Friday, February 6, 2009

Proportional Representation - The Iraq Example

George W. Bush claims to have created a new democracy in the Middle East: Iraq. One of the most interesting things about this is how it was done, and how the government and the voting system was set up. Surely, if a democratic “liberator” country topples a regime in the name of democracy, it would want to create a new democracy in the country as a mirror image of itself. In the case of Iraq, however, this was not done.

Proportional Representation has become the system of choice for virtually all developed countries in the world, except in the Anglo-Saxon countries. When the United States toppled the Iraqi regime and installed a new political system, the American model of government was not chosen. Instead, Proportional Representation was chosen.

All that Proportional Representation is, is a system that counts every vote and awards seats in Congress based on how many votes a certain party gets. Can it get any simpler than that? If you get 40% of the vote, you get 40% of the seats. End of story. In The United States today, however, if you get 40% of the vote, you may get 0% of the seats. The American voting system inevitably leads to the following outcomes:

1. Only two parties can ever take part in the political process, even if those two parties are not even close to enjoying support from a majority of the population.

2. Politics is not driven by issues, such as whether or not to provide national healthcare. Instead, the personality of politicians and the amount of money a politician has are without question the two most important factors.

3. Co-operation between the parties (a.k.a. bipartisanship) occurs, so that neither of the parties can ever be challenged by a new party. This can also be described as a political cartel. For a new party to come onto the political stage, one of the old ones would have to disappear.

If the United States government had suggested the American voting system for Iraq (also known as the winner-takes-all voting system), there would have been a nationwide outrage and eventually, very likely, a civil war. The reason for this is that, inevitably, only two parties would have made it into the Iraqi parliament, one of which would have ruled everything.

Clearly, there would have been one Shia Nationalist Party and one Sunni Nationalist Party. The Shia Nationalist Party would have won the majority and ruled completely. The Kurds would not have been represented at all, nor would any other minority, like the Christians.

In a deeply divided and diverse country like Iraq, it would have been disastrous to have only one ethnic group rule the whole country, which is what would have happened under the winner-takes-all voting system. The other groups would most likely have been repressed to a point where rebellions started occurring. The Kurds would have rebelled against the usage of oil money, the Sunni would have rebelled against religious intolerance, and so on.

By giving the Iraqi people Proportional Representation, The United States ensured that every Iraqi was given a voice, regardless of ethnicity, region or income. This made the likelihood of civil war infinitely smaller, and gave the new country a chance to work its problems out. It remains to be seen whether that is possible, however, but a fair voting system is obviously of the utmost importance.

The United States is also a deeply divided country because of geography, ethnicity and old divisions going back to the civil war. There is an incredibly strong anti-government sentiment in this country that is unmatched in the rest of the world, leading to a situation that many foreigners would describe as semi-anarchistic. The American people do not want to work together, and they do not share the same goals.

I believe that the reason for this is that the American people cannot be represented proportionally because of the winner-takes-all voting system, as Iraqis can. As a result of this, doing nothing seems like a better option than having one group rule over all the others. In the United States, an unfair voting system has gradually led to a governmental paralysis.

For all those groups of voters whose interests are not shared by the political elite, there is no way to gain a political voice, because their party would have to be big enough to eradicate either The Republicans or The Democrats from the political scene, which is obviously easier said than done.

The only rational thing these people can do is to be critical of government action in general, which is what they have done for over 200 years now…

The main reason that I write this blog is that I consider the American (as well as the Canadian and British) system of government to be undemocratic. Even George W. Bush knows that the American voting system is undemocratic, otherwise he would have seen to it that Iraq was given this system too.

The biggest problem, however, is that the American people are not aware of what consequences the current voting system has, or that there is something called Proportional Representation, and that is why I’m writing all this.

Share your thoughts in the comment section


Steven said...

A constitution should reflect the values, culture, and history of the nation that has ratified it. For that reason and in response to your question, I don't believe that American voting system should be universal because the values, culture, and history of the United States are not universal.

Jacob said...

Granted, the U.S. is perhaps more diverse than most other countries at this point in history, but the vast majority of countries in Europe are complete patchworks of ethnicities and cultures.

What eventually brought people together in these countries were simple values such as the belief that no one should have to die needlessly because he or she cannot pay for healthcare.

I think that most Americans would agree with such a value, but because of the electoral system, it cannot be realized in legislation.

The real question is whether to try to solve problems or to not even attempt. In the U.S. today, the latter is chosen.

Dominic said...

I've been following you for a couple weeks, and I have a simple question:


Assuming that you get a dedicated group of people together who are willing to work toward the goal of achieving true Proportional Representation in the United States, how would they then go about it? Short of completely destroying the existing system (which is what happened in Iraq), how do you force the political structure to change? The current system is deeply entrenched, so how do you go about getting them to recognize the weakness of the system and change it? Neither Democrats nor Republicans are going to be particularly willing to bend on this one.

Jacob said...


It would probably have to start on a regional level. Proportional representation does have a history in the United States, and there is still one constituency that uses it: Cambridge, MA. Back about 100 years ago, there was something called the Proportional Representation League, where municipalities got together and managed to implement PR in a few dozen cities. New York City was one of them. But because PR led to the election of minorities and progressives, the system was attacked and eventually defeated by the previous (and current) political establishment. You can read about it here:

To approach every single county in the U.S. where gerrymandering has occured (which is obviously a totally undemocratic type of fraud), about PR would be a good start.

The two ruling parties would obviously not agree to abolish themselves, but if PR were implemented locally, it would be very difficult to keep the current, undemocratic, national system going in the long term.

Dominic said...

Hmm... I could see that working, although it would be a very long and difficult battle before the bulk of the nation saw the light. It would have to be a much larger group of people initially, or a group of people that is willing to travel extensively and develop grass-roots pretty much everywhere. Considering the success of the last massive grass-roots movement though, maybe technology is a viable alternative...

Also, I think you might run into the issue of State's Rights v Federalism, a question which has torn our nation apart once already.

Anonymous said...

To get PR in the USA, you first have to eliminate the two-party duopoly that will forever fight it. So you need Score Voting or Approval Voting as an intermediate step, most likely.

If you're into economics, you might appreciate Bayesian Regret.