Proportional Representation:

Empowering Minorities or Promoting Balkanization?

Douglas J. Amy

Mount Holyoke College


While proportional representation elections promise to finally give fair representation to political and racial minorities, some fear that adopting this new system would only encourage the "balkanization" of American politics -- that it would work to fragment Americans into warring political factions. In reality, however, proportional representation would be the best way to encourage negotiation and compromise in our increasingly heterogenious political system. Proportional representation (PR) elections are gaining increasing attention as a way to finally resolve the age-old problem of minority representation in the U.S. political system. Our traditional winner-take-all, single-member district election system is designed to represented only majorities or pluralities of voters. Any political minority -- whether they be African Americans in a white district or liberals in conservative district -- usually find it impossible to amass enough votes to elect their own representative. As a result, minorities end up being shut out of our legislative bodies or seriously under-represented. Minorities may have the right to vote in the U.S., but often they are denied the equally fundamental right to representation.

In contrast, proportional representation assures fair representation for both majorities and minorities. The multi- member districts used in PR elections allow political minorities with as little as 10% or 20% of the vote to elect their own officials, so that they can have some voice and power in their legislative institutions. And for racial minorities, PR has the added advantage of ensuring fair representation without having to create the special minority-dominated districts that lately have come under increasing legal and political attack.

Proportional representation would also help to revitalize elections and make voting a more meaningful and effective political act. Our current two-party system would likely be replaced by a multi-party system. For the first time, we could have a viable Labor party, or Green party, or Latino party that routinely elected candidates. Voters would have much more choice at the polls. They no longer would have to choose between the lesser of two evils, but would be able to cast enthusiastic votes for candidates and parties that accurately reflected their particular views. And in a multi- party system, we would finally have city, state, and federal legislatures that truly represented the diversity of political interests and ideologies in this country.

But while increasing numbers of people believe that proportional representation would be an important step toward empowering neglected minorities and creating a more democratic political system, others worry about PR's potential negative effects. By far the most frequent concern voiced by political commentators and average citizens is that PR would They worry that PR would allow candidates to be elected by appealing only to a narrow segment of the population, while our current system forces candidates to appeal to a broad majority of voters. The winner-take-all system is also seen as bringing people together in large umbrella parties, while PR would break people apart into small parties and lead to an increasingly fractious and destabilized political system.

Some political commentators wonder whether having an African- American or Latino party would only focus attention on racial and ethnic differences and thus deepen these divisions. Or whether having a Moral Majority party would merely tend to isolate the Christian Right from other political influences and lead to more doctrinaire and inflexible policy stands on issues like school prayer and abortion. In short, the concern is that PR could lead to what one critic has called an "America of groups."

We Are Already Factionalized

But this fear of PR-induced balkanization is based on a set of mistaken assumptions about the current state of American politics and the effects that proportional representation has on factional conflicts. For example, this concern often seems rooted in the belief that we currently have a great deal of political homogeneity in this country; that we have a widespread consensus on political values and policy priorities that PR would tear apart. But even a cursory look at contemporary American politics reveals that our society is already deeply divided politically. Serious political cleavages already exist between whites and minorities, men and women, conservatives and liberals, the poor and the upper-classes, and fundamentalist Christians and other religions. We already have competing political groups with fundamental disagreements over such issues as abortion, environmental protection, affirmative action, gun control, immigration, welfare policy, free speech, tax policy, gay rights, and government regulation of business. Not only do these conflicts show no sign of going away, many of them seem to be intensifying. Even our traditional two-party system is showing signs of falling apart. Less that 25% of Americans strongly identify with either party, and recent polls show that a majority of voters would like to see other parties emerge to challenge the Democrats and Republicans.

So the question is not whether we are going to have political factionalism in the U.S. -- we already do. The real question is what is the best way to deal with this difficult situation. More specifically, which voting system will be most effective in managing these conflicts by encouraging dialogue, negotiation, and coalition-building between these factions? And which voting system will create representative bodies best able to govern effectively in this increasingly heterogeneous political culture?

PR is Best for Heterogeneous Societies

While critics of proportional representation worry that it might worsen political factionalism, the opposite may be true: PR may be a much better way to deal with these conflicts than our current election system. The claim that winner-take-all elections are inherently more capable of bridging political divides does not bear up under scrutiny. For example, the requirement that winning candidates appeal to a majority of voters has done little to discourage factionalism. Indeed, it has merely encouraged candidates to attack minority groups in an effort to win over the majority. For years, some Republican candidates like Jesse Helms have fanned the flames of racial animosity to appeal to the white majority. Other politicians have demonized gays to appeal to the straight majority and castigated welfare recipients to win the votes of middle-class taxpayers. So candidates are hardly prevented from fomenting divisiveness by our current election system.

And while our winner-take-all elections and two-party system may help to minimize political conflict in our legislatures, they do so only by keeping political diversity out of these bodies. Only majorities are represented and minority groups are either left out or under-represented. But this approach only gives the appearance of dealing with conflict, the illusion of political consensus. An all-white city council in a multi-racial city may indeed be a relatively tranquil and congenial body -- but it has not resolved racial conflicts, only ignored them in the vain hope that they will not surface.

A better way to address political conflicts is to acknowledge them and bring them into our legislative bodies. Only when all of the opposing groups are at the political table can serious negotiations and dialogue take place. Only when all groups are represented, as in a PR system, is there a real possibility that a workable compromise can be worked out. Certainly, in the short- term, legislative bodies that are fully representative of the diversity of their constituents will be somewhat fractious, as previously neglected grievances are finally brought to light. But who said that democracy was supposed to be tranquil? More importantly, in the long-term, it is only by the unpleasant process of airing our differences that can we hope to begin to resolve them.

In addition, as Lani Guinier has suggested, empowering minority groups and allowing them fair representation can actually increase the stability and legitimacy of the political process. If everyone is represented, there is a better chance that all groups will be treated fairly. Also, citizens are more likely to respect the decisions of political bodies that are truly representative. Thus under PR we would be less likely to run the risk of excluded groups becoming frustrated with conventional politics and resorting to undesirable political tactics like riots, bombings, or armed resistance. As Guinier explains, PR would "create incentives for groups presently alienated by their lack of meaningful political power to work within the political process."

How PR Has Worked in Practice

Fear that PR will increase factionalism and separatism is also often rooted in a lack of knowledge of how PR has actually worked in other countries. For example, experiences abroad have shown that PR does not create political cleavages where none exist. In countries with a great deal of political, racial, and cultural homogeneity, as in Austria or the Republican of Ireland, PR has produced essentially two-party systems.

Experience also shows that proportional representation will not inevitably fragment our two-party system into scores of single- interest micro-parties -- as many PR critics fear. All PR systems have a built-in threshold: a percentage of the vote that a party must earn to receive any seats. In most PR systems, this threshold has functioned to keep the number of parties at a reasonable level and to discourage the emergence of micro-parties. Germany has a 5% threshold that has kept the number of viable parties to three or four. In the PR system used in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the threshold is 10%, which ensures that only substantial minorities are represented on the city council. A few PR systems have had very low threshold levels and experienced some trouble with proliferating micro-parties. At one point Israel had a threshold of just 1% and had over a dozen parties in the Knesset, many of them extremely small. But it has since moved to raise the threshold level and alleviate this problem.

These thresholds also address another common concern about PR: that it would allow extremists to win office. PR countries have not been plagued by radicals of the far right or far left because these fringe groups rarely have enough supporters to overcome the threshold barrier. Most proposals for PR in the U.S. have included threshold levels in the 10% to 20% range, which is more than enough to discourage the election of extremists.

Ironically, while some Americans worry that PR will worsen group conflict, PR is widely regarded abroad as the best way to mitigate extreme political factionalism and to bolster political stability. Recent peace proposals for Northern Ireland have included plans for a new parliament elected by proportional representation. The winner-take-all system used in the previous parliament had seriously under-represented the Catholic minority, and some observers believe this political injustice contributed to the political alienation and frustration that fueled the rise of the IRA.

South Africa is another country that has been torn apart by violent political conflicts, in this case between opposing racial and tribal groups. But when that country recently emerged from apartheid and adopted a democratic form of government, all sides agreed that a PR system would be the best one for their diverse society. Former president F.W. deKlerk endorsed PR, arguing that the winner-take-all system "works well in homogeneous societies, but it is not the right system for a big country with vast regional interests and many language and culture groups." The African National Congress also rejected American-style elections, even though this system would have worked to their political advantage by over-representing their party in the assembly. They realized that this system would seriously underrepresent whites and other minorities, which would be politically destabilizing in the long run.

It is also noteworthy that PR in South Africa did not divide parties along purely racial lines, as PR critics might have predicted. Almost one-third of the white members elected to the South African Assembly under PR were candidates of the African National Congress, and F.W. deKlerk's National Party ended up receiving more votes from non-whites than from whites. This suggests that PR also could encourage multi-racial parties in the U.S., perhaps along the lines of the New Party or the Rainbow Coalition.

Pre-Election vs. Post-Election Coalition-Building

Defenders of winner-take-all elections contend that our two- party system mitigates political conflict by encouraging negotiation and coalition-building between the groups that make up our large umbrella parties. And there is some truth to this contention. When the Democratic party holds caucuses and conventions, the various elements of the party (which may range from labor, feminists, minorities, and traditional liberals on the left to fiscal conservatives and New Democrats on the right) come together to negotiate over the party platform and selection of candidates. Electoral coalitions usually do form, with the different parts of the party supporting the candidates, even if those candidates do not necessarily represent the views of all of the party's factions.

However, proportional representation also encourages dialogue and coalition-building, but at different points in the election process: during and after the election, rather than before. This can have a number of advantages. For example, a multi-party system does a better job of encouraging real political dialogue between diverse points of view during political campaigns. The range of political debate between Republican and Democratic candidates is typically very narrow, because each is usually seeking to appeal to the same group of moderate swing voters that hold the balance of power in a winner-take-all system. So last year we saw both Republicans and Democrats promising to cut taxes, abolish welfare, and trim spending. But if we were to have a true multi-party system, with say a Labor party and an African-American party, the range of political dialogue would broaden considerably, with different perspectives on issues like unemployment, welfare reform, and affirmative action. And the media would have to cover these new candidates and their ideas, because they would have a good chance of being elected.

PR also encourages coalition-building between conflicting political factions, but does so in the post-election phase in the legislatures. Since one party rarely has a majority in a multi- party system, legislative coalitions are a necessity. Most Western countries that use PR have had stable coalitions that have ruled quite effectively, often for long periods of time. Interestingly, advocates of PR in Great Britain value it in large part because it would encourage cooperation and coalition-building between parties in parliament, instead of the arbitrary rule of the one-party manufactured majorities produced by their current winner-take-all system.

Importantly, the necessity of coalition-building in multi-party PR legislatures can make the negotiations between political factions much more genuine and productive than those that take place before elections in winner-take-all systems. For example, a white Democratic candidate currently has little incentive to bargain seriously with African-American groups before an election. The candidate knows that these minorities have little choice but to vote Democratic, otherwise they risk throwing the election to the Republican candidate. However, on the legislative level, the political situation could be quite different. If we had a multi- party PR legislature, and the Democrats did not constitute a majority, they might need the votes of an African-American party to pass legislation. The minority party could withhold its support until it was given some real concessions. Thus, allowing minorities to win seats in our legislatures could give them enough political leverage to ensure that authentic bargaining takes place.

Of course, not all minority groups will participate in the ruling coalition in multi-party legislatures. Nevertheless, all groups would at least be able to take part in the public debate over issues considered by these bodies, which is not always the case today. Imagine how different the legislative debate about reforming the Endangered Species Act would be if we had forty Greens in Congress, as is the case in the German Bundestag. The expanded range of political dialogue that would come with a PR system would have a tremendous educative effect on the public, who would routinely be exposed to new ideas and perspectives.

The winner-take-all system falsely assumes that the only real task of legislative bodies is to make policy decisions. Since the majority will rule in the end, why bother to have the minority represented in these bodies. But legislatures are also deliberative institutions: bodies that use debate to seek the truth and educate the public. That important deliberative function is promoted much more effectively in a proportional representation system where all conflicting groups and perspectives are present in these public forums. It creates something resembling a true marketplace of ideas, and this enables legislators and the public to be better informed and to make more sophisticated political decisions.

For many reasons then, proportional representation would be a much more effective way of dealing with political factionalism than our current election system. Those who are concerned by what they see as the increasing balkanization of American politics should not be shying away from PR, but rather should be giving it very serious consideration.

A version of this article first appeared in The Good Society: The Newsletter of the Committee on the Political Economy of the Good Society, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer 1995.

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