What would the US look like under a proportional parliamentary system?

February 16, 2019
US Politics

A number of writers, looking for topics, have speculated as to whether US politics would work better under a parliamentary system. Usually these merely focus on its more democratic elements, usually in the context of criticism aimed at the "undemocratic" nature of the electoral college and Senate. Since Democrats perceive themselves as the major losers under these systems, having won the popular vote but lost the Presidency in both 2000 and 2016, such speculation has generally come from the left, and focused on how Democrats would have done better. Implicit in many of these speculative pieces is the assumption that partisan lines and voting patterns would remain fixed, something critics, pointing to European examples contest, arguing that proportional representation produces fragmentation and extremism. While the former is undoubtedly true, the latter is debatable. Proportional representation certainly makes it easier for extremist parties to elect representatives to office insofar as it makes it easier for everyone to elect representatives. Contrast the performance of the UK Independence Party and the Alternative for Germany, one of which won zero seats while the other won 93 despite winning around the same proportion of the national vote. Yet the former may well have had more influence on policy formation than the former, judging by how Brexit has proceeded. In fact, while PR does to tend help extremists gain representation, it also generally keeps them from office. At least while they are still on the political fringes. Its problems, however, lie in incentives towards fragmentation, which can cause the entire system to push everyone towards the extremes in the time of crisis. Few who have asked how US election results would look under a system of proportional representation have asked how US politics would look, and I therefore want to engage with that intellectual exercise.

First and foremost, the reason PR produces fragmentation is that it changes the way one achieves leverage. In a first past the post system, 7% of the electorate generally cannot elect any representatives on their own unless geographically concentrated, as secessionist movements often are. Yet if 7% vote consistently for a party, they can make a difference in a close election, leading them to lobby from within the parties. Under PR however, the incentives are to move this lobbying from the electoral period, to the process of government formation which follows. The most leverage is gained by winning seats first and deciding what to do with them afterwards. For instance, a PR system in the US would almost certainly produce an African American party and it would not be an automatic supporter of the Democrats. Why? Because there would be no reason to vote for it in that case, and therefore if only to prove to the Democrats that they couldn’t take it for granted and should pay more for support it would need to occasionally form coalitions with the Republicans. To the extent that was divisive within the community, the political split would become not ideological but between those who thought the best route to progress was to always support Democrats and those who favored freedom of action and bargaining. And the latter could draw a lot more support than a black Republican outfit.

I am pretty certain, for instance, that George W. Bush would also have formed a government under a PR party system in 2000. While the Democrats would marginally have won more votes, they would have been defeated in so far as a 9% lead in 1996 turned into a 0.6% lead in 2000. It would be awkward to justify hanging onto office. Furthermore, Bush and the African American leaders would have had reasons to reach a deal. Bush’s major goals were minority outreach(or to be perceived to be engaged in it) and gaining legitimacy and a coalition with an African American party would provide both. At the same time, the very nature of the Clinton Administration, focused on triangulation would have made African American political leaders desperate to show they could not be taken for granted by Democrats, especially if Gore and other Democratic leaders were at the time engaged in unseemly public bargaining with a grandstanding Ralph Nader and his very white, very upper class party.

Now that may well have changed the nature of a Bush II government. Colin Powell for one thing, would have had more leverage on Iraq if his resignation would have brought down the government. And while Bush might have won a khaki election in 2002, it would have destroyed his hopes of bringing non-whites into the party. That said if Bush did win an early election on Iraq in 2002, it went badly, he would have lost just in time in 2007 for the Democrats to preside over the financial crisis. They likely would have imploded in the face of more left-wing rivals, there would have been a populist right rising, and Republicans would have been moving to meet them.

Projecting this stuff further might be fun, but the main point is the system changes everyone’s behavior in ways both good and bad. Even with 2016, I suspect a Clinton minority emerging from the election would have been unstable, propped up by unhappy minority parties fearful of Trumpism, facing defections to the left(including a Russian manipulated Green party), and with the Republicans competing PR wise with a populist Bannonist movement. In fact I think it would look like Spanish polling currently. I’d be shocked if Clinton survived through this year, and suspect 2018 elections might well produce something along the lines of

Republicans 27%
Democrats 24%
Populist Right 17%
Progressives 12%
African American party 7%

Hispanic Party(assume less block voting) 6%
Actual Neo-Nazis 5%

In such a scenario the only viable government would be a Republican-Democratic coalition led by a Republican. Such a government wouldn’t be Trumpist, but that is the best that could be said. At Republican demands it would exclude Progressives, the African Americans, and Hispanic party, making it very “white”, while Democrats would insist on it excluding the Populist Right, not to mention far-right. The result would be that it would disenfranchise and leave unhappy large parts of both spectrum, including people a majority of Democrats and Republicans would rather be in coalition with. That would be a recipe for Democrats and Republicans to continue losing support to the extremes, while doing nothing in office, leading to further erosion of support.


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