On restoring responsible political parties

picture.52.1535547351DtrC8R1XQAIIktGAs calls for another Brexit referendum grow ever louder, Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro discuss their new book, Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, in which they argue that attempts to decentralise political decision-making in the US and UK have made governments and political parties less effective and damaged their ability to address constituents’ long-term interests. 

Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have sought to bring politics closer to the people. Party members more often elect their leaders directly. There has been greater use of referendums and plebiscites. Many political parties have adopted decentralised ways of choosing candidates. Boundaries have been redrawn to create ‘majority-minority districts’ – in which the majority of the constituents in the district are non-white – and thus ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. In many (especially newer) democracies, proportional representation (PR) is favoured as more inclusive of non-majority voters. Unlike single member district systems, which generate two big catch-all parties, parties proliferate under PR; minority groups can all vote for parties they expect to fight for them in the legislature. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements that move decisions closer to the people and elect politicians who are less remote from – and more responsive to – the voters.  

Paradoxically, however, this decentralisation has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation. Poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties and institutions, dramatically underscored in 2016 by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the US presidency. Similar patterns prevail in many democracies, where anti-establishment parties and candidates enjoy unprecedented support from voters. They reject government recommendations in referendums and plebiscites, and elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago. Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as ‘tossing the bums out’ shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on their representatives.

There are, to be sure, many sources of voter disaffection. A new ‘Gilded Age’ has brought unprecedented wealth to the ultra-rich alongside decades of wage stagnation for the great majority. The 2008 financial crisis cost millions their homes and savings, yet their governments bailed out the big banks and paid multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives who helped cause the mess. Corruption scandals have tarnished many governments and leaders, forcing some from office. Western governments have poured trillions of dollars into failed wars in the Middle East, with little to show for it whilst low growth and aging populations add fiscal strains to government budgets, compounding anxieties about health insurance and pensions. Voters have many reasons to be angry.

Yet the apparent paradox is real. The decentralising democratic reforms since the 1960s are a separate, and important, source of voter disaffection. They feed political dysfunction and produce policies that are self-defeating for most voters, even those who support such reforms. The seeming truism that increasing voters’ direct control of decisions and politicians enhances democratic accountability has, in fact, the opposite effect. Rebuilding well-functioning democracy means reversing this trend.

The key to dissolving the paradox – that devolving power to the grass roots increases voter alienation – lies in understanding the relations between voters’ interests and what governments can actually do once in office. Focusing on this question leads us to advocate a single member district system that typically generates two large parties that compete to form governments and regularly alternate in power. But those parties have to be strong and centrally controlled. Party leaders should be elected by – and retain the confidence of – backbenchers. Leaders should play a major role in selecting candidates to compete for their party in elections, so that over time backbenchers and frontbenchers select and reselect one another. Traditionally this was known as the Westminster system, although the actual system in the UK has now been adulterated in various ways. Some changes, such as greater regional variation that operates at odds with the goal of producing catch-all national parties, have resulted from self-conscious reform, but there are ways to counteract their baleful influence. Others, such as greater grass roots participation in leadership selection, fixed-term parliaments, and reliance on referendums, are ill-considered reforms that weaken parties and should be reversed.

Much of the misguided appeal of decentralising reforms results from failing to evaluate systems as systems. Reformers typically focus instead on one aspect of the system deemed insufficiently democratic and then devise reforms without attending to their knock-on effects.

The results are often perverse. Primaries and caucuses  – a form of candidate selection in which which local members of a political party register their preference among candidates running for office – allow extreme political minorities to pick candidates. Visible signs of this in the US are the Tea Party’s power over Congressional Republicans and Donald Trump’s presidential nomination by a highly unrepresentative 5% of the US electorate. In the UK, direct election meant that activists re-elected Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader when he had just lost a confidence vote in his parliamentary party by 172 to 40. Majority-minority districts often weaken parties that serve minorities’ interests. Term limits increase the gridlock that most voters abhor: why work with lame ducks when you can just wait them out? Ballot initiatives – a form of direct democracy in which the public can secure public votes on specific issues – generate myopic decisions that often frustrate voter preferences. Rather than enhance democracy, these disconnected reforms create Rube Goldberg machines that undermine it by unnecessarily complicating what should be a simple system.

What to do instead? The central task is to restore centralised control of the much-maligned but core institution of modern representative democracy: the political party. The American Progressives of the late 19th century were not wrong to take aim at corrupt party machines that traded favours for votes, but replacing smoke-filled back rooms with primaries and local caucuses inadvertently robbed voters of the very thing they hoped to restore: democratic accountability. As long as party leaders are forced to compete with leaders of an opposing party also hoping for an electoral majority, they are in the best position to forge platforms with long term and widespread benefits. Competition within parties undermines this by holding leaders hostage to intense minorities with narrow interests. Ballot initiatives and referendums have similar effects. They sound more democratic but this is an illusion. Party leaders need to be freed from their clutches so that they can stitch together coherent policy platforms and select competent candidates to carry them out.

If political competition is indispensable for political accountability, district-based systems such as the US need radical restructuring in light of what has been done to them in recent decades. In the UK, it would be smart to follow the recent recommendations of the Boundary Commissions to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies by at least 50 (to 600), and arguably by more (Britain’s constituencies are a third the size of Germany’s single member districts in their mixed system, and a tenth of the size of the typical Congressional district in the US). In an ideal world, every electoral district would be diverse in ways that mirror the nation’s diversity across the range of issues that voters care about. This might be a bridge too far, but given the wealth and prosperity differentials between London and the rest of the country, it would be good to include a sliver of London in every British constituency. The median voter in each constituency would then better resemble the national median voter, and their elected representatives would find it comparatively easy to agree on policy priorities. Backbenchers in the legislature would be happier to delegate authority to their party leaders in order to get legislative work done and protect the party’s brand into the future.

American geographic diversity puts that arrangement out of reach unless we were to adopt fully non-geographic districts. That extreme solution would in any case generate its own pathologies. More realistically, reformers should insist on continuous and non-partisan adjustment of district lines to maintain the competitiveness of congressional elections. This recommendation flies in the face of recent history, in which majority parties in state legislatures have relentlessly done the opposite: creating the maximum number of districts for their own party while wasting as many votes for the opposite party as possible with super-safe districts. In most districts this means that the primary election is the only contest of any consequence and competition between the parties falls by the wayside.

Majority-minority districts have a similar effect, undermining competition and in the end failing to serve the interests of the minority voters that they are intended to benefit. There are better ways to achieve diversity in legislatures, such as the reservation of seven out of New Zealand’s 120 parliamentary seats for Māoris or the comparable provision in India dating back to the Poona Pact of 1934, which reserves 84 out of the parliament’s 543 seats for scheduled castes. Similar measures can enhance gender diversity without diluting democracy’s competitive lifeblood. Making every district accountable to the preferences of voters in the political middle would go a long way towards both moderating the stances of American legislative parties, and strengthening their leaders at the expense of the shrinking number of outliers.

The pathologies we identify are not limited to single member district systems like the US and UK. PR systems, while less than optimal to begin with, have also suffered from the misguided impulse to increase grassroots control in the name of democratic accountability. Low vote thresholds to protect small parties, open-list systems that let voters select individuals on party lists, and the use of primaries when lists are drawn up all produce intra-party competition that rewards small groups with intense preferences. These reforms undermine healthy competition over national programmes, promoting instead logrolling deals in which parties and even individual politicians make bilateral pacts to support local pet projects and special interest politics. Increasing thresholds would be better, forcing small parties to combine, retain closed lists to strengthen party leaderships, and use counting rules that tilt in favour of the largest parties. Whatever the system, reforms should move away from smaller, weaker parties toward larger, stronger ones. Strong political parties play a vital role in identifying, competing over, and defending the broad interests of the voting public.

Internally disciplined and hierarchical parties might seem undemocratic, but the leaders’ authority is granted by the party’s parliamentary backbenchers for their collective good. Party members know they are better able to get and stay elected when they offer coherent policies; and everyone knows that if they lose confidence in their party leaders to provide that coherence, they can choose new leaders who can—as underscored by the swift departures of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and David Cameron in 2016. Parties that are broad-gauged, encompassing an electoral majority, and are disciplined enough to enforce majority-enhancing deals, are as good as we can get in a democracy. Voters know not only what the party stands for, but also what it will implement in the event that it takes office.

Even Westminster is merely good – not great – because every attractive attribute of political competition has a countervailing flaw. Favouring the majority at the expense of minorities has a substantial drawback, especially if some voters are permanently in a minority on any issue. But many of the standard solutions to this problem make it worse. Instead, we advocate reforms that avoid entrenching Balkanised electorates while undermining democratic competition. It might be true that there are some vulnerable minorities that will not be adequately protected by any electoral arrangements, particularly when ethnic and racial inequalities consistently map onto inequalities of income. Even in that case, vulnerable minorities will be better served when politicians are not given incentives to campaign on political platforms defined by ethnicity and race.

Attempts to bypass the parliamentary electoral system using direct democracy do not work either. The evidence is now overwhelming that most advances for vulnerable minorities in the US have come through legislatures and not the courts, protestations by lawyers to the contrary notwithstanding. Comparative evidence confirms that separation-of-powers systems with independent courts do no better than parliamentary democracy at protecting vulnerable minorities. Indeed, courts have undermined democratic competition in the US since 1976 by declaring money to be speech protected by the First Amendment, disproportionately empowering the well-heeled to work their will in the American political process.

Likewise with plebiscites and referendums. Britain had never held a referendum before Harold Wilson called one in 1975 over remaining in the European Community, rather than doing the hard work of fighting it out within his divided party. Remain beat Leave by 67.2% to 32.8% but five years later the issue split Labour anyway. When Michael Foot won the leadership contest in 1980, his proposal that the UK should leave the EC without another referendum led a group known as the Gang of Four to abandon Labour and form the Social Democratic Party. Had Dennis Healey not defeated Tony Benn for the Deputy Leadership, the exodus could have been a lot larger. Three decades later David Cameron made a comparable blunder to avoid confronting Conservative rifts over Brexit. It is not working out any better for them than it did for Labour.

It is the job of political parties to bundle issues, so that voters ‘discount’ things that they want against each other. American voters support unilateral tax cuts in referendums such as Proposition 13 in California in 1978, which limited property taxes to 1% of assessed value. The downstream effect was to decimate funding for California’s public schools and local government. Polls show voters will support any tax cut when asked about it in isolation, but not if they are told that a particular cut will be accompanied by losing a popular programme such as free medical prescriptions. Then they are forced to discount their preference for lower taxes by their preference of free medical prescriptions.

That is exactly the kind of discounting that parties do when they ‘bundle’ policies into programmes in ways they hope will appeal to as large a swathe of the population as possible. This is why both the Labour and Conservative parliamentary parties strongly favour EU membership. When they discount the costs of leaving against everything else they know most voters want, Remain makes the most sense, but yanking the issue out of the mix for a referendum creates an artificial choice.

Weakening parties and undermining their vital function in electoral competition sounds democratic and is often the path of least resistance for party leaders who want to avoid the hard work of figuring out the compromises and trade-offs that successful bundling requires. But that is what parties are there for. As E.E. Schattschneider said three quarters of a century ago, ‘the condition of the parties is the best possible evidence of the nature of any regime.’ Strengthening political parties is urgently needed if we are to have any hope of restoring healthy democratic regimes.

Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself was published by Yale University Press in October. Professor Shapiro will be attending an event, entitled Democratic Competition: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the Constitution Unit on Wednesday 12 December. Dr Sherrill Stroschein, Reader in Politics at UCL, will also be speaking, and the event will be chaired by Unit Director Meg Russell. Tickets are still available here.

About the authors

Frances McCall Rosenbluth is the Damon Wells Professor of Political Science at Yale University and co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself

Ian Shapiro is Sterling Professor of Political Science, director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University and co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself