The rising populism narrative has been complicated by the complete and utter failure of post-Brexit European populists to win elections. Norbert Hofer was crushed in the Austrian presidential election, Geert Wilders’ party failed to win a plurality of votes in the Netherlands, and Macron just soundly defeated Le Pen in the French presidential election. Nevertheless, many political scientists who specialize in extremist politics and populism caution that the long-term picture still looks bleak. I’m skeptical of this argument, but that is neither here nor there. What I am interested in considering in this post is whether proportional representation (PR) systems are better able to cope with populist extremism than single member plurality (SMP) systems like that of the United States.
A superficial examination of the present political situation would suggest that PR systems, are, in fact, much better at constraining populist parties. Brexit and Trump happened in countries with SMP systems. Meanwhile, the countries where populists failed to secure victory either entirely or partly utilize PR systems. The weakness of SMP systems vis-a-vis populism was given theoretical support by Matthew Yglesias and Daniel Nyhan. They have pointed out that the U.S. electoral system was particularly vulnerable to populism given how easy it was for Trump to hijack the center-right Republican Party and exploit its immense power and influence to catapult his toxic message to the national stage. In other words, the two-party system of the U.S. system encourages a type of parasitic populism, as populists are structurally blocked from creating competitive third parties. Their only option, then, is to insidiously hijack established parties and subvert their platforms. In PR-dominated continental Europe, however, populists are free to create their own parties and competitively contest presidencies and prime ministerships. While this means that organically populist parties have a better chance of success, it also means that more traditional parties on the center-right and center-left can avoid cooptation and legitimately challenge the extremists on the political fringes. For example, nearly the entire French political establishment from right to left (though not the far-left) endorsed Macron. This kind of political statement wasn’t really possible in the U.S., as there was a massive conflict of interest problem within the Republican Party. Although a significant number of Republican politicians vehemently disagreed with Trump’s message, they were unable to meaningfully criticize him or endorse a competing political message after he took over the party.
But there are reasons to doubt this line of argumentation. According to work done by Christopher Achen and Stephen Bartels, voters tend to respond to economic shocks by voting out incumbent parties and replacing them with their competitor (in two-party systems). For example, during the Great Depression, American voters decimated the Republicans in both congressional and presidential votes. Canadians replaced the incumbent Liberal Party with the Conservatives in 1930. And in Britain, the Conservatives trounced the incumbent Labour Party. Interestingly, there was no ideological consensus during this period: The U.S. shifted to the left while Britain and Canada moved right. In other words, voters didn’t know what policies and parties they wanted. They just knew that they weren’t happy with the status quo. Given this dynamic, two-party systems can act as a check on extremist politics because the existence of two centrist parties ensures that voters’ rejection of the incumbent party will never result in the emergence of a radical party (absent a takeover in the style of Trump). In multiparty systems typical of PR-style electoral systems, this dynamic doesn’t exist. Again, the Great Depression is telling in this regard, as countries with complex coalition governments – like Germany and France, for example – faced political instability and extremism that helped populist and fascist movements build support.
The degree to which electoral systems affect the success of populist movements is still unclear. The Great Depression and the Great Recession provide contradictory results, making it difficult to determine with certainty whether one electoral system is better than another. What is clear, however, is that strong, centralized party control and systemic pressures against fringe movements are both crucial elements of populism-proofing a system. Neither PR or SMP systems are able to provide both of these attributes equally well, but a cleverly designed system that prioritizes these attributes can go a long way toward retarding the growth and power of populist movements.