It has become fashionable among critics – and enemies – of the Bush administration to assert that the goal of democratization in the Mid-East is at best quixotic and at worst delusional. For example, in Democracy & its Discontents, Leon Hadar of the Cato Institute argues that the U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the Mid-East is the result of ideological blindness and, not surprisingly, a failure.
The word “democracy” gets thrown around a lot in policy discussions although what the Bush administration explicitly favored for Iraq was a species of representative democracy called a federal republic. The new Iraqi Constitution actually creates such a government and is, on the whole, not that bad of a governing instrument. The problem Hadar and other critics point to is the fact that the Iraqi elections ended up putting a large number of Islamists (see, for example, Misunderestimating Moktada al-Sadr) into the Iraqi parliament. The argument is ultimately that Iraqis and other people in the Mid-East are demonstrably incapable of embracing democracy:
Foreign-policy analyst Fareed Zakaraia argues that free elections taking place in societies that lack the foundations of liberal political culture—which includes all of the Middle East—tend to produce non-peaceful “illiberal democracies.”
Critics are accurately stating an empirical observation about the electoral success of extremists but they are completing ignoring a major causative factor: the use of proportional representation (PR) as the voting system used to select members of legislative bodies.
I wrote an article explaining why I left the Libertarian Party back in 2002 that discussed the importance of voting reform in making the U.S. political system more amenable to the development of multiple parties. I favor continuing the U.S. system in which representatives are selected from single-member districts but using either Condorcet or Approval Voting as the selection method rather than “first-past-the-post” or Plurality Voting as is used today. I explicitly rejected PR because it rewards extremists:
The world has seen the worst-case scenario of proportional representation in action with the Nazi takeover of the Weimar Republic. Members of the Reichstag were elected by strict proportional representation, which allowed the Nazis to gain around one third of the seats. This, in turn, positioned the Nazis to exploit the system and have Hitler named Chancellor. Ironically, the Nazi power grab happened even though the Nazis had lost seats in the last election. Had the Weimar Republic used single member districts, along with either Condorcet or approval voting, Nazi candidates would have seldom been majority winners since we know that around 70% of the voters were really anti-Nazi and voted for one or the other of the two major alternatives. With many fewer Nazis in the Reichstag, the Nazis would have never been in a position to take over the government.
A few months after I wrote this piece, PR produced another bad outcome. CNN’s headline was Landslide win for Islamic party in Turkey. While it was true that the Islamist party gained nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Turkish parliament, it managed this with only around 34% of the vote – hardly a “landslide” as CNN would have it. PR plus a 10% threshold for winning representation in parliament meant that the nearly two-thirds of Turks who opposed the Islamists split their vote among a group of secular parties which resulted in only one meeting the threshold. Yet, Hadar offers Turkey as an example of the failure of “democracy”:
In Turkey, South Korea, Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia, free voting has resulted in the election of political parties that are less than enthusiastic about American’s goals.
Of this group of countries, the only one that doesn’t use some form of PR is Chile.
Proportional representation creates dysfunctional democracies by Jon Basil Utley, offers a similar argument to the one I made in 2002.
With this global civics lesson at its disposal, the United States still chose proportional representation for its Iraqi experiment in democratic transition. The system draws no electoral districts with distinct territorial representation such as the U.S. Congress, which gives a balancing power to smaller states and constituencies. Such a bicameral system as America has would help resolve the problem of protecting minorities such as the Kurds, Sunnis, and Christians in a Shia-majority population. The concern about terrorists preventing people from voting in Sunni areas would have been solved if there were precise geographical districts each entitled to a representative in the Congress. Then a low voter turnout would not have mattered. The people in the district would still have a representative.
My only real disagreement with Utley is his emphasis on PR creating a multi-party system as being ipso facto bad. My problem with PR is the kind of multi-party system that gets created: one in which parties that represent fringe or extreme views can prosper. As I state in my 2002 article, Condorcet or Approval Voting used in single-seat elections can allow a multi-party system to evolve over time but, unlike PR, success – in the form of seats in a legislative body - is not guaranteed. It is the near guarantee that a constituency of psychopaths or religious nuts can have a representative in government that is the fatal flaw with PR.
“System is everything” is an adage of mine that conveys the idea that the success or failure of human institutions is largely determined by how they are engineered rather the beliefs or “culture” of the people who comprise them. Thus, I totally reject the idea that Islamic people in the 21st century are unsuited to self-government just as I long ago rejected the idea that Germans have some deep-seated tendency toward militarism and genocide as evidenced by their actions in the 20th century. Germany’s democratic failure was the result of multiple problems with the Weimar Constitution, one of which was strict PR. In fairness a system that doesn’t use PR can still fail: Pakistan’s parliamentary system was based on the British model and used direct election and first-past-the-post voting. However, Pakistan’s system made it easy for the executive to assume emergency powers and, as a result, has been ruled by a series of dictators over a large part of its existence.
The example of Pakistan demonstrates that a robust political system needs a series of checks and balances such that the “will of the majority” cannot be quickly acted upon and can sometimes be frustrated by a minority. The system should also make it hard for a “man on a white horse” to gain absolute power. These were the guiding principals of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. is going to continue to nation build, perhaps it should require of the next group of representatives charged with setting up a government (probably in Iran), that they read the original U.S. Constitution and the Federalist papers along with the works of the Marquis de Condorcet before they embark on writing their own constitution.