Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The Panacea of Proportional Representation

by Jeff Polet

We have commented before in this space on the problem of polarization. Many Americans express concern with it, but I have found that sometimes the people most likely to denounce it are people who are rather unyielding in their views, suggesting that for them the problem of polarization often amounts to an incomprehension that someone might disagree with them.

Nor are we often clear what we mean by it. A good working definition has to refer not only to the breadth of polarization (how widespread is it?) but also its depth (what is it that we are disagreeing about, and how much does it matter to us?). We could live in a world strictly divided between those who prefer vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and the division could be absolute in the sense that there would be no way to change one another’s mind, but the division would be puerile simply because most of us recognize that the stakes are so low. Who, after all, cares what kind of ice cream another person eats? Of course, the stakes would be raised if the chocolate ice-cream eaters wanted to coerce vanilla lovers into eating chocolate. They could create educational programs arguing that chocolate is superior to vanilla, or pass laws that forbid the eating of vanilla, or make a preference for chocolate a condition of hiring, or hold mandatory seminars and workshops that required people to eat chocolate.

It’s a non-sensical suggestion, of course, in no small part because we recognize that a lot of the things on which we disagree are more consequential than what kind of ice cream someone prefers. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” By this clever sleight-of-pen Jefferson tried to turn down the heat on disagreement over fundamentals by treating them as if they were disagreements over things inconsequential. That’s certainly one way to turn down the heat. But we suspect that not all issues can be so summarily dismissed. We are living in the midst of a cultural conflict where disagreements over whether fetuses are persons or not, whether sex is binary or on a continuum, whether men and women are sexually complementary, whether our institutions of higher learning are educating or indoctrinating, whether our elections are fair or fixed, whether the nation is systemically racist or not, generate not a desire to treat the issues by treating them as if they’re simply a matter of taste, or by suggesting that maybe we ought to be careful in using the coercive force of government to favor one side of the argument over the other, but by turning them into political programs whose goal is to seize the instruments of government, especially the presidency, for the purpose of turning will into law.

A good example of this is happening right now in our fair state of Michigan, where medical professionals are having to take mandatory racial bias training as a condition of recertification. No consideration was given, apparently, to whether racial bias explained the disparate outcomes in COVID-related illnesses (this was assumed), nor was any consideration given to the volumes of studies indicating that these sessions do not accomplish their goals, nor was any consideration given to presenting evidence that racial bias was a serious problem in the medical profession. A confluence of interests seized the instruments of power to impose their will upon a population who, not recognizing their own power, capitulated. But other populations in other circumstances might not be so cooperative, and their resistance will likely result in violence.

The backlash to ideological overreach and heavy-handed politics was predictable, even if its extent and nature wasn’t. Ross Douthat once warned his progressive colleagues that “if you didn’t like the Christian right, just wait until you meet the post-Christian one.” The events of January 6th, for example, witnessed a resurgence of pagan symbols and garb. Indeed, in another context, I would suggest that our current politics represent exactly the situation that Jefferson faced in the 18th and 19th century: a clash of religious worldviews. Religious wars seldom end well for anyone.

I mention all this because The Atlantic recently published an essay on how to deal with polarization. The essay makes little attempt to demonstrate either the extent of the polarization or its nature, except to suggest that our winner-take-all system of elections is “driving U.S. politics to dangerous levels of polarization.” I’ll allow that the system may exacerbate the problem, but how we run our elections is an on-the-surface issue. I am, therefore, skeptical of the author’s claims that reforms in how we run our elections, especially with regard to our parties, will result in a restored democracy.

Berman offers a number of ideas for reforming the electoral process. Starting from the premise that our problem is single-member, winner-take-all system of elections (which, it should be noted, is as much historical accident as anything), Berman argues for a system of proportional representation. Rather than having multiple single-member districts, we’d have much larger districts composed of multiple members, thus allowing for the emergence of more parties. He argues that this system “would foster coalitional, cross-partisan governance, while larger, multi-member districts would all but eliminate partisan gerrymandering.” In some ways, this would fulfill Madison’s claim in Federalist #10 that the solution to the problem of faction is to create more factions.

Along those lines, Berman explores the possibility of rank-order voting, which would allow voters to rank candidates from most to least favorite. The worry he expresses is that the reform wouldn’t go far enough to solve the actual problem, which, he suggests, results from “gerrymandering and the natural clustering of like-minded people” that means most “House elections are noncompetitive.” As a result, members depend mainly on

“low turnout primaries dominated by the parties’ most ideological voters. Very few Americans have a real say in who represents them in the House. Once elected, politicians tend to be more concerned about losing their next primary than losing their next general election. As a result, they legislate according to the wishes of the small sliver of the electorate who put them in office rather than the much broader pool of constituents who make up their district. This reduces the motivation to compromise and deepens polarization.”

I think there’s something to this claim, but it’s too simplistic and the solutions are unlikely to address root causes.

Then, too, Berman identifies how unlikely it is that any of these reforms will be passed, because the people who would have to pass the reforms are the very same people who benefit from the current system. Both our major parties right now have a vested interest in not seeing minor parties emerge as serious competitors for their power. The only way reform is likely to occur is through ballot initiatives.

All that would be admitting that the idea is a sound one. As I said, the idea of a two-party system isn’t given in the nature of things, nor is it built into our Constitutional system. Many Americans feel estranged from both parties, or at least estranged to the extent that neither party seems to reflect the fullness of their political interests. Many Americans might identify with one party while preferring, on certain issues, the other party’s position.

This is in no small part because political parties in America are not, or have not been, primarily ideological or interest-based parties, as they tend to be in European systems, but large coalitions of different groups. All democratic politics require the formation of coalitions, and while in Europe those coalitions are formed within and during governing, the American system requires the forming of coalitions prior to governing. Any political coalition is inherently unstable. But what the large-scale parties in America help do is stabilize the electorate, by means of identification and loyalty, and create a more comprehensive approach to governing. Our Constitutional system, however, was designed to prevent one party from imposing its will on another. If a system of proportional representation makes such an outcome less likely, it ought to be seriously considered. I tend to be a skeptic of the approach, but I’m even more nervous about what it would take to get us to the point where we accept the reforms.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the root causes of polarization?
  2. Under what circumstances is it permissible to force someone to do something he or she doesn’t want to do?
  3. Why do political parties form? What are their main tasks?
  4. Are we uniquely polarized? What are the likely consequences


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1 thought on “The Panacea of Proportional Representation”

  1. David Maturen

    I am a big fan of the G R Ford Foundation and am impressed with the programs that have been strengthen and elevated under Gleaves Whitney’s term. Treatises like this are one of them.

    Jeff Notes “A good example of this is happening right now in our fair state of Michigan, where medical professionals are having to take mandatory racial bias training as a condition of recertification.”

    Real Estate Appraisers are in the same irrelevant boat – with allegations that they are to blame for the “wealth” differential between whites and minorities. This is based on complaints of racial bias against less than a handful of the 80,000 appraisers in the US– one lawsuit of which was settled without the appraiser admitting any violation of bias or appraisal standards (which have included a bias prohibition since the 1980’s). Those anecdotes were supplemented by a DC think tank study that aims to “prove” the existence of bias over the years. Guilt was assumed by Congress and the administration. Off with their heads the Queen of Hearts cried!

    The result is a national process called PAVE – Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity – the product of 13 Federal agencies which resulted in a Qualification and Con Ed mandate for all appraisers.

    A PAVE seminar I attended recently started off with a refence to the Tulsa Race Massacre as if that had any connection to the real estate appraisal profession. So now appraisers have to take,and pay for, a 7-hour class on Fair Housing and then a 4-hour update on the topic every two years. The road to Hell is PAVEd with good intentions.

    David C. Maturen
    Certified General Appraiser

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