Change the rules – a message from 19th century Europe for America’s political elites

As we take stock of the events of the past week,  a clear consensus has emerged – one of America’s two major parties is in trouble. The Republican Party now has a substantial Trump faction, and this faction has the support of rank-and-file party workers (intentionally so because of a makeover of the party in the lead up to the elections). Traditional party leaders have lost control over the party. This will emerge in plain view in the way the party  will vote during Trump’s second impeachment trial.

A major stumbling block for America’s parties is their incentive structure set in place by a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.  In a winner-take-all system, the party with the most votes wins the entire electoral district (congressional, senate, or state for the electoral college).

Political science research tells us that a FPTP system results in two parties as both voters and parties quickly understand the need for strategic coordination. The winner-take-all aspect of these rules creates huge disproportionalities between votes cast and seats allocated in an election, especially when there are more than two parties. In contrast, a PR system, depending on the size of the electoral district, allocates seats in proportion to the votes received by a party. In the United States, the growth of the size of the federal government and the high stakes of federal politics have only served to more deeply entrench the two-party system at the local, state, and national level. The FPTP electoral system makes any splits within a party, or the emergence of a third party, unviable.

For those of us who study parties and party systems, the events of not just the past week but the past four years have been reminiscent of another – of the great divides that emerged within parties across Europe in the late 19th  and early 20th centuries. As many European democracies introduced universal franchise, they experienced the threat of a new political force – the socialists. The arrival of a third party into a FPTP landscape dominated by liberals (largely urban capitalists) and conservatives (largely rural aristocracy) scrambled political calculations. Elites had to make a choice – move to a proportional representation system that would allow each of these players their own political space, or accept that one of them will likely have to disappear because of the pressures of the FPTP system.

Why do I compare this moment to early 20th century Europe? The Trump era has brought new voters into the polity akin to a franchise expansion. Trump has also broken unspoken rules and has directly appealed to voters who made an uneasy alliance with the Republican party in the post-civil-rights and post Obama eras — the racist, anti-immigrant, and nativist voters. For these reasons, Trump voters are likely to stick with him (or his successor) even after the electoral losses of the past few years. Meanwhile, the Democratic party faces the challenge of appealing to a broad tent coalition that is pulling the party in different directions. If either or both parties fracture, then we are about to experience the troubles of what Conservatives, Liberals and Socialists experienced in Western Europe over a hundred years ago.

So here is a thought experiment – if a Trumpian “Patriot” party emerges, can a majority of America’s politicians from both sides of the aisle be convinced to move to a PR system as a solution to their marginalization in the political landscape? From the right, enough numbers are finally starting to speak up. The Murkowski, Toomey, Romney, Sasse, Cheney, Kinzinger, Roy wing – that wants a more traditional conservative party without Trump. What might be some of the reasons a consensus could emerge over a change in rules?

A recent and fascinating set of papers in historical political economy can offer us some insights into why many European countries moved to PR. These papers take as their starting point a sentiment offered by Duverger  that “electoral mechanisms are strange devices- simultaneously cameras and projectors. They register images that they have partially created themselves.” I categorize these papers on endogenous electoral systems as making three broad arguments:

An intransigent right: Scholars from Karl Braunias, Stein Rokkan to Carles Boix, have argued that Western European parties, particularly the incumbent right parties, picked electoral systems to protect their interests. They argue that conservative parties chose PR for two reasons: a rising socialist threat and a divided right. In culturally divided countries, PR was used as a mechanism to resolve cleavage differences amongst parties on the right and to preserve ethnic/religious minority seats. Especially salient in these arguments is the idea that PR emerged as the solution when distrust within the right was high, and when parties found it impossible to come together against the rising threat of socialist parties.

In Europe, this fractionalization on the right created huge vote-seat disproportionalities in some countries.  Two papers offer important evidence for this mechanism. Ernesto Calvo, probes the seemingly “weak self-interest” of traditional parties to sacrifice seats for a change in rules and finds that in fact,  with or without the socialist threat, the arrival of a new player created severe partisan biases in vote-seat allocation. It was therefore no coincidence that the first countries to switch to PR were divided societies like Denmark, Switzerland and Belgium where the disproportionalities were particularly stark.

Lucas Leemann and Isabela Mares use party-wise district-level electoral data from Germany and show that the prospect of socialist competition, vote-seat losses, and the varied skill profiles of the districts shaped legislators’ support for PR. This political economy approach re-situates the debate to the electoral district and squares country-level findings with legislator-level choices.

These arguments provides two insights about America. The right’s constant refrain about the “socialist threat” in America might be less about the Democratic party or the left, and more an attempt by the factions of the right to find common ground. Second, with the Trump faction emerging as the dominant vehicle for white, rural and ethnically mobilized wing of the Republican base, we are seeing in plain view the mistrust within the right, and factions that might refuse to coordinate if the party fractures.

Geographic woes: Another wrinkle to the current American dilemma is the territorial distribution of voters and the increasing concentration of the Democratic party’s voters into urban centers. As Jonathan Rodden and Ernesto Calvo have noted, this is not a new phenomenon. Historically, the socialist party’s votes was concentrated in industrial and mining towns. This distribution of voters was costly not just to the urban right  (the liberals) but also to the socialists in vote to seat transformations. Geography was as important factor in why many socialist parties too supported the move to PR in Europe.

As America becomes more and more politically segregated, as parties undertake heavy gerrymandering to make this territorial imbalance even more stark, and as urban voters begin to feel disenfranchised, there is likely reason to think that it is not just a fractured right, but a geographically handicapped left that might seek a change in rules. The geographic  issues will also make it very hard for the “traditionalists” within the Republican party to find a home – outmaneuvered by the Trump faction in rural areas, and the Democrats in urban areas, this group is fighting for relevance in suburban/ex-urban America but might have to eventually fold one way or another in a FPTP system.

Party control: Finally, a new paper by Gary Cox, Jon Fiva and Daniel Smith argues that beyond the vote-seat calculations and a fractured right, a key reason for the adoption of PR was party leaders’ desire to maintain party discipline and build more organized parties. PR gave party leaders more leeway over nominations, more space to negotiate policy, and created voting cohesion.  This “party-building” pathway to PR might hold valuables lessons for America’s political elites who now feel besieged by the indisciplined and incoherent demands of their base, one that often dictates primaries and congressional races.

As you may have noted, I have been vague about how PR  rules might be adopted – would they shape the house, senate or electoral college? A good starting point could be the house races. On the one extreme we can imagine a single district like Israel for America’s 435 seats that would be allocated by the vote share for each party. A different tactic might be to adopt large multi-member districts by combining seats in each state.

It is, of course, incredibly hard to make national-level changes to America’s electoral rules. Many cities and some states are already moving to PR or ranked choice voting as an alternative to FPTP. For interested readers, Jack Santucci’s study of PR in American cities provides more details on how these shifts have occurred. His broader research highlights the role of not just motivated elites but also generational shifts in public opinion in favor of alternative electoral rules.

Regardless, the question of the hour is how quickly elites are going to adjust their priors to the new realities of a Trump faction. If they don’t move fast, it might just be too late. Just ask the Liberal Party in the UK. Never heard of them? Exactly.


  • Pavithra Suryanarayan

    I am an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). I received a PhD in political science from Columbia University in October 2016 and my dissertation won the the Mancur Olson Award for the best dissertation in political economy at the American Political Science Association in 2018. I specialize in comparative political economy with a focus on identity, redistribution, and state development in India. My work combines quantitative analysis, including spatial and survey methods, with extensive archival research. My papers have been published or are forthcoming at the American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, Party Politics, and World Politics. I teach classes on Indian Politics and Comparative Politics. I am currently working on a book manuscript on Social Status and Redistributive Politics.

Leave a Reply