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Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Just How Green Would a Green Party Make Us? 

In a fit of clear-headed thinking, the editors of The Nation wrote an open letter to Ralph Nader earlier this year, begging him not to enter this year's Presidential race. The editors rightly point out that, despite Nader's claims to the contrary, it's tough to see how his participation does anything but aid President Bush's reelection prospects.

Four years ago, Nader ran as the Green Party's candidate, and there was much excitement in certain communities about the prospects for a left-leaning third party to take its rightful place among the heavy hitters in American politics. But as every Naderite has been told 10 gazillion times by now, in tones earnest or patronizing, the American "winner take all" electoral system all but guarantees that only two political parties can compete successfully. This is known in the political science biz as "Duverger's Law" and while the "law" bit may be stretching things a little, it's about as close as social scientists get to settled wisdom. Nader, for one, seems to have dropped the pretense that he was building this fabled third party, as he's running as an independent this year.

So what's a frustrated Green Party activist to do besides slink home and reorganize his pamphlet collection? Once again, The Nation (this time in its "Editor's Cut" blog) rides to the rescue, suggesting that progressives get together to push for the adoption of a new electoral system featuring proportional representation (PR), so that the US, like Western Europe, can support more than two political parties. The blog posting goes on to make a number of other standard "good-government" proposals, some of which are actually both desirable and marginally feasible. But let's focus on its point number one: adopting PR.

It has to be said: this just ain't gonna happen at the federal level in the US. Ever. Sure, New Zealand made the switch eight years ago, but there's a huge difference in the two countries' rules governing systemic changes. In New Zealand, electoral reform was enacted through a simple referendum (and, it must be said, because of some particularly unusual missteps by politicians). In the US, such a shift would require a constitutional amendment, with that process's attendant supermajorities and votes in state legislatures. Party leaders are generally quite fond of the system that brought them to power, and it boggles the mind to imagine such an amendment getting floor consideration in Congress. Only a citizen-initiated referendum (not a possibility at the federal level in the US (thank goodness)) could get this particular ball rolling. Yes, it's true that some American states and municipalities have non-"winner takes all" electoral systems, but so what? You have to look at the rules governing reform at the relevant level of government to see what's possible, and these rules are very different in the Cambridge city charter and the US constitution.

Even if some magical alignment of the stars were to make adoption of PR a possibility, why would your Green Party-voting uncle choose to support PR? As far as I can tell, there are a couple of ways progressives decide PR would be great for them. The first way of thinking goes like this: there's a huge pool of Americans who simply don't vote, because they are strongly left-leaning and are disgusted by what they see as the rightward tilt of both major parties. PR would allow a Green Party to thrive, and suddenly a progressive majority would rule the ballot box. The problem here is that like Prester John's armies, there's no empirical evidence that these leftist voters exist. I'll be perfectly honest: while some polling data seems to show that non-voters are demographically and ideologically very similar to voters (instead of the angry environmentalists so often imagined), there's really no good, methodologically sound research that I'm aware of addressing the question of non-voter preferences. But read on...

The second train of thought supporting PR seems to follow this logic: Europeans have PR (and therefore relatively succesful Green Parties). Europeans are kindler, gentler, and more environmentally aware than Americans. Ergo, adopting PR here in the US would make our policies kindler and gentler, too.

That's certainly one possibility. But it overlooks a couple of very important points. First, and most obviously, it's just as likely (perhaps moreso, given what polls of American voters tell us) that right-wing parties would compete successfully for political office under PR. This certainly happened in New Zealand, where socially-conservative Christians, Thatcherites and nativists all put together new parties that have succesfully competed for seats in Parliament (as did Greens and socialists).

"OK, fine," a Greenie might say. "That's only fair. Now all points of view are being represented in the legislature." Very true. But unless this representation turns into legislation, the only beneficiaries of a shift like this would be dedicated readers of the Congressional Record who'd get to see a bit more rhetorical variety.

And here's the thing: new research (including my dissertation) suggests that PR systems tend to create increased incentives for politicians to seek the support of well-organized, well-funded groups at the expense of "the national interest." I'll explain how this works in an upcoming post, but the general idea is that it's tougher for voters to work out how to hold accountable politicians who work hard on behalf of special interests when voting for parties instead of individuals. For now let me just say that PR actually seems to empower corporations seeking special treatment at least as much as it helps out organized ideological groups on the left or right. While it's perhaps not immediately obvious that European countries feature more pandering to "special interests" than we see in the US, that's not the relevant comparison: instead, we should be comparing the US under the current system with what we'd see in the US under PR.

Finally, one often sees advocates of PR for the US pooh-poohing the notion that PR causes unwieldy coalitions incapable of ruling effectively. Italy's experience can be avoided with a few technical fixes, say the PR-supporters, and they're right. But they tend to ignore the fact that European states with PR generally don't have the same level of separation of powers that we have in the US. If you think partisan gridlock is something to behold now, imagine a situation where a coalition of Greens and Democrats controlled the House, the Senate was controlled by a de facto coalition of Democrats and Christians, and a Republican was the President. How much environmental legislation might we expect to see signed into law under that scenario?

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