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Alfred de Grazia:

PUBLIC & REPUBLIC : Political Representation in America


Part  C


The opposition to proportional representation in the United States in the nineteenth century was never formalized. It never became a major party issue.[70] Its lack of sweeping progress can be attributed more to apathy than to vigorous dissent from its propositions. English conservatives, such as Dicey and Bagehot, wrote discerningly about the defects of the rationale of proportional representation, but it was not until the twentieth century that the debate picked up energy in America. That energy was a result of the experimentation with proportional representation in several large cities and a consequence of the founding and subsequent bankruptcy of a number of representative governments in Europe.

There is hardly the space here to go into the extended survey and analysis of case histories that would be necessary for judging the specific effectiveness of proportional representation, [71] but a bare enumeration of the chief claims of the proponents and opponents of proportional representation may assist in preparing the way for a discussion of the chief point of contention. A warning is always necessary in approaching the merits, and demerits of proportional representation, for the deficiencies of political science are nowhere as apparent as in the lack of sobriety and respect for evidence found in discussions of proportional representation. Every conceivable merit and every imaginable defect of a political system have been ascribed to the basic goodness or evil of proportionalism.

The arguments extended on behalf of proportional representation may be summarized as follows: it brings about unanimous constituencies where all electors agree on their man; no majority will exist under it unless there is actually a true majority, in which case the true majority will have power to act under proportional representation as it has under the majority system; any united minority large enough to fill the quota is sure to elect a candidate; gerrymandering is impossible where the constituencies are combined to form one large multimember constituency; pressure groups and other minority representatives can come out into the open political field and obtain their due of representation; under both the list system and the Hare system there is considerably more freedom in nominating condidates for office and an improvement of the caliber of officeholders and candidates results; political issues are more definite, and interest and participation in the democratic processes consequently greater; choice is greater because several constituencies are united and the number of candidates increased; the overburdening primary system is eliminated and yet the system of choices allowed the voter serves the function of the primary, and since participation is greater, one of the reasons for the machine control of primary elections and the whole electoral process is eliminated.[72]

On the other hand, the opponents of proportional representation assert the following: it neglects local interest by devoting attention to large issues without meaning; it makes of the legislature a debating society rather than a group composed for useful action; even under the most perfect quota system some minorities will be unrepresented; racial, cultural, and class animosities are engendered or increased by putting into the legislative chambers recalcitrant members of minorities; every law is bound to hurt part of the people and therefore some minority is always unrepresented; new issues arise between elections creating new minorities and configurations of majorities; unstable and irresponsible groups will disturb the equanimity of the political scene; although voters in a minority will elect their candidate, once in the legislature he must compromise as much as any representative under the old system in order to form a working majority with the members of other minorities.[73]

It cannot be expected that the foregoing points will be entirely clear or all-inclusive, but they may serve to add some perspective. If we were to extract the one statement of greatest significance to the theory of proportional representation (according to its opponents), that statement would concern the effects of proportional representation on political unity. To paraphrase the charge: proportional representation makes everyone potent: then it makes everyone impotent; and finally, it makes one man omnipotent.

Walter Bagehot was the first writer to emphasize this point. In The English Constitution, he accepted party organization as the vital principle of representative government, but believed that party government was effective only so long as it was composed of moderate persons who were not preoccupied with finding political issues where none in reality existed.[74] Parliament he regarded in the manner of Burke, as a body with an existence, function, and morale of its own, separate, fortunately for the success of the government, from the constituency.

Bagehot wrote that there were two ways of forming constituencies, the first by law and the second by leaving the electors to make them. The Hare system was based on the second method. Despite the general contentment in England (which he thought to exist), the new system would result in the heightening of tensions and conflict.

At present the member is free because the constituency is not in earnest: no constituency has an acute accurate doctrinal creed in politics. The law made the constituencies by geographical divisions: and they are not bound together by close unity of belief. They have vague preferences for particular doctrines and that is all. But a voluntary constituency would be a church with tenets; it would make its representative the messenger of its mandates, and the delegates of its determinations.[75]

There, in the space of a few words, lies the crux of the matter. No advocate of proportional representation has ever applied himself directly to Bagehot's charge. Strangely enough, as time went on, the proportionalists continuously lost interest in the social psychology of proportional representation, and devoted themselves more and more to controversies over numerical quotas and exact formulae of one sort or another.

No major work devoted to adverse criticism of proportional representation appeared in America until George Horwill's Proportional Representation, Its Dangers and Defects appeared in 1925.[76] But Horwill's book hardly approached the basic issue of the effects of the system of voluntary constituencies on political tension. His approach was the more common one in America and involved a "practical" discussion of the supposed effects of the adoption of proportional representation in various localities. It was concerned with exploding some of the more pretentious claims of the proportionalists, especially on the level of its technical feasibility.

F.A. Hermen's article," The Trojan Horse of Democracy," published in 1938, [77] opened the American field to the issue as originally proposed by Bagehot, and within the space of a few years, Hermens published a number of works attacking the individualistic, socially disruptive tendencies of proportional representation. His efforts had the salutary effect of bringing proportional representation out of the mathematical coma into which it had lapsed and placing it once more under observation as an influential, living element in any political system where it was used.

Professor Hermens correctly regards proportional representation as a further attempt to create an absolute "liberty" for the individual. Its inevitable result, he believes, would be the crushing of individual liberty in a reaction to its excesses, and a decline into dictatorship. What the proportionalists call "representation" is equivalent to the ancient "protest and petition." However, in an age of parliamentary supremacy, the paramount function of parliament is to perform the active tasks of running a government. Under proportional representation, an increase in the number of political parties is always apparent. The parties begin to represent extreme groups. Under the majority system, extremities in any direction are discouraged, since a party must carry a majority to represent itself in the government.

The proportionalists, Hermens claims, are always thinking of what separates the individuals in a society instead of what binds the society together in a unity. They encourage provincial and extreme groups by allowing them representation in the legislature, which then presents a spectacle of governmental disunity that grows more repellent as vain attempts are made to build a stable government on the eccentricities of small voluntary constituencies. The spirit of controversy fostered by the irascible representatives sent into the legislature by the reckless constituencies causes a demand for unity to grow from without the legislature. The outside movement awaits the opportune moment to seize power in the name of the people. This moment occurs when the extreme groups grow powerful through criticism, protest, and obstruction, and when the middle democratic forces lose all their character in an attempt to unite in order to prevent the complete collapse of parliamentary government. The resulting impasse is the invitation for an extreme group to revolutionize the government and society.

Professor Hermens presents a large mass of data and his statements are sometimes unbalanced by the prescience of disaster. As a result, his analysis sometimes suffers from lack of clarity and controlled logical sequence. His great fear and great love, if we can build up a description from the phenomena at work, are two sides of an old friend, the traditional, direct democratic idea of representation. For that is the conception of representation that contains the crucial elements in the situation: unity, identity, community, and the majority principle. Turned out of the legislative halls, he fears, they will return in helmets and uniforms. If we look at proportional representation at work, we do not find individualistic, continually changing voluntary constituencies which were the imagined results of Gilpin's, Hare's, Mill's, or Common's ideas. For their psychology was rationalistic as well as individualistic. Politics was the sphere of deliberated activity rather than of crowd behavior. Proportional representation was constructed to give free play in politics to the best elements of modern society and to allow reason to assume a major role in politics. Rather, we find a kind of pluralism, founded on semi-voluntary constituents, predominating in proportional representation in action.

The original proportionalists were always conscious of the many diverse interests in society. They did not, however, take into account the basic integrating factors in society which caused men to act, think, and believe in groups. They felt that there should be no concern about the possibility of an individual's loyalty becoming submerged in an associational loyalty. Their individualism was too profound to allow such thoughts to be seriously maintained.

To that extent their hopes were vain, their psychology blind. Proportional representation was gratuitous liberty extended any social group to acquire for itself the prestige of a political career. The solidifying qualities which formerly held it together were bolstered by its assumption of a political role, with all the symbolic and active cohesion which politics supplies its contestants.

That the original idea was something quite different from pluralism hardly changes the results. The effects were close to what is accomplished by the outright representation of already established major groupings. Distinctions of race, class, economic groupings, and other fixed social determinants, are politicized. As parties are formed from the combinations of determinants, the parties add to the combinations new skills, slogans, techniques, and bureaucracies. The individual acquires a new sovereignty to which his allegiance belongs and which seems more valuable because it is more immediate, less bureaucratized, and more agreeable to his sentiments and opinions. He loses, by the same token, a certain amount of allegiance to the total society which is more remote, more bureaucratic in reference to his actions, and less agreeable to his sentiments and opinions. As an individual, he is more organized personally with relation to an external grouping, possibly therefore more organized within himself, but less organized in reference to the great society. In any case, if his psychology remains individualistic, he will at some point feel that the new pluralism is a cheat to his original notion of the new representation, or else, if he finds a greater affinity to the close-in group, his "individualism" will turn out to be a will-o' the-wisp and he will become a soldier fighting against the great society.

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