By Robert Barta
To a very large extent support for proportional representation (PR) has come from the political left in the United States. The political right has by and large opposed this concept, for reasons stemming from ignorance and knee-jerk fear of change.
Internationally, conservatives point to Scandinavia, Italy and Israel in horror, seeing in PR a political system which allows for a strong left-wing ideological presence in those countries' legislatures. On a domestic level, conservatives fear that PR would lead to the election of numerous left-wing political factions, such as Greens, multi-culturalists and Socialists.
However, much of this conservative fear of PR is unjustified. On an international level, a strong case can be made that PR has little or no inherent left-wing/right-wing bias. For instance, on the all-important issue of government spending as a percentage of a nation's gross domestic product, a telling indicator of how "socialist" a country really is, no significant PR vs. non-PR correlation can be found. Thus, France, a non-PR country, led all major European economies, as of 1989, with a 50.5% share of government spending.
Concerning taxation, one finds such PR countries as Switzerland and Japan (which has a semi-PR election system) enjoying lower levels of taxation than non-PR countries such as France and Canada.
On social issues, the political neutrality of PR is also evident. On issues as diverse as gun-control, abortion, military conscription and immigration, factors such as a countries' history, religion and culture play a key role, not its voting system. Thus Ireland with PR forbids abortion, and Germany with PR recently enacted stringent immigration laws -- while non-PR Canada has one of the world's most liberal immigration policies. Non-PR Great Britain does not have military conscription, while most PR European countries do.
Thus, among countries with PR, one can find a left-wing Sweden or Denmark, but also a more conservative Germany and a conservative Czech Republic. A strong case can be made that with or without PR, a country will swing to the political right or left out of a variety of factors, few of them relating to their electoral system. PR merely provides a level playing field for the playing out of these other factors.
In other countries which have a U.S.-style single member district election system, it is true that conservative parties have often benefited from such a system. Thus, Britain's Conservative Party has won a substantially higher percentage of seats than its vote total has merited in the last four parliamentary elections, due to a divided opposition. In France, the two main conservative parties parlayed 40% of the vote into 80% of the seats in the parliamentary elections in 1993.
However, in the French elections of 1988, Canada's 1993 election and Hungary's election in 1994, parties of the left were given an unfair advantage due to the random nature of the single member district system.
In the United States, the Republican Party, with the exception of last year's election, has regularly won around 45%- 47% of the nationwide vote for the House of Representatives but only about 40%-42% of the seats, with some variation of course from year to year. Such a discrepancy has meant a loss of about 25 seats out of a total of 435.
Of course, under PR new parties on the left, right and center would likely emerge, and it is impossible to predict just how Congress elected by PR would look. However, since PR would likely lead to more ideological voting -- under PR voters usually focus on parties and their platforms rather than personal district oriented factors -- the U.S. voters' stance on numerous political issues, as evidenced in polls and referendum voting, gives us some inkling of how voters might react in a more ideological setting.
Numerous polls and referenda show that on issues as diverse as crime, a balanced budget amendment, immigration reform, affirmative action and government spending policies, a conservative majority exists. Of course, on other issues, such as health-care reform, abortion and military spending, a potential liberal majority exists.
With these factors in mind, a PR-elected congress might look as follows: a Green Party, drawing its strength from environmentalists and multi-culturalists would anchor the left. In addition a broad-based, semi-socialist party composed of the poor, blacks, public employee union members and other groups who benefit from redistributionist government programs might emerge. On the center-left, a Democratic Leadership Council party of New Democrats could also emerge.
Holding the balance of power would likely be a fiscally- conservative, socially-moderate, Perot-style center party that was composed of fiscal conservatives, deficit hawks and pro- choice, term limit advocates. A center-right party, perhaps coming out of the current GOP, would likely emerge, running as a pro-free trade, defense spending and tax cutting party. On the right, an electorally-dynamic, pro-life fiscal conservative Christian Party could very well come into its own. Finally, a Pat Buchanan- style, America First Party might emerge, calling for immigration reform and protectionism.
PR could thus lead to an excitingly diverse Congress. As in Europe, it would not necessarily lead to a more conservative or a more liberal legislature. However, by providing for a level playing field in which each party wins its fair share of seats, PR would ensure that conservatives were no longer on the receiving end of undemocratic gerrymandering as has been true for most of the last 40 years. It is also likely that a fiscally conservative majority would emerge from a PR congress.
The issue of electoral fairness and justice inherent in PR should be embraced by conservatives, just as they have by and large embraced such democracy measures as initiative and referendum voting and term limits. If you believe your ideas are best, a level playing field is where you want to play.
Robert Barta majored in European history at San Francisco State University and is a founding member of The Center for Voting and Democracy and research coordinator of Northern California Citizens for Proportional Representation.