Too much center

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to surrounding conditions…
Unreasonable people try to adapt surrounding conditions to themselves…
Thus, all progress depends on unreasonable people.”

George Bernard Shaw

My adoptive country is headed toward a general election, in little over a month. For me, it is not only the first time in over 21 years that I get to vote in a general election, it will also be the first time in a country other than the one where I was born (and whose football team I continue to support in spite of recurring disappointments… OK, let’s not go there today).
I am rather interested in politics, and have watched fairly closely the Canadian political scene since I first moved here, six years ago. I am reasonably familiar with the ideological landscape and with the choices before electors. As it turns out, due to the electoral system currently in vigor in Canada (as in many other western countries), I, as well as many another voter, shall likely opt to cast a “strategic” vote, instead of expressing a preference most closely reflecting my political leanings.

I happen to be politically left-wing (OK, kind of a lot), but I am sure that many voters on the opposite side find themselves in the same conundrum. The party for which I would vote, in a system of proportional representation, is not the main leftist party of Canada, of Social Democratic inspiration. Like all such parties, it does not go nearly far enough for my taste [0]. But in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, it is the only leftist party in Canada with a glimmer of hope of having some (generally few) representatives elected in the House of Commons. More radical parties (on the left as well as on the right) are de facto excluded from representation, hence from the political discourse. So, if I have to pick one of the four main parties, the NDP is the one that is closest to (or, least distant from) my way of thinking.
However, as unsatisfactory and watered-down as I find it, even that choice is “too extreme”. The province where I live is by tradition very conservative; my own city is a bit of a progressive enclave, but the competition in my electoral district is pretty much a two-way race between the federal Liberals and the Conservatives. Voting for any other party means, for all practical purposes, supporting the one of these two which is furthest away from one’s political inclination [1]. So, I shall in the end vote for the Liberals “holding my nose” (as a famous Italian political commentator used to say in the 70s, as he exhorted his readers to vote for the ruling, infamous Christian Democrats, the argument being that the feared Communists would make Italy an outpost of the Soviet Union). In other words, my options in the end are fairly limited, if I desire that my vote matter. This hardly seems like a satisfactory realization of representative democracy (in Canada just as in Italy, the US or any other country with a FPTP system).

The way I see it, there are several problems with FPTP electoral systems, aside from the flourishing of the above-mentioned “strategic” voting. First off, the fraction of elected representatives for minor parties often deviates wildly from the percentage of the popular vote received. Minor parties with few strongholds concentrated in specific areas of the country, typically fare better than those whose support is uniformly distributed [2]. It is also possible for a party or candidate with a lower percentage of the popular vote be the winner (the 2000 US election being an example).
What is more important, because losing by even one vote means to be left out altogether, this system promotes the confluence toward the center of the political spectrum (where most voters reside) of any party with any ambition to play a key role in the ensuing House majority, either alone or as part of a coalition. An obvious consequence is that the election is largely emptied of substantive content. For, differences among the major candidates are blurred, as they all converge toward a “lowest common denominator” platform, often banal and stale, as opposed to innovative or visionary. As they all say the same things on all that matters (or, almost all), campaigns become centered on frivolous aspects such as, a candidate’s private life, “presidential” look and sound bites. The significance of the process is greatly diminished, as the election turns into a beauty contest, almost a facade operation.
In all that, parties that are perceived as more radical, “extremist”, unable to coalesce in sufficiently large electoral cartels to win in a single district (“riding”), are penalized beyond reason — not even one elected representative (in Canada, one of them, namely the Green Party, collects almost 5% of the popular vote — that is one and a half million people denied representation).

OK, but, why is the confluence toward the center a bad thing ?
After all, are not most people “moderate”, i.e., “centrist” ? Would it be really desirable to have, e.g., the Marijuana, or Marxist-Leninist party form, or be an important part of the government ? Well, what’s so bad about the Marijuana party anyway ? OK, OK, just kidding. I concede it: No, it would not be desirable, but (and here is the key) there is a paramount difference between representation in the House and participation in the government.
The main argument in favor of the FPTP, as advocated by many, is that, by artificially (and often capriciously) rewarding with an outright majority of seats the strongest minority, it avoids gridlock, producing legislatures with a clear ideological color, in turn affording the formation of stable, effective governments.
Indeed, it often succeeds at that, but I question whether that is necessarily a good thing.
The result is that the country is governed for a few years by an elected dictatorship, free of pursuing unimpeded an agenda that often runs counter to the wishes of the majority. This happens effectively in the absence of any overseeing authority and/or that cherished mechanism of “checks and balances” that is so central to the principle of separation of powers, once held as a cornerstone of any democracy. That government should be a mere emanation of the parliament, with the secretary of the most voted party automatically promoted to head of state, most influential party members appointed ministers, and the parliamentary debate reduced to a shouting match between “winners” and “losers”, all in the name of “governability”, seems to me the one truly “extreme” idea.

To the extent that that is possible, the House of Commons in Canada (and its analogous everywhere else) should reflect as closely as possible the ideological make-up of the country [3], and the government should be independent of any house majority. If no single party detains a majority of seats, the task of a skillful prime minister (possibly directly elected by the people) will be that of drafting for its cabinet an agenda likely to be supported by a broad majority of the parliament; such a majority, however, ought not be immutable, much less drawn along party lines, but rather changing on a case-by-case basis. After all, political opinions are far too complex to be classified in just four, six, or even fifty rigidly defined categories. Before embarking in a parliamentary debate, the government should pragmatically assess the feasibility of obtaining approval for a specific bill. Conceivably, for some controversial and ground-breaking policies the support of some parties and representatives “off the mainstream” will have to be sought. In some cases, this will turn out to be impossible, and/or a majority will simply not exist. That should be interpreted as the absence of a majority opinion in the country on how best to tackle that issue; the wisest course of action, normally, consists of tabling the discussion to a future legislature (as it happened during the first Clinton’s term, on the subject of health care), as opinions across the country may change. Clearly, any government will ultimately govern “from the center”.

But then, what is the role of “extremist” parties ? What contribution do they offer to the debate ? Are they not for the most part formations born out of elite circles, not really in touch with the lives of most citizens ? Do they not advocate wrong-headed reforms, and/or unrealistic, dangerous systemic changes ? Are they not merely disruptive ? I do not think so.
For one thing, 30 out 315 representatives can hardly “disrupt” anything. They may be annoying, but if a majority exists, it will manage to push its agenda through Congress anyway, at the end of the day. Secondly, a functioning parliament and a mature democracy must be open to providing a pulpit and listening to as many different voices as possible, even the ones most isolated and off the mainstream, even if these voices will be discounted and dismissed most of the time. It is hardly wise to pursue practices that may fuel, among some segments of society, the belief that minorities are not just ignored, they are silenced.
Finally, and most importantly, it is not true that just because a political party or ideology fails to elicit sympathy from a majority of voters, its political contents and people cannot contribute anything useful. Quite the opposite, as suggested by G. B. Shaw’s above quote, radical parties often initiate debates on issues that germinate at the fringes of society, but with time become centerpieces of the political campaigns of mainstream parties. One of the reasons for this may well be precisely that small parties are not constrained by the need of maintaining a large electoral consensus. Examples abound: social justice, environmentalism, civil rights, immigration, protection of minorities.
It must be kept in mind that, while the role of government is (for the most part) that of implementing short-term policies, it is in the House (or, Parliament or Congress) that the seed of important social change, which will take place over a longer time frame, are sewn. It is there that the role of fringe parties is most significant.

Having grown up in Italy, I immediately think of Marco Pannella’s 1970s and 80s Radical Party. Widely branded “as a bunch of extremists”, its leader often portrayed as a nut job (in part also because of his habit of indulging in behavior falling somewhere between histrionic and buffoonish), they were never rewarded by the Italian electorate with more than a few percent of the popular vote. But, no Italian can dismiss their crucial contribution in spearheading battles (inside and outside parliament, to be fair) that led to social progress. Who can forget their historical campaigns to introduce divorce legislation in the 60s, or abortion legislation in the 70s, or to sensitize public opinion about the death penalty (their stand on this subject is now that of essentially the whole country), or world starvation ? Regardless of one’s opinion on all of these issues, the transformation brought about by their effort simply would never have taken place, had it been the responsibility of one of the mainstream parties.
Would I want them in charge of a government ? Would I want Marco Pannella as my premier ? Hell, no.
Do I think that they (well, their political heirs) deserve to be in Parliament today ? That every Italian owes them a big “Thank you” ? You bet.

If you disagree with me, hey, that’s what comments are for (nothing extreme, please — I hate that stuff).

[0] In the interest of full disclosure, and also so that I do not find myself in jail: I do not advocate revolution, nor armed take-over by anyone. I abhor any form of dictatorship. I am all for representative democracy. I simply think that the adjective “representative” should apply to everyone, not only to the 90% (or, however many) of the public whose ideas are regarded as “acceptable” by the same 90%.
[1] Why is that ? Consider a hypothetical situation in which three parties compete to elect the one and only representative of a district with one thousand voters. For the sake of argument, let’s say that party A is left-wing, party B is moderately right-wing, and party C is far right-wing. Let’s say that A gathers 450 votes, B 400 and C 150. In a FPTP system, the representative from party A will be elected, even though the majority of voters in that district oppose him/her, 15% thereof strongly so. Note that the election of the representative from party A crucially hinges on the votes that C funnels away from B. Not surprisingly, fearing such an outcome many a party C supporter will decide to vote (possibly reluctantly) for the candidate of party B, as the “lesser of the two evils”.
This example closely describes the situation in the vast majority of electoral districts in Canada.
[2] Case in point: in Canada, the secessionist-minded Bloc Québécois received, in the 2006 federal election, 10.8% of the popular vote (almost exclusively concentrated in the province of Québéc) which the FPTP electoral machinery converted into 51 (out of 315) seats in the House of Commons. The NDP, on the other hand, having garnered 17.8% of the popular vote, ended up with a mere 29 seats.
[3] It is obviously not unreasonable to set an electoral threshold, i.e., a political formation garnering less than a fixed minimum amount of votes will not qualify for representation. However, in a 315-person House, one seat corresponds to less than 0.3% of the voters. 5% of the popular vote should always correspond to something close to 16 sets, not much less, and certainly not zero.
It is also true, in fairness, that proportional systems are plagued by their own problems, chiefly the fact that candidates are typically selected by parties, and therefore are often not a true expression of the local political fabric.

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One Response to “Too much center”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Hoots mon

    Scotland has a very interesting compromise that I think is excellent. You cast two votes. The first is a conventional vote for an individual who represents a given party. So in my one and only Scottish parliament vote, I voted for Donald Dewar (Labour), the engineer of Scottish devolution and immensely popular (the streets were lined with people for his funeral). There was absolutely no point voting for anyone else.

    The majority of seats in the parliament are decided by this first vote. But there are also a certain percentage that do not correspond to a given riding/constituency. These seats are filled by a PR vote. This second vote on the ballot paper is for a party, not an individual. Each party fills its extra, PR seats with the candidates of its choice. In this way the more left-wing Liberal Democrats won considerable influence in the first minority Labour government, and the Scottish Socialist party got enough of the vote to send one MP to the house. Of course he spends more time in prison than in Edinburgh (anti-nuclear protests and the like).

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