I did two media pieces this week, the first an article opposing electoral reform for Policy Options, the second a panel discussion on Donald Trump on TVO’s The Agenda. There is actually a connection between the two, but I didn’t have enough time on the TV show to explain it. And so let me do so here.
First, electoral reform. The point I’m always trying to make in this debate, which is very difficult to get across without being misinterpreted, is that there is a family of recognizably “democratic” voting systems, all of which have advantages and disadvantages, but none of which is more inherently democratic, or fair, than the others. This is why most academic experts, when they debate the merits of the various systems, tend to talk about extremely pragmatic and consequential considerations, not fundamental democratic principles. In other words, the type of discourse engaged in by Fairvote Canada is, in my view, rank demagoguery. There is nothing inherently more democratic about proportional representation than first-past-the-post. The only interesting question, in my view, is what the likely consequences would be of shifting from FPTP to PR.
My suspicion, of course, is that proponents of PR like the system, not so much because it is more democratic or fair, but because they think that it would produce good consequences, for them, and for their own preferred political party. (As a thought experiment, suppose that PR would likely produce Conservative governments, now and for the foreseeable future. How many current PR supporters do you think would continue to support it, as a “matter of democratic principle,” even if it had this untoward consequence?)
Consider the following example. It is clearly much easier for women to get elected under PR than under FPTP. That’s not because PR is inherently more gender-equal. Both PR and FPTP are gender-neutral. Thus a principled commitment to gender equality, just like a principled commitment to democracy and fairness, does not provide any basis for choosing between the two voting systems. However, as an empirical generalization, PR systems tend to produce the consequence that more women are elected than under FPTP. As a result, I think one could perfectly coherently support PR on the grounds that one thought it was important to elect more women to parliament. But then one should not going around claiming that PR is better than FPTP because the latter is “discriminatory” or “sexist,” one should simply say, “I prefer PR, because I think it would have better consequences.”
What I find frustrating about the current debate is that proponents of electoral reform are, for the most part, refusing to put their cards on the table. Instead of just saying what the good consequences are, that they expect to see from electoral reform, they are hiding behind the claim that democratic principles somehow compel us to adopt their favoured system. I’d like to hear what they think the consequences are – or what they imagine the scenario will be, 5 years after having switched to their favoured electoral system. My suspicion is that it is deeply unrealistic. In fact, my suspicion is that proponents of PR are largely NDP and Green party voters, who imagine that with a switch to PR, the Conservatives will be permanently blocked from power, and that the Liberals will not longer be able to get a majority, and so will only be able to rule by forming a coalition with the NDP and/or the Greens.
Think about this for a moment – what are the chances that this scenario will hold for more than one election? Do they really imagine that the country will be ruled by a Liberal-NDP coalition forever?
Here’s a better prediction. One feature of PR is that it tends to produce a proliferation of political parties. So if Canada switched to PR, one could predict with confidence that it would give rise to at least one new political party. And where would that political party be? On the left? Obviously not. Anyone who thinks about it for a moment can see that the first consequence of PR in Canada would be the appearance of a far-right party. You can see, with the old Reform-PC split, the Alberta Wildrose-PC split, that there is huge tension on the right in Canada, and the only thing keeping it together is the electoral calculus imposed by FPTP. Change that electoral calculus, and the first thing you are going to get is a redneck anti-immigration party, which will get around 15% of the vote, and which will hold the balance of power in any parliament where the Conservative party has the most seats.
So here’s the type of conversation that I think we should be having, when we talk about electoral reform in Canada. Not “which system more truly reflects the will of the people?” but rather “how do we feel about the appearance of a far-right anti-immigration party on the national scene?” and “do we think that would improve the quality of our national discourse?” In other words, I want to talk about the nitty-gritty, the scenarios, not some bogus democratic ‘principles’.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. Last month we had a day-long session with Pippa Norris at the School of Public Policy and Governance – she’s one of the leading experts on electoral systems and electoral reform. At one point during an in-house panel discussion she asked the group of assembled Canadians, “What exactly is the problem in the Canadian political system that you’re trying to fix with electoral reform?” The proponents of PR in the room (i.e. everyone but me) flailed around a bit, and conspicuously failed to come up with an answer. Listening to the unpersuasive responses, you could see her silently making up her mind, that electoral reform is not going to happen here. Why? Because it’s a solution looking for a problem.
To see what this means (i.e. “solution looking for a problem”) one need only compare the situation in Canada to that in the United States. If I was an American right now, I would be an enthusiastic supporter of electoral reform, with PR for Congress, and some kind of ranked ballot for President. Why? The number one pathology of FPTP is that is leads to convergence of the political system around two monolithic centrist parties (Duverger’s law). Right now, that is a huge problem in the United States, but not at all a problem in Canada. (That was the subtext of Norris’s question – given that Canada is not suffering from any of the major defects of FPTP, what’s the motivation to change it?)
If the past several months have taught us anything, it is that the United States should have 4 political parties right now, not 2. There is an obvious sense in which Sanders does not “belong” in the Democratic party, nor does Trump “belong” in the Republican party. In a flexible and responsive political system, both would have formed their own parties, so that there would now be both a “populist” left-wing and right-wing party in America. The majoritarian electoral system, however, penalizes this so heavily, that the representatives of these two populist insurgencies instead tried to “capture” the two more mainstream parties. The Democrats managed to beat this back, while the Republicans failed.
Now here’s the thing about the United States that I find so depressing. No one there is talking about electoral reform. Everyone is talking Trump, Trump, Trump, but no one is talking about making the sort of institutional changes that could easily prevent such an event from recurring. So here we are in Canada, having a serious (in the sense that we really might change things) but also frivolous (in the sense that there’s no real reason to change anything) debate about electoral reform, while in the United States, where they desperately, desperately need democratic reform, no one is even talking about it.
Any why are Americans not talking about it? (And I don’t just mean the media – even the university professors and political theorists, no one is talking about it.) Because they’ve already given up. They simply do not believe that their own institutions are reformable. If you ask political theorists about institutional reform – some of the smartest people in the country, who are paid to think about this for a living – the best they can come up with is some weaksauce response about campaign finance reform and gerrymandering. And yet, if even you got the right alignment of the stars to achieve reform on these two points, at best you would be rolling things back to the way there were maybe a decade or two ago. Nothing fundamental would change.
What America needs is a more fundamental change. The current discussion should not be about people, but about institutions. What about PR for Congress? Or how about a run-off election for President, like in France? Bold reforms like this would instantly change the political dynamic, and solve a huge number of problems.
But, of course, all of that is impossible. Everyone knows it.
What does it mean, however, to say, of the world’s leading democracy, that it is incapable of reforming its own institutions, in order to solve pressing problems? Think for a moment about how unique that is. What other democratic society is incapable of reform? Democracies reform their institutions all the time… except the United States.
And now, just as an exercise, consider how frivolous the current debate over electoral reform in Canada must seem, to an American. (If I were an American, I would be thinking to myself, “Jesus Christ, if I had a democracy that functioned as well as Canada’s, I wouldn’t change a thing…”)