How liberals ended PR in the US

Proportional representation is a mostly left-wing cause in the US. Some see it as a path to majority-Democrat Congressional delegations. Others see it as a way out of the Democratic Party, period. Much liberal-wing anger centers on the party’s ties to Wall Street. If we had PR, the story goes, the liberal wing would seat its own party. If not, it might at least scare the Clinton wing into responsiveness. And the affinity between PR and left politics might draw on a myth, neatly summarized below:

Proportional representation systems were tried earlier in the past century and then discarded precisely because they favored minority representation (racial and left wing/socialist) too much.

I’ve found evidence that the most liberal Democrats were actually PR’s worst enemies. Yes, racially and economically liberal. I’m talking about the AFL and/or CIO and Young Democrats. At roughly the same time they were pulling the Democratic Party leftward, they were working to repeal PR in at least three of the cities that had it.

Let’s begin with New York City and Cincinnati, since the PR eulogy rests heavily on these cases.

In New York, all signs suggest repeal was about kicking the left off City Council. The CIO did take PR’s side there in 1947, but the Young Democrats opposed it.

What about Cincinnati? It’s said that repeal in 1957 was a reaction to desegregation, simultaneous events in Little Rock, and the success of a local black politician under PR. Another common argument cites Democrats’ bolt from a three-decade coalition deal. Everything we know about American politics implies these ought to have been (racially) conservative Democrats. And we’d expect the CIO and Young Democrats to have opposed them. Not so, and not so.

I argue here that the CIO-affiliated Steel Workers were critical to repealing PR in 1957. Stranger still, their leader was city council’s main advocate for desegregation and collective bargaining. He and the successful black politician were on the same side of every major policy initiative except one: a flat municipal income tax. What about the YDs? Although their role in 1957 remains unclear, they caused the 1954 attempt to repeal PR. Both efforts involved deals with a disciplined, conservative Republican Party.

We find the same basic pattern in Worcester, Massachusetts. Consider this slice of history, from December 1959:

Worcester AFL-CIO supports repeal of PR.I find archival evidence that the Worcester YDs began mobilizing against PR in 1955. This involved rapprochement with the former Democratic “machine.” YDs also tried to get control of the CEA nominating process. Finally, they tried to get the CEA to pull PR from its platform. CEA was the coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats that benefitted from PR in Worcester.

Make of this role what you will. It looks short-sighted in retrospect. It’s clearly ironic, given what we know. The very people you’d expect to clamor for PR today — starry-eyed activists and militant labor organizers — are largely why the working PR examples are gone.

The obvious question concerns motive. Maybe they saw Democrats on the demographic upswing and, in that, a chance to flush Republicans from city government for good. That only explains Cincinnati, however, if the Republicans were ignoring trends that the YDs and/or unions were not. Anticommunism is another big possibility. The problem is that Communists (or anything plausibly resembling them) only gained from PR in New York City and its suburbs. Clearly there’s work to do. Please share any insights.

42 thoughts on “How liberals ended PR in the US

  1. The Single Transferable Vote would be the only type of PR accepted in the USA. Most of the focus is on candidates. It would be nice for us Americans to start seeing proportional voting systems for Congress!

    • I address the “why STV” question in a different paper. Short story: STV doesn’t appear to have had inherent appeal. It was simply the only quota- or remainder-based form of PR (i.e., a form of real PR) compatible with nonpartisan elections. I’ll do a blog post on that too at some point.

      • Fair point, although it seems that might be precisely why STV would have more appeal in the US than any type of list system of PR.

      • It was the only kind of quota- or remainder-based PR compatible with a ballot carrying no party or factional designation.

  2. Ironically, that CW is agreed by both Enid Lakeman in the pro-STV-PR corner (POWER TO ELECT, 1982) and by Professor FA Hermens in the anti-PR corner (his chapter in Grofman and Lijphart, 1984, quotes a Thirties leaflet complaining that “Communists and other radicals” could not win seats by “normal district methods,” which suggests that even though Wikipedia would not be invented for decades, someone really, really needed to obtain the volume of the encyclopaedia Britannica with the “FRANCE, GOVERNMENT OF” entry in it).
    I was rather surprised to see the 1984 book listed Hermens as author of EUROPE BETWEEN DEMOCRACY AND ANARCHY, although his courage in acknowledging to authorship of it. In his shoes, I would have had all remaining copies discreetly withdrawn and pulped no later than the tenth year into the West German Wirtschaftswunder.

    • Thanks for reminding me about those references, Tom. Doug Amy was kind enough to provide Leon Weaver’s collected papers when I began this project. Among them are correspondence with Hermens and Banfield. Hermens remained a detractor to the bitter end. Banfield couldn’t have cared less, albeit politely.

    • On your point about the ironic agreement in both camps, I was also quite surprised at what I found in Cincinnati and Worcester. Smart people have alerted me to a possibility that I’m not raising because I can’t yet substantiate it. This possibility involves J. Edgar.

  3. I don’t have any evidence or insight to add, but I do want to say that I think Jack’s research is extremely valuable. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

    I agree with Jack that the appeal of STV lies almost entirely in its suitability for “non-partisan” elections. But that has two aspects and two different audiences. There are those who are militantly opposed to political parties as such, especially among students of election methods. STV is a matter of principle to them. And then there are those who accept the reality that many local elections in the U.S. are nominally “non-partisan” and likely to stay that way. They may like STV but don’t see it as the only true election method.

    • Thanks, Bob. I need to write the “why STV” post. (Journal rejects force one to answer important questions.) Here’s the spoiler: the PR movement cut a deal with the nonpartisan movement around 1915. This manifests in Ashtabula in that year, which was the first true home rule city to adopt PR. The fun part concerns who did not like that deal. I’ll save it for the eventual post.

      • That’s interesting. I was under the impression (probably self-inflicted) that in 1915 the PR movement and the non-partisan movement were mostly the same people.

      • There was always probably some overlap. The council-manager people explicitly endorse PR in 1915, for example. But the separate journals don’t merge until 1932.

      • The SP did not like recall (for obvious reasons). I think the PR people broke completely with the initiative people in the very late 1890s. Not 100% positive whether it was that or, again, the recall though.

  4. When the various European countries embraced PR either before universal suffrage, concurrent with it, or after it, who were the parties that favoured it along the political binary. It was a very different binary looking back than it was today. In the U.S the Republican Party was the Progressive Party at the turn of the century and Democrats were Conservative and now today they have swapped places.

    • That’s debated. The balance of evidence casts it as an incumbent self-protection measure by monarchist and bourgeois parties, tinged with support from the socialist left.

      I see the Progressives a bit differently. Noel (2013) casts them as occupying an orthogonal dimension. That fits CW about there being Progressives in both parties.

      By the way, I’ve just found the CIO attacking PR in Toledo in 1949.

      • “Ended PR” sounds like a clickbait title where “ended” is a millennial metaphor for “refuted using devastating Twitter snark…” (-
        Perhaps a comparison with the UK might be illuminating here? The Liberals/ SDP/ Liberal Democrats, who correspond (apart from blips like the 2003 Iraq invasion) more closely with the “Wall Street” wing of the US Democrats, are pro-PR. Not just because they are a smallish party who would benefit from it electorally, but also (as Vernon Bogdanor and others have noted) because it appeals to their philosophy of expressing your own unique combination of individual choices.
        By contrast, UK Labour, who correspond (apart from blips like the 2003 Iraq invasion) more closely to the left wing of the US Democrats, which also tends to be the trade/ labour union end, is much more lukewarm about PR. Not just because single-member electorates (especially with FPTP) benefits the party electorally, but also because a two-party system with a limited (even just binary) effective choice between Workers and Bosses fits more with their world view. Socialists tend to see issues as cross-linked; a centrist liberal might be a gay practising Catholic or Muslim who favours lower taxes, welcoming refugees, restrictions on late-term abortions, and bombing ISIL (think of Andrew Sullivan or Alex Massie, say) but socialists from the Labo[u]r right wing through to Communists see class, race, gender and civil liberties issues as inextricably interlinked. You might think you can pick and choose issue by issue, but that’s only because you haven’t yet formed a sufficiently clear class consciousness.
        PS: there is only one “TR” on this blog and he does not share his power…

      • This post now is nearly three years old. Later work affirmed what I was seeing as I wrote this, and it makes sense. The unions were ascendant in the Democratic Party. They had no need for PR, especially where it allowed conservative interests to “hang on” in cities turning Democratic. Herman Finer (1921) of the Fabians captures the logic well on the first page of this essay:

    • This is a bit off-topic, but I have the idea that even in the turn of the (19th to 20th) century, the Democrats were the populist party, and Republican the pro-business (and “sound money”) party; and even in social issues, at least outside the South, the Republicans were more anti-immigration (with a pro-WASP and anti-Irish/anti-Catholic orientation) and pro-“blue laws” than the Democrats.

      Note that I am a Portuguese, then my knowledge about the issue is limited.

      • The abiding constant, it seems to me, since 1856 is that the Republicans have always been the more zealously pro-capitalism party, the one keenest on Hayekian formal neutrality: a society where what matters is whether you have the dollars and the legal citizenship, not your skin colour. Hence your Tom Deweys and other business interests championing civil rights because maintaining segregated stores was an enormous drain on business profits.

        The Democrats have consistently been the more… well, “anti-capitalist” is not really applicable to the USA, but “less enthusiastic about unregulated free-market capitalism.” Before 1900 or so, this took the form of championing race-based agrarian feudalism. Since around 2000, this has meant championing post-capitalist social democracy and race-conscious affirmative action. Between 1900 and 200, the balance between the George Wallace and the Henry Wallace tendencies within the Democratic Party shifted, and indeed (to use Michael Lind’s analogy) eventually Democrats and Republicans lunged past each other and ended up swapping places, like duelling swordsmen. Hence those electoral maps showing that Obama carried the States that FDR lost and vice versa.

        Caveat that I am not American – although it is hard for any literate English-speaker on the planet to avoid picking up a great deal of US political information by default.

      • C/f also Ta-Nehisi Coates’ observation that right-wing Southern whites were more than happy about federal spending and intervention by “Washington” in the 1930s when it meant alleviating rural white poverty (via electrification, dams, the GI Bill, etc). Diehard segregationists like Bilbo and Tillman were enthusiastic New Deal supporters, and FDR swept the Solid South all four times. Many New Deal programs were structured in a way that excluded most African-Americans (hence the bitter joke that the NSA stood for “Negroes Screwed Again”).

        But (Coates notes), by the 1950s, once Southern whites had electricity and paved roads and a hope of decent education, and the next step of the New Deal was to extend the same federal benefits to black Americans, Southern whites suddenly became deeply concerned about the federal leviathan intervening with the free market. Hence Barry Goldwater – who had strongly supported repeal of legally-enforced segregation in Arizona, but didn’t want the federal government to “overreach” by pushing desegregation nationally – carried the Solid South in 1964. Goldwater himself appears to have conscientiously believed that civil rights laws violated freedom of association, but his opposition to them appealed to angry racists who had shown no concern for freedom of association when Alabama ordered the NAACP to hand over its membership lists.

        I’m not saying that concern about the Pentagon’s five-hundred-dollar toilet seats is inherently racist, but a certain portion of the electorate seem to have no objection to gummint spending as long as its benefits them and theirs: they only become born-again green-eyeshade budget-balancers when the money goes to citizens of a different ethnic background. (We have our own local equivalents in Australia).

      • It’s easy to condemn southern whites as a unitary block. That said, most of what Tom and Miguel have said sounds about right and also interesting. Precisely how “Progressivism” synced with the parties, regions, and classes in each raises a bunch of empirical questions. I know of two people who might be able to help. One is on Twitter. I’ll page him.

      • FWIW, the more actually “Progressive” propaganda I read, the less convinced I am in its utility as a category. It increasingly seems like this is a category retrospectively slapped onto a very large portion of history as seen through a particular lens.

  5. “since 1856 is that the Republicans have always been the more zealously pro-capitalism party” That’s simply not true. It’s far more complicated than that. There has certainly not been an “abiding constant”. Both Democrats and Republicans have had different factions vying for control, at times putting the two parties on different sides of the economic policy divide than today. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the GOP supported protectionism and bimetallism while the Democrats (controlled by the ‘Bourbon Democrat’ faction as they were popularly known) stood for fiscal conservatism, free trade and sound money (ie, at that time, the gold standard). However around the turn of the century the tables turned, with William Jennings Bryan taking the Democratic nomination in 1896 on a platform of inflation through bimetallism, facing McKinley, who put together a pro-business and pro-gold standard coalition to take the Republican nomination, in the general election. Just to demonstrate the factional power struggle within the parties, in 1896 both parties suffered small splits of disillusioned delegates who left their party to form a new one: ‘Gold Democrats’ nominated their own man, while ‘Silver Republicans’ endorsed W. J. Bryan. In the following decades there would be more turbulence, especially within the Republican party, which split wide open between the Progressives (nb the capital P), formed around Roosevelt and the rump of the GOP, still behind Taft. Even in 1932 it wasn’t that simple, especially if you look at the campaign promises as well as actual policy. Despite current popular perceptions, Hoover was hardly as fiscally conservative as Coolidge, and actually started the deficit spending that FDR later expanded – deficit spending the FDR campaign had actually condemned as reckless, promising the return of ‘sound fiscal policies’! And it wasn’t just Roosevelt (who said “I accuse the present Administration of being the greatest spending Administration in peacetime in all our history.”) who made the divide explicit – Hoover said Roosevelt’s promised reductions of government intervention would worsen the depression.

    If there was any abiding constant, it was the South’s voting Democrat, usually with larger margins than anywhere else in the Union, from 1877 (the end of reconstruction) to 1948 (when the first segregationist split occurred), regardless of the Democratic candidate’s (economic) policy platform. As Tom indicates, it simply wasn’t the dominant political cleavage there… nor is it what’s keeping them in the Republican party now.

    • I think there’s a labor split in the Democratic Party in 1947 as well. You pick it up if you plot the House votes on repealing the Wagner Act. Maybe that inherits the cleavage on race — but only somewhat. FWIW, I think this is related to the wave of PR adoptions in MA that year. This gets back to the pre-New Deal Democratic outposts that did exist in the Northeast.

    • I’m happy to replace “consistently” with “on balance”, ie allowing exceptions. Clinton I and NAFTA were closer to “unregulated markets” than Nixon, and Carter and Ted Kennedy pushed deregulation during their time. Within eras rather than across, though, and looking at actions rather than rhetoric (as I said, barring the occasional Bernie Sanders or Norman Thomas, attacking free markets is a political non-starter in the US, even for FDR), I think my generalisation holds, at least in the “Canada is colder than the US sense”.
      Certainly today GOP thinkers like Scalia, Clint Bolick and National Review see the Hayekian principle of “neutral laws” and opposition to “special rights” as the golden thread of continuity that allows them to retain the “party of Lincoln” mantle despite opposing affirmative action.

      • There’s no point comparing positions over time. The whole political space has moved completely. Just as one, extreme, example, now no metal standard, gold or bimetallic, is advocated by anyone other than some ardent libertarians like Ron Paul. The only analysis that makes any sense is what I did, tracking the parties’ positions relative to each other over time.

        Tom, when does your generalisation hold, exactly? I think I rebutted everything until at least 1896, and even then the left wing of the Democratic party didn’t dominate enough to define it definitively as the party of the left until some years after FDR’s election… FDR’s first running mate was a Jeffersonian who strongly opposed the New Deal, as did many others in the party. And by what measure does your generalisation hold? I think you have to take a very narrow view, considering only the parties’ presidential nominees, to the exclusion of the complexion of each party as a whole, to make it anything close to plausible.

        I don’t think attacking free markets is a non-starter in the US. It may not be as common, direct or as comprehensive as in other countries (though perhaps that’s what you meant), but it still happens, and I don’t think it’s that rare.

    • My impression is that in 19th century the Republican (and, before them, the Federalists and Whigs) were a pro-business/pro-big government party, defending federal intervention (like tariffs, internal improvements and chartered banks) to help the development of industry and banking, while the Democrats were an anti-business (or, at least, anti-big business)/pro-small government party, dreaming about something close to a society of small farmers and strong local autonomy (and perhaps the individualist anarchists like Ben Tucker, Josiah Warren and Lysander Spooner, who believed that an absolute free market will end the boss-employee relation were a kind of Democrats-in-stereoids?).

      At some point (perhaps in the 1930s) there was a 90º degree rotation, and Democrats became an anti-business/pro-big government (at least, in relative terms) party – the thing of “Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means” – and the Republicans a pro-business/pro-small government (at least, in economics) party.

      Perhaps this make very difficult to categorize the parties in 19th century by modern labels – because the political platforms of these time were not consistent with today’s platforms?

      A point about free trade – even today, I have the idea that perhaps the average Republican is more pro-free trade than the average Democrat, but, for other side, radical opposition to free trade (by politicians running in elections having opposition to free trade agreements as a main point of their platform – like Buchanan or Trump) comes more from sectors of the Republican Party than from Democrats.

      • I think you’re right to point out the greater complexity involved in the question of categorising party programs ideologically. Especially the ‘pro-business’ label is a very problematic, as one can easily support (big) business by being interventionist. As Luigi Zingales put it, being pro-business is not (necessarily) the same as being pro-market. Nor is business, even big business, always so united.

        However, focusing on the main state/intervention vs. market/laissez faire/sound money disagreements, it’s not that difficult to separate the parties’ presidential programs nor their constituencies. The Republicans of the late 19th century were very much the farmers’ party, with protectionism and inflation being policies strongly favoured by farmers – as well as industrial labourers. Of course, there were also businesses that benefitted from and supported tariffs. But at the same time, the Sherman Antitrust Act passed mainly with Republican support, so I don’t know if the ‘pro-big business’ label is all that apt.

        Far more importantly, the complexity lies in that 1)internally, the parties were far from homogeneous ideologically, with a high degree of regional variation and different factions (with these being represented, for instance, in Congress), as I pointed out above and 2) that political entrepeneurs in either party have led the formation of different coalitions both in getting the presidential nomination and then in the lead-up to the general election; sometimes those presidential candidates led the parties with programs very different that they had had in previous presidential elections, with 1896 and 1932 being perhaps the starkest examples.

      • I had the idea that it was the opposite – that farmers were pro-free trade and manufacturers pro-tariffs (perhaps I was confusing the end of the century with the middle?).

        But I think that, under McKinnley, the Republicans were protectionists and pro-gold, meaning that, in these times, we can’t treat “laissez faire” and “sound money” as they are necessarily in the same side.

      • Perhaps you’re right about the tariff. I suppose the tariff appealed to industry and its labourers while bimetallism appealed to farmers. It seems the People’s or Populist Party that sprang up in 1892 (and later effectively merged with the Democrats) seems to have viewed the tariff issue as a red herring used by the main parties to distract from more important issues, most importantly the currency. You’re certainly right about McKinley supporting the tariff, I managed to overlook that detail. But I would nonetheless argue that this meshes well with my points about 1896 being a turnaround in the parties relative positioning, their internal factional struggles and the connected coalition-forming – McKinley may have turned to the gold standard (though many in his party didn’t), but continued the protectionism that had been the hallmark of the party’s economic policy since its inception. So the economic cleavage between the parties wasn’t so clear then, and it would continue to be muddled for the next few decades, with a number of elections which either betrayed the divisions within the parties (such as 1912) or where the parties’ respective presidential candidates were very similar in their economic policies (1904, 1924).

      • It has belatedly occurred to me that it’s probably ill-advised to debate JD on an issue where he has much greater historical expertise while my own knowledge comes from “House of Cards” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
        So, I yield to the gentleman from Leiden on the parties’ economic positions. (I do stand by the Hayekian neutrality point, though, as regards affirmative action — ie, GOP pride in their historical record of race-blindness).

    • Yes, but we are stuck with the term “progressive” as it is applied to today’s political specturm. There’s not much to be done about that. Historically, I think the meaning of the term changed with LaFollette — to say nothing of Henry Wallace — as compared to Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Croly.

      • I don’t know about the meaning changing with La Follette. Maybe strengthening. TR’s platform was very welfare statist, rather reminiscent of the second Roosevelt.

  6. My mistake. I misread. You’re right. That’s exactly why it had appeal. But this was contested, especially by the Socialists. Some of them went along with the deal with the nonpartisan movement. Others opposed STV in some places because of this, however.

    • It’s the contestation that strikes me as significant. One way to look at this is: part of the nonpartisan movement liked PR. But that’s not entirely or even mostly accurate. Rather, a separate movement for PR teamed up with the nonpartisan people out of convenience.

    • Yup. Completely a creation of commentators, not all of them scholarly, and none of them political scientists. Which is why political science adherence to the term baffles me.

  7. I wanted to highlight something I just came across today while looking into info on district magnitude, and it relates somewhat to this topic: the city of Santa Clara, California, is trying to adopt STV for municipal elections. A voting rights lawsuit (Ladonna Yumori-Kaku vs. City of Santa Clara) has been going on. Asian American voters have been consistently unable to elect their candidate of choice in the city’s at-large system.

    The Asian-American plaintiffs want a standard remedy of 6 single-member districts, where they could control at least one seat. The city’s somewhat surprising counter-response: 2 districts, with 3 members each, elected by STV.

    Unfortunately, the main newspaper in the area seems to have no understanding of what STV actually is:

    Voters had the option to approve STV in a referendum in June 2018, but unfortunately it was narrowly defeated [,_California,_Measure_A,_By-District_Council_Elections_and_Ranked-Choice_Voting_Charter_Amendment_(June_2018)].

    The Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, who I believe are responsible for the “mathematicians’ brief” in the Supreme Court’s most recent gerrymandering case, proposed a city-wide six-member STV district as a remedy in a very well-written brief which may be of interest ( and which cites Carey and Hix’s work on ideal district magnitude.

    I can’t find whether a final remedy to the case has been put into place. It wouldn’t look favorable, but it is very interesting to know that a city government is backing STV and has even offered a referendum on the topic.

    This relates to a comment earlier this week, on a thread I can’t remember: liberal voting rights campaigners may be the worst enemies of PR in the US, and it may be because they really don’t understand how the mechanism delivers proportional results.

    • I made the comment that Christopher interpreted to mean that “liberal voting rights campaigners may be the worst enemies of PR in the US”. Enemies, no — and certainly not worst enemies. I apologize for saying anything that might be understood in that way. In any country with a legacy of racial oppression whose effects still poison the body politic, the relationship between the goal of PR and the goal of racial equality is far too complex to describe in any such way.

      In Santa Clara, a judge ordered the adoption single member districts in July 2018. The ruling was not appealed. The November 2018 elections were held using the new districts. Here is the court’s final (I think) opinion:

      • I need to revise the claim I made here three years ago. Organized labor, not “liberals” writ large, became a PR opponent. This makes sense, given its ascendency as Democratic Party kingmaker.

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