Tired of Polarization? Go Multi-Party!

Borgen” is a Danish TV series dramatizing a fictional Danish Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, and her struggles with the complex multi-party parliamentary system in Denmark. For Americans, the series suggests a Danish version of The West Wing. In real life, Danes are generally happy with their government, all three branches of it housed in Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen (popularly known as Borgen, “the castle”).

After the 2019 Danish elections, ten different parties found themselves with members in the Folketinget (parliament). Three smaller parties fielded a “party list” for the elections but failed to clear the threshold for inclusion.

Voter turnout in Denmark is always high. It is a peaceful, civil country, and Danes like it that way. Those ten parties in parliament are organized into the governing coalition (currently led by Social Democrats) and the opposition coalition (largest party the formerly dominant “Venstre,” or “left” – really a neoliberal center-right party). They all get along.

Coalitions come and go in Denmark. But they never erupt in violence or civil war. Denmark is a small country, with a high standard of living that most Danes want to protect. And there is increasing pressure from non-European, certainly non-Nordic, immigration.

Why can’t the United States be more like Denmark? Is it just that we are a more violent, uncivilized people? Or could it be that our flawed history demanded too many compromises before achieving unified national government? We do sometimes talk of “third parties” forming, threatening the hegemony of our two major parties, and three presidential elections over the last 50 years do give support to the thesis that third parties can be decisive. Some argue Richard Nixon won in 1968 because of George Wallace’s renegade Independent Party capturing old-line Southern Democrats who might otherwise have voted for Humphrey. 1992 featured the upstart Ross Perot activating a nascent Libertarian right that ordinarily voted Republican. And Ralph Nader’s run on the Green Party ticket in 2000 is cited as an important factor giving the narrow electoral vote edge to George W. Bush (especially in Florida).

Among these three cases, however, only the Greens have maintained a continuous party structure, fielding candidates down-ballot as well as for President. The other two were essentially personality cults around a specific political figure, producing no lasting organizational presence in American elections.

Somehow the U.S. found itself wedded to an ever more polarized two-party body politic. The Constitution says nothing about elections, except for President (Electoral College) and Senators (two from each state). House members are merely to be “apportioned” based on population – nothing about means of electing them or districts. And not a word in the Constitution about state constitutions or city charters. They can do whatever they want about electing representatives.

FairVote.org has dedicated itself to promoting proportional representation (PR) throughout the country – with limited success. The idea is that larger multi-representative districts rather than our current one-member-per-district model could be created at the local level, with only a few city charters and state constitutions requiring modification. Even at the federal level, below U.S. Senate, nothing except a 1967 law prevents House districts from having multiple members. Change that and proportional representation becomes possible, ending the effective disenfranchisement of all voters belonging to the less-than-50% cohort of the electorate. Runoffs, like we saw recently in Georgia for two Senate seats, are another approach to proportional representation – where there must be a clear majority in the initial election to avoid the runoff. Also, some jurisdictions have implemented ranked choice voting (RCV) for single-seat elections with multiple candidates. The 2020 Senate election in Maine is the most recent high-profile case, resulting in Susan Collins’ re-election.

But the most common form of PR, found in most parliamentary systems around the world, and some presidential systems as well, is the “party list.” Each of the various parties who wish to compete for seats in the legislature will campaign for their PARTY, not any individual candidate. And the seats are awarded based on percentage of votes that each party receives. This has proven to be stable, more stable than two-party systems, and encourages a much higher degree of voter participation than does our “lesser of two evils” approach.

The 2019 Danish elections for the 179 seats of the Folketinget were apportioned thus: 49 seats for Social Democrats, 39 for Venstre, 16 for the Danish Peoples Party (a right-wing nationalist group), 15 for the Socialist Peoples Party (part of Green alliance of the left), 14 for the Danish Social Liberal Party (“radical centrists”), and 34 seats divided among five smaller parties. Eight further seats went to “Independents” who claimed no party affiliation. Danes feel this is what democracy looks like!

The United States will never become Denmark, but widespread proportional representation would lead to a political environment where more people had skin in the game, and over time, maintains FairVote and others, multiple parties would emerge – the natural consequence of greater enfranchisement of varied interest groups. Our problems, of course: Party elites, big donors, the forever Senators and Congressmen — all understandably opposed to such democracy, it’s their neck!

One school of thought contends that the threat to one or both major parties must be real before any mass support for PR emerges. “Third parties” need to win some elections first. Then, if the majors fail to recover, you might see a movement. This model for U.S. politics (even at the state level) requires we first so weaken the major parties that an alternative must present itself. Historically, early failed parties, Federalists and Whigs, died only to see one-for-one replacement. Neither Libertarians nor Greens look ready to replace anybody now. There is also the opposing view that both majors are, in fact, coalitions already (“big tents”).

Unfortunately, the bi-polar appeal of two dominant parties has somehow not only survived, but flourished, in our country. We seem to be a nation where serious conflict outweighs cooperation. First there was slavery and race, then the urban/rural divide, capital vs. labor, and war vs. peace. It always came down to conflict, not consensus.

What’s wrong with us?

— William Sundwick

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