Can democracy neutralize extremism?

100 in 100: How majoritarian vs. proportional democracies tackle polarization…

By Roger Scher

Plurality/Majority (Majoritarian) vs. Proportional Representation, or Mixed electoral systems. Source: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA, Stockholm, Sweden; 2015. https://www.idea.int/news-media/media/electoral-systems-national-legislation. Note: below there is a map that only includes countries considered “free” by Freedom House, while the map above includes countries that are considered “not free”, like Russia, or “partly free”, like Nigeria, because they have elections. China and Saudi Arabia, by contrast are considered as “having no elections” in the map above.

Beginning in the 20th century, the consensus view has been that majoritarian democracies are more stable and moderate than proportional representation democracies.

Majoritarian democracies can be broadly defined as having elections that require candidates to win a plurality or majority of votes in an election district to capture the seat. Proportional representation is found in democracies where seats in the legislature are acquired according to a party’s proportion of votes nationwide, whether they win in a district or not.

The view that majoritarianism reduces polarization had emerged from historical experience, especially during the interwar years (before WWII), given the colossal failure of Germany’s proportional system in 1933 and the apparent success of democracy in the war’s victors. Post-war thinking about democracy was dominated by the Americans and the British, whose countries possessed majoritarian two-party systems.

History has provided some evidence that the majoritarian system is better at excluding extremists. But, history can unfold in unique ways.

In recent years, we have observed that fringe elements can capture control of a major party in a majoritarian system. It is likewise possible that in a proportional system, coalition-building can encourage negotiation and moderation.

Under the U.S. and British systems, candidates that finish “first past the post” (FPTP) in an election district, i.e. with the highest number of votes, are seated in the legislature. This makes it difficult for third party candidates to enter parliament, even if their parties garner double-digit voting percentages nationwide. Unless you win in a district, you are not seated. As a result, large parties with a broad national presence — usually one that is center-right and one center-left — tend to dominate.

Under proportional representation, parties win seats in proportion to their national votes. So, numerous parties can gain seats in the legislature, especially if there is a low (or no) minimum entry requirement. A proportional system in Sweden, for example, has resulted in 8 parties in its Riksdag, and another in the Netherlands in 17 parties — that’s right 17 — in its lower house. In proportional systems, extremist parties are frequently seated. For example, in Sweden, the nativist, anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats hold 18% of seats; and, in the Netherlands, three far-right parties hold a combined 19%.

Of course, political culture, campaign finance rules, tradition and other factors impact the number of parties in a given democracy. Majoritarian countries in the British tradition tend to have two dominant parties (or groupings) that govern. Such is the case in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. However, New Zealand switched to a proportional system in 1996, and two parties still remain dominant due to tradition.

In majoritarian France, by contrast, a two-round electoral system, requiring a majority in a second round between the top two contenders from the first round (if necessary), produces surprising fluidity. France has many political parties — 10 of them winning seats in the National Assembly in 2017 — though most align into center-right and center-left groupings.

French President Macron, a former Socialist minister of economy, resigned from the country’s largest leftist party to create a new center-right party, which swept elections in 2017. And, the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front (which changed its name to the National Rally) has surged in recent years, amid Europe’s migrant crisis. As a result, Marine Le Pen, its candidate for president, made it to the second round against Macron with 21% of the vote, even though her party won only 13% in legislative elections. Fluid indeed.

Proportional representation failed in interwar Germany. As described in an earlier post in this blog, Germany’s proportional system, imposed by WWI’s victors, collapsed during the Great Depression.

Germany’s multiparty coalition had failed to take action to address unemployment that reached over 40% in the early 1930s. The coalition included the center-left Social Democrats, the Catholic Center Party, the liberals, and the center-right German People’s Party. These parties, which all accepted the legitimacy of democracy, formed a government in 1928 backed by a sizable legislative majority.

These parties allowed their coalition to collapse in 1930. Government stalemated. So, in 1932 Germans voted for parties that were seeking to overthrow the democratic system: the Nazis and the Communists, which together held 52% of Reichstag seats.

A democratic breakdown could have been averted if the 1928 coalition had worked together to exclude extremists and combat the depression. Instead, President Hindenburg invited Hitler to form a government in 1933.

It is an understatement to say that this pivotal historical event, which led ultimately to 60 million dead, gave proportional representation a bad name. Yet evidence had also come from unstable multiparty coalitions in France and Spain in the interwar years. An abiding fear of instability, and of extremist parties entering parliaments, made proportional representation seem flawed.

After the war, this view was bolstered by experience. Countries with FPTP systems — such as the U.S., U.K., and Canada — featured center-right and center-left parties that alternated in government and achieved economic success. Governments in proportional systems — such as in Italy, Israel and Brazil — were unstable, with coalition governments frequently falling and reconstituting. This again buttressed the view that the American way of government was best.

Proportional representation, it is argued, is fairer and offers more policy stability. Voters’ preferences are fully represented in government, rather than just the preferences of the victorious parties. It is argued that the negotiation that coalition government requires builds consensus in society and reduces polarization. Multiparty coalitions pursue long-term policy goals. Majoritarian systems, by contrast, can swing from right to left and back again, with policies changing constantly. Witness the U.S. since Ronald Reagan.

There are different types of proportional systems. Some are mixed systems where voters cast two ballots, one for candidates, the other for parties. However, usually proportionality dominates, as parties still hold seats in the legislature in proportion to their national vote.

Which of these electoral systems is best at countering extremism today?

The risk of extremist capture of a mainstream party is pointed up by the U.S. and U.K. cases, while centrist parties in proportional systems in Continental Europe have often managed to exclude extremists.

In Britain, the Labour and Conservative parties, like U.S. Democrats and Republicans, have become more polarized amid the stresses of globalization and technological change. Economic adjustment to automation and digitalization, lost jobs in some sectors, and immigration have pushed both parties to advocate solutions that are more extreme.

Jeremy Corbyn moved Labour to the left in the wake of the electoral defeat in 2010 of the Blair-Brown centrist project called New Labour, following 13 years in power. Corbyn advocated nationalization of industry, while a cloud of antisemitism accusations hung over Labour leaders. Corbyn went down in an epic defeat in the 2019 elections. Labour has since sought to tack back to the center.

The Conservatives (aka the Tories) swung sharply rightward with Brexit, a defiant stand against globalization, which both parties in Britain had previously supported. Center-right Tory leader David Cameron, who had backed the Remain camp, was ushered off stage, as the Leave movement, fronted by the nativist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), threatened the Tories with electoral defeat. To neutralize the UKIP, a right-wing insurgency in the Tory party, led by Boris Johnson, backed “intellectually” by the Eurosceptic European Research Group, took over this center-right party and pushed it to the right. Boris has since tacked toward center.

In the U.S., Trump’s nativist takeover of the Republican Party, in conjunction with the left-wing insurgency of the Berniecrats in the Democratic Party, has aggravated polarization.

Challenges from extremists in proportional systems in the wake of the European migrant crisis beginning in 2014, by contrast, have led to centrist parties cooperating across the aisle in order to exclude extremists from power. Amazing really. It is almost as if they have learned from history.

In Sweden, which has leaned center-left since the Great Depression, the center-left led by the Social Democrats and the center-right led by the Moderate Party, both short of a majority, agreed not to cooperate with the extremist SD. A Social Democrat-led minority government has governed since 2019.

In Germany, which has leaned center-right since 1949, Angela Merkel’s liberal asylum policies contributed to the rise of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which captured nearly 13% of seats in the Bundestag in 2017. Merkel’s conservatives formed a grand coalition with the center-left Social Democrats at the federal level.

When a center-right, economic liberal (FDP) candidate sought to lead the German state of Thuringia by cooperating with the AfD, which had won nearly a quarter of the state’s legislative seats, Chancellor Merkel intervened to rule out any cooperation with the far-right party.

Not all the news is good.

In the Netherlands, tacit cooperation between the extremist anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, under firebrand Geert Wilders, and the center-right took place for two years beginning in 2010. Two center-right leaders (of the People’s Party and the Christian Democrats) stood side by side before the cameras with Wilders, known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric. The three party leaders announced that Wilders’ party would support the government without having any ministers.

In Austria, the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party has actually been in government on and off since 1999. However, a corruption scandal enveloping the party in 2019 caused it to lose seats, resulting in a center-right/green coalition, an innovative political formulation that is encouraging, especially given climate change denial on the right in the U.S. Such a center-right/green coalition could be repeated in Germany as a result of elections in September 2021, should Merkel’s conservatives and the Green Party both do well, as polls currently indicate.

Polarization has an economic dimension. In many democracies, skilled workers and owners of capital have benefitted from globalization and technological change, while the unskilled have suffered.

In some democracies, tax and transfer policies are used to reduce inequality. Sadly, this is much less the case in the U.S. Adjustment assistance, ample funding for education and job training, and anti-poverty programs all reduce inequality in other countries. Compare GINI coefficients below across some of the countries discussed above — the higher the GINI, the more unequal the income distribution. The U.S. is the worst in the group.

Perhaps in countries with proportional representation, cross-party negotiation facilitates a consensus on policies that reduce inequality. That said, majoritarian France also has a generous welfare state and a low GINI coefficient.

Lessons for the U.S. This note is not arguing that the U.S. should adopt a proportional representation system. But, the U.S. could learn from countries that have one.

Deliberative negotiations — that is, cross-party negotiations among moderates that facilitate consensus and reduce polarization — are essential to the success of democracy. Proportional democracies negotiate across party lines as a matter of course in order to survive — always with the failure of Weimar Germany in sight.

Majoritarian countries, like the U.S., could learn from this experience. Deliberative negotiation was discussed in this post, and is also the subject of work at the American Political Science Association (APSA). America’s Congressional “gang” approach, used in the past to reach bipartisan agreements, must be revived. What I call the “Infrastructure Ten”, the 5 D’s and 5 R’s who have cut an infrastructure deal in the Senate, needs to be supported. Listening, Mr. President? Hope So.

The jury is still out on which system is best at combatting extremism.

In Britain, the Tories and Labour have moved closer to the center; and, in the U.S., the Democratic Party opted for centrist Joe Biden over leftist Bernie Sanders.

Proportional representation democracies haven’t completely banished their extremists.

In Germany, there is a risk of a CSU-FPD-AfD federal coalition. Germany’s Nazi past makes such a coalition more taboo than in other countries. But, if the far-right AfD’s image becomes more polished, the way the Swedish SD’s and Austrian Freedom Party’s images have been, it is not impossible.

The CSU is the more conservative Bavarian “sister party” to Merkel’s CDU. Merkel’s migrant policy caused consternation among CSU leaders. The FPD are the center-right economic liberals, but in 2017 they refused to join a coalition with the CDU over migration and energy policies.

In Sweden, the Christian Democrats and the much larger Moderate Party may work in coalition with the far-right SD. The Moderates already have one at the municipal level. The Moderates are joining a group in the Riksdag including the SD that hopes to unseat the Social Democrats through a no-confidence vote.

In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party, combined with two other far-right parties, could enter, or at least cooperate with, a future right-wing government. At the moment, however, the surge of the centrist party D66, and its participation in government with the center-right, prevents this development.

Today is different from the period of Europe’s migrant crisis when far-right movements surged. Europe’s preoccupation with the pandemic and climate change may keep electorates closer to the center and even drive change, such as the center right/green coalition in Austria.

As for the U.S., Republicans, while briefly flirting with condemning Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, fear his electoral power now more than ever. They are falling in line with him again, jettisoning anti-Trumpers like Liz Cheney. The takeover of America’s center-right party by a nativist faction could be reversed, but it will take hard work.

Hard work, not only by brave Republicans such as Cheney, Romney, Portman and others, but also by Democrats.

Democrats should expend every effort to give Republican moderates a win with a bipartisan agreement, such as on infrastructure. Instead of angrily sulking about Republican perfidy going back to the Obama administration, and Mitch McConnell’s latest profile in cowardice, the D’s need to take the long view. Expend political capital to save their center-right opponents. To do this, they must wrap up the battle with the “progressive” wing of their party — begun by HRC in 2016 and taken up by Biden in 2020 — pulling the party back to the center. Not easy, I know.

Do that, and the Republic you save may be your own.

Additional charts…

Electoral systems map, including only “Free” countries…

Map pulled from Alernatehistory.com; only countries rated “free” by the non-profit Freedom House are included, per: “Freedom House rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories through its annual Freedom in the World report.” See: https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores

Electoral systems map, breakdown by subcategories…

From Wikipedia: File:BlankMap-World.svg: Canuckguy Derivative work: Altes — Derived from File:BlankMap-World.svg Information sources: en:Table of voting systems by nation, Table of Electoral Systems Worldwide etc.; originally created in 2012

Fragile States Index: Alert (most fragile, colored brown) to Sustainable (least fragile, colored dark blue): the U.S. is colored green…

Fragile States Index from the Fund for Peace at https://fragilestatesindex.org/analytics/fsi-heat-map/. U.S. falls short of “Sustainable”, falling into the “Stable” category (green). The index seeks to assess countries’ relative vulnerability to collapse, to becoming a “failed state”, driven by 12 indicators, reflecting cohesion, political, economic and social decline. The most fragile country in the world in 2020 was Yemen; the least fragile was Finland. U.S. was 30 places worse than Finland. The U.S. has deteriorated over the last 5 years, notably in the categories of polarization of elites and rising group grievances.

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Roger teaches political economy at NYU, is the former Head of Country Risk at GE, & co-author of Ten Point Plan for the U.S. (https://countrysuccess.net/)