Democracy, Proportional Representation, and Extremism

B.C. is embroiled (that may be over-stating the situation) in a debate about whether to move to a system of proportional representation (P.R.) for electing M.L.A.s.

One of the arguments that is frequently made against P.R. is that a likely result will be the emergence of ‘extremist’ parties, and their corresponding take-over of a democratic government.

I have more than a few problems with this argument.

First, while the electoral system is a vital function of a democracy, manipulation of the system is a secondary result of something having already gone very wrong in the community. Communities may be characterized as more or less democratic depending upon the electoral system they use, but the system is not a reliable predictor of democratic outcomes. I favour proportional representation, because I consider it to be more faithful to the spirit of democracy, and a more just (inclusive and equitable) way of choosing elected representatives. But I quickly acknowledge – it is not a panacea and citizens will need to be just as vigilant in any P.R. system as in any first past the post system.

Democracy is not primarily an outcome of its formal institutions: democracy is primarily the outcome of what people aspire to and will for themselves. Today, there are many thin democracies, and they are just as often organized with the first past the post system as with any system of P.R.

I like what Paul Woodruff says about democracy. Democracy is not represented by its instruments: it is represented by its fruits. Regardless of how we deliberate, or vote, or enact, Woodruff argues that democracy has seven characteristics:
1. The desire to be free from tyranny and from being a tyrant;
2. The desire for harmony within the community;
3. A commitment to the rule of law;
4. A commitment to natural equality of each individual;
5. A commitment to citizen wisdom when making decisions;
6. A commitment to using reason without certain knowledge; and,
7. A commitment to education for personhood and citizenship as well as for vocation.

With this in mind, democracy is being tested in Ontario, and the U.S., both of which use the first past the post system of choosing who governs, as much as it is being tested in any other country, with any other electoral system.

Second, to argue against P.R. in B.C. on the basis that we are then exposed to unreasonable risk of extremism belittles what I would call “thick democracy”. Democracy is based on, and is the result of, much more than the electoral system. Thick democracy is a function of free speech, freedom of association, generous support for the “Official Opposition”, a multitude of civil democratic organizations, a free and investigative press, a strong system of public education, and more. I hope/believe that B.C. is a thicker democracy, in which all these actors and actions throw light and reflect light into every corner of our community, so that the injustices and wounds that would otherwise lead to extremism are found early and dealt with creatively and to good effect.

Third, to argue against P.R. in B.C. on the basis that we are then exposed to unreasonable risk of extremism organizing itself is to presume that dangerous extremism already exists in B.C., is effectively repressed (but not mitigated) by the existing electoral system, and is only waiting to be ‘weaponized’ by the introduction of proportional representation. I doubt that such extremism exists, but it might. If it does, to the extent it does, it exists because of failures of the current system. Is there 5% of the population that has been so marginalized, for so long, and so bottled up that they see extremism as the only solution? Opponents of P.R. are telling us they believe that might be the case.

Free speech is important. So is openness, transparency. For 29 years I was an active partisan (and for 15 years an M.L.A. and sometimes a Cabinet Minister) in the first past the post system. I know, from personal experience and from conversation with other elected representatives, in other parties and jurisdictions, that big tent parties include many people who hold ‘extreme’ views about one issue or many. Widely varying, and sometimes conflicting views are constantly being ‘negotiated’, and the negotiations are hidden from the view of citizens, inside big tent parties.

Similar negotiations, conducted among a number of parties following an election would not be a new development. It would be the “same old, same old”, conducted in a new venue. The big difference (huge, in my view) is simply that the negotiations would be more accessible to the media and the public. I would prefer more openness.

Fourth, history does not support the argument that the first past the post system is a great obstacle to extremism. I have seen big tent parties campaign with an appeal to the middle, in order to secure an election, and then, once in office, do things that had never been part of their campaign and offended many of their voters.

Regardless of our electoral system, if a government (big tent or coalition) “does justice, loves mercy, and acts with integrity and humility”, and if it does that in a community that celebrates “thick democracy” the conditions conducive to extremism are unlikely to arise to the extent of endangering the democracy.

I am not afraid that extremism is latent in our community. If the alternative is repression and denial, I would rather have marginalization and injustice – and even bigotry — talked about and dealt with actively. I would rather have political negotiations conducted more in public than in secret.

I am in favour of proportional representation.

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