Does Proportional Representation Curb Populism?

On a recent panel, journalist Joris Luyendijk argues that our conventional assumptions about the relationship between political election systems and populism are backward:

France, Britain, and America have a kind of first-past-the-post district system. And so you can have a candidate who initially only commands 20% of the vote theoretically make it into the presidency. But countries with proportional representation have had “populist” movements for a long time. It has been allowed to play out. It is a yo-yo: it’s going up and down.

Luydenijk goes on to reference longitudinal German research from the 1950s thru the 1980s suggesting that about 15-20% of the population is susceptible to politically motivated racist rhetoric at any given time. Many nations have established majority-system election structures that effectively restrict this segment of the population from meaningful participation: no platform, no political parties, no newspapers. One of the principal ‘intentions’ of first-past-the-post is to amputate fringe ideologies or extreme elements from political power. But Luydenijk is one of many voices pointing out the serious unintended consequences of this strategy:

I used to study political science, and there was always a sense that proportional representation was more risky in terms of bringing the neo-Nazis back to power: “just look at these awful parties.” But now it seems like proportional representation is actually a better absorber… In first-past-the-post you have this thing simmering under the radar…

In essence, proportional representation takes a strategic gamble: it bets that surrendering representational power to interests with, say, racial superiority or anti-establishment agendas plays a mitigating role against full-out populist uprisings in the long run. By democratically allowing all ideologies into the political equation, the influence of fringe elements becomes tempered by the same bureaucracies, bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and disillusionment as all the others. But more importantly, first-past-the-post risks becoming an incubator for the anger of those who feel structurally unrepresented by it. The danger here is evident: when a critical percentage of voters in a first-past-the-post system get angry enough, the logic of majority systems for suppressing populism completely falls apart.

Cas Mudde, recently quoted in The Atlantic, puts this far more coherently:

For a long time, received wisdom was that majority systems prevented populist parties from gaining success, whereas proportional systems—particularly without a high threshold like the Netherlands—make it much easier for them to get in parliament and build from there. The problem is, of course, that while you normally only win a part of the cake in proportional systems, you win everything in majoritarian systems.

When ridiculed for breaking his campaign promise to implement electoral reform, Justin Trudeau said that “an augmentation of extremist voices in this House…is not what is in the best interests of Canada.” Evidently, the Liberals feel that the fear of populism and “extremist voices” in government provides adequate political currency for defending the status quo. But does this remain a rational, coherent argument in today’s world? (All it takes is one would-be messianic figure crossing the finish line first to demonstrate that the contrived arrangement of the finish line is insufficient to bar demagogues from winning the race.)

The logic of majority systems — where power is usually an all-or-nothing, zero-sum-game — only makes sense if you assume that marginalized ideas will obediently shrivel and die for lack of oxygen. I reckon this hypothesis has proven invalid. Looking around the world, we might also think of first-past-the-post as a landmine, just waiting for a perfect storm of discontentment to roll in and trip the wire. Electoral systems that deny extremist, fringe voices a viable avenue to participate only entrench disenfranchisement at the margins.

The fundamental assumption of democracy — the sovereignty of the people — is that self-governance is a more attractive option than living under a fascist or autocratic regime. For this premise to work, a critically vast majority of people need to feel like they have some semblance of representation. But demagogues feel like godsends when you feel unheard. Democracy is only more attractive than its alternatives to the extent that engaging in the political process actually means something.

Therefore, the systemic benefit of an election framework that ‘accepts’ hateful, unsavory ideologues is that the entire populace remains engaged in the political process. If the world has taught us anything over the past few years, it is that disengagement seeds resentment, which in turn fuels desperation. In the long run, perhaps the only way to nurture a legitimate, so-called ‘political centre’ is to give the voters at all poles of the ideological compass a voice in their government.

One thought on “Does Proportional Representation Curb Populism?

  1. The reasoning here is completely congruent with my 20 years experience facilitating interest-based (AKA mutual gains) negotiations over a wide range of public policy issues.

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