13 August: Additions near the end on parliamentarism and the Virginia Plan.
15 August: More discussion at the OTB post by Joyner that is grafted at the bottom of this planting (and in his comment thread).
At the propagation bench to yesterday’s “blogiversary” planting on two-party politics in the USA, James Joyner (whose Outside the Beltway post prompted mine) suggests that PR might seem good on grounds of “fairness” but that he has often thought PR to be impractical because of the â€œtail wagging the dogâ€ result.
Fairness to cooky voters like me who favor nutty little parties is all well and good. But the ‘fairness’ argument is the less compelling case for PR. The compelling case is in its aggregate effects on representation, accountability, and governance, not on how nicely it treats society’s cranks of the far left or right or whatever ideological fringe.
But what about the supposed “tail wagging the dog” problem? That’s a systemic issue (the “dog” being the system), and if the problem is real, then we should be very cautious about PR indeed, for we certainly do not want to empower the tail.
So, do small parties have “disproportionate” influence over coalitions that larger parties must form in order to govern? The actual evidence that this happens is, well, nil. I’ve talked about that here (especially in the New Zealand and Germany blocks), as have many of the propagators over the past year.
The best single paper by a political scientist on this question that I can think of is:
McGann and Moran, “The Myth of the Disproportionate Influence of Small Parties in Israel” (the link takes you to the abstract and another link there will get you to a PDF of the paper).
Basically, there just is not much evidence that small parties get more than their weight in votes would entitle them to, nor that they are able to hold “hostage” the bigger parties (which, after all, are also minority parties that get, by definition, disproportionate influence under plurality elections!). And if it does not happen in Israel (where the largest party often has only a third of the votes and seats, the country is a single 120-seat district, and a party can win a seat with just 2% of the vote) it is unlikely to happen almost anywhere.*
Small parties may be needed for coalitions, but they need the larger parties just as much–and often more–in order to exercise any influence and to be able to bring any policy or other rewards back to their voters.
An additional factor in limiting small-party “extortion” ability is a simple fact about multiparty systems: For almost all voters, there are more parties close to the voter in the ideological space than is the case in a two-party system. In other words, small and large parties alike are always under pressure from competitors, and if they overbid, they can be shut out and replaced by some other party that a chunk of their constituency likes almost as much (and perhaps more, if it can actually deliver). Those of us who think competition is an inherently good thing–in the markets for goods and yes also in the market for policy ideas–thus like PR. More competition, more prospects for satisfying the greater number of voters.
In two-party systems, on the other hand, the problem for a voter who wants to punish one party was well summed up by Henry Droop in the passage from a longer and rich paragraph that I am so fond of quoting (so fond that the beginning of it is up there on the left sidebar). Droop notes that the problem with majority or plurality systems and just two major parties is that moderate, nonpartisan voters:
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.
With PR, given that there are almost always multiple possible majorities that can form–the essence of Madison’s famous argument about checking “factions,”–it is much harder for any one party to push its advantage too far. If it does, it risks breaking the coalition. This, coupled with the presence of multiple parties competing to please unafiliated voters, gives such voters a voice between elections, something recent experience in the USA clearly shows is lacking (as I wrote about last November).
James raises a valid point about fragmentation in the USA currently and how it would be reflected in a PR system. Actually, that fragmentation of interests is one of the best arguments for PR: With multiple parties, rather than just two (at best–increasingly districts and states are not even two-party competitive), these interests are reflected in a way that is transparent. Under our current winner-take-all systems, interests are reflected by individual members of congress who are accountable to no one outside their districts, and given safe seats, not even clearly within them. It is much better that voters and politicians alike be able to see–from shifts in the votes for Greens and Libertarians and so on–which direction the electorate is moving in. Two-party competition–and again, in fact, we do not even have that in many places–is an awfully blunt instrument. So, numerous interests are represented, but in a nontransparent and non-accountable way. And many interests aren’t represented at all.
Then there is the question about presidentialism. Of course, multiparty politics works best with a parliamentary system–to keep the coalition partners that run the executive accountable to the people by way of the proportionally elected legislature. We might have had a parliamentary system if Madison’s original Virginia Plan had not been thwarted by the small-state delegates. (The plan called for the House to elect the executive–and also the Senate, with the latter election based on nominations from the state legislatures, each state represented by population.) Alas, we did not get parliamentarism or weak bicameralism–the best systems for multiparty politics. We wound up with presidentialism along with strong bicameralism.
Looking on the bright side of the not-so-Great Compromise at Philadelphia, an advantage of presidentialism in a multiparty system is that the chief executive does not “fall” when coalitions shift. However, that is also a disadvantage, inasmuch as it limits the range of possible alternative coalitions that can form and rules out the possiblity of early elections to refer interparty disputes back to the electorate. Besides, as I alluded to above, the role of small parties in forcing such crises in parliamentary systems is much exaggerated anyway.
Basically, presidentialism would be almost certain to keep Democrats and Republicans as the major parties even under a House (and ideally, Senate, but that’s more complicated) elected by PR. Smaller parties ideally should be given a role in forging coalitions for presidential elections, which is hard to do with the electoral college. But even if the electoral college were not abolished, the National Popular Vote concept would be highly likely to generate pre-election coalitions for presidential competition–and especially if PR were also adopted.
One concern I have with the NPV idea (which, basically, would have states collectively having 270+ electoral votes agree to give their electors to the national popular-vote winner) under the current congressional electoral system is that third parties would expand their influence in presidential elections without a corresponding influence in congress. For multiparty politics to work, it has to be in both branches, consistent with the Madisonian incentives for interbranch cooperation upon which the entire edifice of separation of powers is premised. (Already, third parties are more active and receive more votes for president than for congress, though the gap is not as great as it once was, and in 2004–unusually for the USA–third party voting was higher for House and Senate than for President.)
Would US Presidents appoint coalition cabinets if neither their nor the main opposition had a majority in Congress? I do not know. Behavior in other presidential systems is mixed on this point. It would be advantageous to them to do so, but they would retain the right not to do so. But just eliminating the single-party Leviathan in control of the House of Representatives (and, to a lesser degree, the Senate) would be in itself a powerful advantage of PR: No more minoritarian governance of the legislative bodies.** It would become genuinely majoritarian, in that parties collectively representing a majority of the electorate (and less regionally biased, too) would be in control of the production of legislation.
With a direct vote for President and PR in Congress, you come pretty close to a best-of-both-worlds scenario (or at least as close as one can get under presidentialism): Pre-election coalitions among parties to elect the president (and these coalitions could shift from election to election), and inter-party bargaining in Congress between elections to keep the partners accountable to their respective constituencies.
* What about Italy? I think the evidence is also limited there, though I am aware of no study of precisely this phenomenon. However, there were various factors–more or less unique to Italy–that might have made Italian small parties more capable of making high demands than elsewhere: the absence of a feasible coalition centered around any large party other than the Christian Democrats (because of the large Communist party), the high internal factionalization of the largest party, and the presence of secret voting by MPs on most matters in parliament. Of course, since 1993, Italy has abandoned PR (and, no, it did not return to it in April, 2006). The peculiar form of a mix between overall majoritarianism and intra-alliance PR that both Italian electoral systems since 1993 have consisted of probably–and ironically–gives small parties far more blackmail potential than is the case under almost all PR systems.
** Whereby the leadership of the single party in control–which can even be the second most popular party nationwide–often refuses to bring to a vote a bill on which there is majority support in the public and even in the chamber itself, but which divides the party internally.