excitable conservatives.

  9. Beyond a few bloggers, there seems to be virtually no enthusiasm for PR or STV anywhere on the political spectrum in the US. I’m not including the minor success of the campaign for the rather lame idea of IRV.

    Where 49 of 50 states have mirror-image FPTP bicameral legislatures
    you’d think that someone somewhere
    would come up with the altogether obvious idea of electing one house by a form of PR. There is little utility to electing both houses by the same method when examples of functioning alternatives exist all over the world.

    Take New Hampshire: now a blue state and one of the most secular states in the country. In their huge lower house the vast majority of the legislatures are elected in multi-member districts-some electing as many as 13! Yet they use at-large voting.

  10. I agree completely with Alan that everyone — not just religious and constitutional fundamentalists — would benefit from more explicit, above-board representation of those points of view.

    Ian, yes, working on PR in the U.S. feels like rolling a very large rock up a very high hill. That’s because the precondition — more than two viable parties — isn’t present. But when the time arrives, there needs to be an activist community already present, and there needs to be awareness of the issue, even though awareness has not yet translated into wide support. It would be a tragic mistake to abandon the issue.

    Everyone who works on making their own small party viable rather than symbolic is working on PR as well, whether they see it that way or not.

    In the meantime, STV is having some successes (Minneapolis), as well as failures (Cincinnati, Lowell), on the local level. Both party-building and implementation of STV need to start here.

  11. I would certainly hope no-one is suggesting that the people of the United States are less sophisticated in electoral and political terms than the people of Tonga.

  12. If PR is going to be used in the United States, the ironic thing is that it might help the Republican Party shed it’s image of being ‘the White Party’. If closed party lists are being used, that is, the Republican Party would become more ‘diverse’, but that would be anathema to American culture consider how hyper individualistic it is. We have an anti-party culture and believing in voting for the individual and not the party.

    In reality, most Americans don’t follow politics that seriously, and don’t even know who represents them considering all the vast many patchwork quilted layers of government. The Presidency is believed to be more important than Congress because it is all the news media ever focus on because it’s easy to understand.

    STV is the only system of PR that could ever be tried in the U.S.

    PR would moderate the Republican Party and encourage it to reach out and give it incentives to win more votes and seats from minorities.

    Look at New Zealand and it’s minorities are represented on both sides of the political aisle, both right and left. Before MMP, it was very hard for center-right parties to get any minority candidates to win any seats. Thanks to closed party lists, they can gain seats through that method.

    Nobody knows how it would work with STV because no country that is extremely diverse ethnically has tried it.

    The fact that the National Party albeit in a minority government with ACT and United Future is also working with the Maori Party for more support shows the benefits of PR for geographically disperse minorities.

    FPTP on the other hand gives disproportionate support to geographically concentrated minorities. Quebec’s Bloc Quebecois is one of these and because it can win a significant chuck of seats in Canada’s Federal Parliament, minority governments are the norm now. India’s regional parties, and even Malawi.

    The U.S two party system works well for FPTP, the reason to change to PR, is so that minorities have better representation and more choices, and can represented on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

    Another bad side effect of FPTP in the U.S is that the Democratic Party wins all the seats in Urban areas, and very few in rural areas. The Republican Party wins all the seats in rural areas, and very few in inner city urban areas. The suburbs are split between the two parties. The Republican Party is the rural “redneck” party, and the Democratic party is the urban party.

    With PR in multimember districts, we would have Republican and Democrats win seats in all districts, and be represented everywhere albeit Republican would win far fewer seats in Urban areas, than say Democrats, and vice verse for rural areas.

    PR needs to be tried in a State Legislature to see if it would work, and if success, other states can try it. States are laboratories for change, to see if such policies are successful before being tried at the Federal Level.

    Is the Christian Right in the U.S comparable to Christian Democratic parties in Europe? What about the small Christian confessional parties in the Netherlands, SGP is a strange party, they are oppose women’s suffrage. Who would expect that the Dutch considering the worldwide perception that it is the most liberal country on earth, that it have such a funky party. CU is now in government, so does the Dutch have three Christian parties?

    Looking at a different religion, What about the Ultra Orthodox parties in Israel? Does Israel have a Jewish Democratic similar to Christian democratic parties in Europe? I am surprise that nobody in Israel has not gone out and created such a party.

  13. As a resident of New York, I’d really like to see proportional representation tried first in the US at the local level. The standard pattern for US cities is for the Democrats to win almost all of the down-ballot offices, so you might have a fifty member city council with forty-seven Democrats, then often a Republican or independent will win the more visible election for Mayor. Voters seem to like to do this to keep the Democratic political machines from dominating everything.

    For example, in New York, regarded as a heavily Democratic city, nominal Republicans have won the last five elections for Mayor in a row. If you view Koch as an effective Republican in terms of local politics -he actually had the Republican nomination for one of his elections and the Democratic establishment supported his opponent, a nominal third party candidate, in another, the Democrats have managed to win two elections for Mayor out of the last twelve. Count Koch as a Democrat, then the figure is five out of twelve. But the Democrats win almost all the down ballot offices.

    I don’t see how you can describe such a party system as fairly functional. It looks to me like voters are trying to game a system where they don’t have many options, and not necessarily doing a good job of it.

    In the US, the Republican party campaigns against the values and lifestyles of people who live in cities, and favors reducing spending in cities and increasing it in rural and suburban areas. So its somewhat self-defeating for urban voters to support Republicans. This is one area where we badly need a third party.

    However, New York did use proportional representation in the 1930s, minor party candidates did get elected to the City Council, and the “establishment” got rid of it as soon as they could.

    Not brought up is American exceptionalism. There is this idea, that the Republicans in particular like to push, that the US was perfect in the post-war decades and any deviation from that model is wrong. This is underestimated as a factor in blocking any reform.

  14. Indeed. As well as the New York City Council, the New South Wales State lower house briefly used STV during the 1930s. These experiments were terminated respectively by the Tammany Hall machine and by the Labor Party under Premier Jack Lang – which tells you pretty much all you need to know if you care about integrity, fair elections and good governance.

  15. I don’t really understand a defence of FPTP in your system in terms of governability, since as we see at the moment a party that controls both chambers of the legislature, and has a nominal supermajority in one, is having great difficulty in passing its signature policy, thanks to regional/ideolgical splits (thanks to FPTP, those are one and the same, I guess). Would it really be worse with PR?

  16. “… That’s not to say that, if an independent Tea Party were founded tomorrow, it would beat the Republican Party in an election. Scott Rasmussen admits as much in his write-up of the survey: “In practical terms, it is unlikely that a true third-party option would perform as well as the polling data indicates.” But it’s the closest number we have, so far, to identifying how large a segment of the population identifies with the protesters we see on TV (or, for members of Congress, outside their windows). …

    But the poll’s real significance is that it upends the spoiler equation. Until now, a conservative running on a third-party ticket, as Doug Hoffman did in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, was considered a spoiler for dividing the GOP coalition. If Tea Party supporters outnumber Republicans, who’s the spoiler then?”

    – Christopher Beam, “The Poll Heard Round the World: Could a Tea Party candidate actually win an election?” Slate(/i> (7 December 2009).

  17. I’ve been going through creating my own proposals of a two-tier proportional voting system in the USA for the Electoral College.

    First tier, statewide. Electors are allocated with use of a quota (Votes/electoral votes in a state). Any remaining seats are allocated at the national level.

    Second tier, nationwide. Remaining electoral votes are allocated by using all unused votes for “unviable candidates” at the state level (candidates that don’t reach the threshold) as well as any surplus votes from viable candidates (surplus votes being equal to the result of candidate x’s votes minus the result of the quota multiplied by the number of electors allocated in the first tier)

    Any unallocated seats after the second stage are then allocated only to candidates that have been able to win 3 electoral votes (which is equal to winning a state in the present system) using Jefferson’s method, considering electoral votes won.

  18. Unusually, a conservative American pundit supporting PR. Albeit it’s Reihan Salam. And writing in Slate. But still:

    Reihan Salam, “The Biggest Problem in American Politics: Forget gerrymandering. Here’s what we need to fix to ensure truly fair elections.”
    Slate (11 September 2014), http://tinyurl.com/kekkq7f

    Maybe the Disraelian spirit isn’t yet dead on the Right of politics,

  19. Salam makes good points, but its fair to point out that the US electoral system has huge problems beyond the use of single member districts. It looks bad even compared to other countries that rely on single member plurality.

    Gerrymandering, districts that are way too large for the population (in a country of 300 million people, you handle this by devolving as much power as possible to localities), only two parties and they control the electoral machinery so there will always be just two parties, intentionally making it difficult for people to vote, and of course the financing system means that elections in the US just work differently. You can fix these problems without PR. PR by itself is worth considering on its own merits, and just for shaking things up, but I’m not sure if you can even get PR without fixing all these other problems.

    New York has issues of overcentralization and districts that have inappropriately large population sizes that are bad even compared with the rest of the country. And Republicans in Manhattan aren’t really represented by someone elected from Staten Island.

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