Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the 20th Century West

By Dennis Pilon
University of Toronto Press Publishing, November 30, 2012, $37.95

The following is an excerpt from the new book Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the 20th Century West, which examines why voting systems have or have not changed in western industrialized countries over the past century.

For historians, sociologists, political theorists and many others, democracy is recognized as a fundamentally contested concept. Political scientists, by contrast, tend to treat democracy as fixed and unproblematic, equating it with regular elections, multiparty competition and the existence of commercial media.

This is particularly true of academics studying voting systems.All this is surprising, given that elections themselves predate modern democracy, however defined, by many centuries.

Indeed, for some, elections are less a means to democracy than a method to “delimit mass political activity, popular influence and access to power.” Beyond ignoring these larger debates, the pragmatic acceptance of elections as democracy by political science is a problem because it obscures what C.B. Macpherson once called “the muddle about democracy:” “At bottom, the muddle … is due to a genuine confusion as to what democracy is supposed to be about. The word democracy has changed its meaning more than once, and in more than one direction.”

Debates over democracy tend to take one of two forms. One focuses on democracy as a process. To the extent that political science is willing to countenance a debate over democracy, it tends to be one that focuses on the proper form of democracy, such as representative or participatory, elite versus mass, mediated as opposed to direct, etc. The content of politics is largely ignored as unimportant.

The other approach is less concerned with “democracy as a process” than democracy as a historical accomplishment. Here the stuff of politics — what people are disputing or fighting over — must be recovered to make sense of what democracy means in any given time or place.

In the former approach, debate may be normative or analytical, focusing on defining what is “right” or “realistic” for democracy. But in the latter approach, debate focuses on discovering what democracy has been understood to be by different social actors, how the dominant social meaning of democracy may change over time and what factors contribute to democracy remaining a site of political struggle.

The basic argument of this book is that most major voting system reforms in the twentieth-century west have been intimately linked with larger social struggles over the parameters of democracy itself, specifically just what any democratic state should do with its power. Both left and right have recognizable core views on what they think democracy should be.

On the right, the vision has largely been one that sees the state defend liberal property rights with minimal democratic interference. On the left, the democratic imaginary adds social rights to civil and political ones, using the state to redress the economic and social inequalities in civil society.

Depending on which side of the spectrum appeared to have the upper hand in any given historical period, the centre line dividing these two political forces would shift in one direction or another. Thus the post–Second World War right reacted to an ascendant left by agreeing to some form of welfare state, in part to forestall more radical demands.

In the neoliberal era, with the right gaining advantage, we see the left fighting a rearguard action to protect certain aspects of the welfare state by surrendering other parts of it. But political struggle is not always limited to a clearly stated exchange of views. Sometimes politics can occur “by other means,” including struggles over the institutions themselves as means of defeating or limiting opponents.

As Charles Mair noted about post–First World War Europe, “significant institutional transformation” and “new institutional arrangements and distributions of power” were a key part of the political strategies of both left and right political forces in this period. Broadly speaking, there appear to be five key eras of voting system reform.

The first occurs between 1900 and 1914, and successful voting system reforms are limited to the conservative regimes in Sweden, Finland, Germany and Belgium (in 1899). But campaigns for and consideration of new voting systems occurred in most other western countries as well during this period, though only occasionally did a political challenge force conventional elites to seriously consider reform (e.g., New Zealand in 1908).

This changed under the pressure of wartime mobilization and the perception of increasing support for labour and socialist parties. In some cases, countries near the fighting did opt for reform during the war (Netherlands, Denmark), while others quickly adopted reforms amid the political uncertainty following the cessation of hostilities (Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Austria).

As noted above, the situation was not merely one of transitional uncertainty (what would democratic rule look like?) but fear of what democratic rule might mean for different groups of people, particularly traditional ruling elites and the affluent. This is why the interwar period also offers interesting insights on this topic, despite the lack of much voting system reform, as left and right both discovered the depth and limits of their electoral support and responded accordingly.

In some cases, this led to reversals of prior reforms (France in 1928) while in others it solidified a stasis where the left was represented but appeared to lack the electoral strength to further their more robust notions of social democracy. And there were a number of locales that considered reforms in this period, even if they did not introduce them.

These left/right tensions were reproduced in the Cold War era. As western politics shifted to the left after the Second World War, a trend countered partly by the emerging Cold War after 1947, a kind of left-right consensus in favour of social rights and a welfare state was established.

But the extent of those social rights depended on the balance of forces in the polity. Where the left was particularly strong, as in Scandinavia, social rights were extensive. Where it was weak, as in North America, welfare state entitlements were meagre. And in a few key locales, like Germany, France and Italy, the state of left-right political competition was unstable and, for various reasons, voting system reform became a key space to seek advantage, influenced by both internal (i.e., left-right) and external (i.e., Cold War) political dynamics.

This episodic appearance of voting system reform was also the case in the neoliberal era where, despite the fact that all western countries underwent political battles to restrict democratic spaces, only a few resorted to voting system reform as part of the process. Neoliberalism succeeded in varying degrees everywhere but through various means.

In countries like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, conservative political forces gained enough electoral power to simply introduce it. But in others, like Japan and Italy, existing political coalitions could block its progress, and under these conditions the institutional reform of voting systems became more attractive. Of course, in other locales (like New Zealand) voting system reform was sought by the forces opposing neoliberalism.

What democracy is or should be in the west has never been settled. Voting system reform is also about democratic struggle, what shape it will take and who will benefit from its workings. Really, democratic struggle is the topic, while voting system reform is sometimes part of its story.

Dennis Pilon is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at York University.