Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Two-Party Systems Mask Diversity

There is a contradiction at the heart of democratic, representative politics that has coming to mind for me lately. As voters we are put on a search for candidates who closely align with our own values while also satisfying our requirements for experience, etc. This ideal form gets sublimated by the practical realities of a given political system. In most of the Anglosphere that is done through a first-past-the-post model. Within FPTP there is an inherent incentive to trend towards two parties for the sake of efficiency. This is clearly problematic as parties become overburdened.

I have complained loudly and often over the shortcomings of FPTP, but the problem I am about to describe is not unique to it.

The logical end point of a FPTP system is a two-party system. The two parties compete over the theoretical political centre while holding onto the appeal of their more radical supporters on the political fringe, Labour and Conservatives in the UK, Liberals and Conservatives in Canada, Democrats and Republicans in America, Labour and Coalition in Australia. The two parties seem to track to one of two directions; they either go to the extreme ends of the spectrum or smash into the middle. In so many ways the Republicans and Democrats come from different worlds while in Canada the Liberals and Conservatives are often indiscernible.

Why does this matter? As I've discussed in previous pieces people deserve parties and politicians that speak to their perspective. In Canada social conservatives have no real voice at the highest levels of government. The Conservatives actively silence their more right-wing elements, even if that's what constituents wants, or at least a certain segment of them. Meanwhile many centrist, or moderate Americans, or left-wing Americans feel they have no one that speaks for them. The limitation of choices undermines the core notion of representative democracy. If you're a socialist in a rural area are you supposed to vote the 'left-wing' choice where in any urban jurisdiction the candidate would be the right-wing candidate?

Referenda is a microcosm of this problem. A good referendum offers a clear binary choice, but few things are clear binaries. The Brexit vote is a fine example. Many who voted yes may have preferred an option that kept the free trade components but granted greater immigration controls. Binary choices do not allow much nuance.  

Before electoral reformers get on a high horse to deride FPTP I would consider that most PR nations have two major coalitions composed of several parties. They essentially act as the big tent parties in a two-party system. Proportional representation has the benefit of giving voters a direct say on the power of the various factions in the broader political discourse rather than letting partisans and media sort it out internally.

It is difficult for me to look at Clinton and Trump and believe that they represent the two halves of America, but that is the implication of the political system. I am not sure what the solution is, but I am inclined to think that proportional representation serves better results. In heterogeneous societies with diverse problems and factions I think the two-party system needs to be retired for it masks political diversity.

No comments: