Proportional Representation - Part 2
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 5.2
While proportional representation (PR) allows for much more accurate representation than the usual winner-take-all election rules used in the US, it isn’t enough. All voting methods, including PR, provide voters with a relatively narrow partisan menu of choices, and assume that voters choose candidates or parties based on either policy positions or fundamental interests, rather than, for example, technocratic competence. However, incumbent governments are often voted out of office for simple competency reasons, rather than policy direction. An economic downturn outside the control of the ruling party, high unemployment, crime, a spate of shark attacks, etc. can result in a change of government, even if the majority of voters oppose the policy intentions of the replacement party. But even if voters did rely solely on their interests or policy preferences in deciding how to vote, and voters had complete knowledge of party platforms and the candidates’ records (which can never happen), this is still unworkable. A retired, pro-life, Hispanic, Gay, economic libertarian voter who also favors taxing the rich, and gun rights, has no ability to consistently “vote his interests,” even if there are more than two parties to choose among. While Marxists may assert that class interests are the fundamental true interests, most voters have “false consciousness,” or simply disagree.
A potential danger of pure PR, noted by supporters of winner-take-all election methods, is the risk of polarized pluralism, where otherwise centrist parties reach out to the political fringes for allies, leading to irreconcilable intolerance that can put electoral democracy itself at risk. These defenders of a two-party system often point out that their favored system encourages divergent interests to work out compromises prior to the nomination of candidates, in the hopes of cobbling together a coalition capable of winning the election and then governing. This is the basis of the “big tent” adage. PR generally leaves this coalition formation until after the election. This also shifts the deal making, whether as in a parliamentary system to form the government or on a bill by bill basis in a presidential system (when there is a clear separation between legislative and executive branches), into the hands of party insiders, rather than the primary voters. Maurice Duverger describes this tendency: “By dispersing voters among numerous independent parties, PR prevents the citizens from expressing a clear choice for a governmental team. It transfers the choice to the party leaders.” PR may help elect a legislature that somewhat more reasonably reflects the diversity of policy preferences of the public, but which positions will actually be pursued and which jettisoned by the majority coalition isn’t known until the party leaders hash it out after the election.
While there may be more points of view represented in these negotiations than in winner-take-all election situations, it is still a relatively small set of elite party leaders and their sponsors who call the shots, rather than the mass of voters. As Benjamin Barber wrote: “PR may multiply the number of special-interest and one-issue political groups represented in the adversary system, but it can only fragment the citizenry and further impede efforts at public seeing.”
PR and Women
In addition to electing representatives from more than just two political parties, PR also generally elects far more women legislators. Nearly every advanced country using PR has a far higher percentage of female legislators than the US. Some countries also have laws regulating the number and placement of female candidates on each party’s list of nominees as a form of affirmative action. One such procedure is referred to as a “zipper list” that requires parties to alternate male and female candidates on their nomination lists.
Zahra’ Langhi, the co-founder of Libyan Women’s Platform for PeaceSpeaking, at a TEDx-women Talk in 2012 spoke about the aftermath of the elections that followed the Libyan revolution:
“Our society, shaped by a revolutionary mindset, became more polarized and has driven away from the ideals and the principles – freedom, dignity, social justice – that we first held. Intolerance, exclusion and revenge became the icons of the [aftermath] of the revolution. I am here today not at all to inspire you with our success story of the zipper list and the elections. I’m rather here today to confess that we as a nation took the wrong choice, made the wrong decision. We did not prioritize right. For elections did not bring peace and stability and security in Libya. Did the ‘zipper list’ and the alternation between female and male candidates bring peace and national reconciliation? No, it didn’t. What is it, then? Why does our society continue to be polarized and dominated with selfish politics of dominance and exclusion, by both men and women?
“Maybe what was missing was not the women only, but the feminine values of compassion, mercy and inclusion. Our society needs national dialogue and consensus-building more than it needed the elections, which only reinforced polarization and division. Our society needs the qualitative representation of the feminine more than it needs the numerical, quantitative representation of the feminine.” [emphasis added]
More Choice is Not Enough
Even in a two-party system, most voters know very little about most of the candidates. In a PR system with more parties and candidates, voters may know proportionately less about the candidates. A group of researchers using more than sixty thousand elections in Brazil over 20 years as their database, have also found that an increased number of candidates on a ballot, facilitated by PR, may actually suppress voter participation. They suggest the burden of assessing a large number of candidates is simply too daunting for many voters. “Although conventional wisdom suggests that providing voters greater choice may enhance democracy, our analysis shows that there is an overlooked cost to providing voters more choice,” Andrew Janusz said.
It is not all that surprising that in a parliamentary system of government using a PR election system, it is sometimes difficult to negotiate a governing coalition. This is particularly true when parties reflect religious and ethnic divisions as in Iraq, which went for the better part of a year without a government following the March, 2010 elections. But an even more extreme example of this occurred in Belgium in 2010 - 2011, when the political parties failed to agree on a governing coalition for 589 days! With a multitude of parties, Belgium also faces the dilemma of an implacable language divide with parties from across the political spectrum primarily supported by either the Dutch-speaking Flemish north or Francophone Walloons in the south (and a tiny German-speaking region in the east). Though basic government functions were maintained by the bureaucracy, there was nobody steering the ship of state.
This electoral failure contributed to a growing interest in sortition in Belgium. A 2013 book by a prize-winning Belgian author, David Van Reybrouck, entitled Against Elections, makes the case for sortition.1 Van Reybrouck was invited to speak all over Europe and the world, including onto De Zevende Dag (The Seventh Day), the flagship talk-show on Flemish public television, for a wide-ranging discussion about his book with former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene. The former Prime Minister endorsed the need for democratic innovation and urged the government to start exploring sortition. Van Reybrouck’s efforts were an important factor in the subsequent mushrooming of hundreds of lottery-drawn citizens’ assemblies across Europe.
While the gender and class make-up of legislatures in countries using PR may be more diverse than in the United States, legislators still constitute a separate “political class,” and do not accurately mirror the diversity of the population. Perhaps as a result, even in countries using PR, politicians are often held in low esteem. As just one example. a study in Spain found that politicians were the least trusted professional group in society, with 70 percent of those interviewed saying they wouldn’t want their children getting involved in politics.
In an interview about his latest book, Democracy Erodes from the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe, political scientist Larry Bartels argues that elite control is inevitable, whether in a two-party system or a PR system.
“One thing I've worked on in my career is to estimate the impact of ordinary people's preferences on policy outcomes, both in the U.S. and other places. The implication of that work is that ordinary people's views have very little impact on what their governments do. That was shown first in the United States, and people imagine that it has to do with particular features of the U.S., like our campaign finance system or the weakness of labor unions or our separation of powers. But then people began to do parallel studies in European countries that were supposed to be much more advanced democratic systems, like Sweden and Germany. They found much the same thing in those places, in spite of the fact that they have very different institutions and very different political cultures. That suggests to me that there are much more fundamental factors that limit the impact of ordinary citizens on the behavior of leaders in any political system.”
He concludes that the goal should be to “socialize” the elites to behave better, since they are in charge regardless of the electoral system. He does not consider the option of replacing the electoral system with sortition.
I don’t want to leave the impression that PR is worthless. It almost certainly would be an improvement over the current US winner-take-all election system. My point is that PR is not a worthy final goal for democratic reform. Democracy reformers in Australia, which has used a form of proportional representation with ranked choice ballots for generations, are in fact among the leading advocates of sortition, in response to what they view as the inadequacy of proportional representation. Though experiments with sortition are already underway, as we will discuss below, full development and institutionalization of sortition as a tool for democracy will take more time. Therefore, interim reforms, that may decrease the power of plutocrats, such as campaign finance reform and PR seem worth pursuing as well.
The final chapter of Van Reybrouck’s book is based on a scholarly article of mine: “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day”, published in the Journal of Public Deliberation.