As proportional representation attracts more interest—like in British Columbia, where voters will soon decide by referendum whether to adopt proportional representation (PR) for provincial elections—commentators like David Brooks trot out the false belief that proportional representation “allowed an extremist named Adolf Hitler to rise to power with the initial support of a tiny fraction of Germany’s voters.”
But contrary to Brooks’ claim, Germany’s PR system actually kept Hitler out of power.
Hitler seized power through un-democratic means because PR blocked him
Hitler gained control of the German government through subterfuge and a quasi-coup, not through proportional representation. In February 1933, someone set fire to the German parliament building, the Reichstag. The government declared a state of emergency and suspended all civil freedoms. Hitler blamed the Communists for the fire and used the state of emergency and public panic to expel all Communists from parliament, enabling the Nazis to seize control without an election.
Germany’s proportional representation system, though it may have been flawed in other ways, constrained the Nazis to their proportional share of seats in the government, blocking Hitler from taking control. It’s hard to imagine this today, but in 1932, the Nazi Party was the most popular in Germany. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the Nazi’s formal name—promised employment and pensions to the economically devastated German people facing 33 percent unemployment.
The Nazi Party therefore had a strong voice in the government, but it did not have majority control. Nazis had three of the eleven seats on the Cabinet (Hitler plus two others). The proportional system worked to give a voice to the 37 percent of voters who marked ballots for Nazis, but it blocked them from taking majority power.
Under a winner-take-all electoral system like those in Canada and the United States, the Nazis could have won control of government outright. Again, the Nazis got more votes than any other party. But in Germany’s proportional system, because Hitler and the Nazis lacked majority support, they could not take control of Germany’s government.
Trump rose to power through democratic means
In contrast, the current American electoral system does not prevent a party from taking control without majority support. The antiquated Electoral College gave Trump the presidency although only a minority of American voters supported him. But it isn’t just the Electoral College—single-winner elections always distort election results, often giving a minority party more power. In the United States today, if the mainstream right-wing party won more votes than other parties as the Nazi Party did in 1932, it could win outright control of the government without having to burn down DC buildings and declare a state of emergency. Indeed, in several US elections the Democrats have won a majority of votes but the Republicans have nonetheless controlled Congress. The party with majority control of US Congress usually wins about 25 more seats than its popular vote share warrants.
BC parties often take control without majority support
Just look at recent elections in BC. In five of the past seven elections in BC, a party with less than a majority of votes took control of the BC government.
Winner-take-all gives extremists an opening
Here’s what you should be worried about: the winner-take-all electoral method that we use in the United States and Canada for our national and state or provincial elections. Unfortunately, the American and Canadian systems don’t guarantee that a party has majority support before it wins near-total control of the government. Once a party gets close enough to winning, it wins it all—100 percent of representation in one district, and often complete control of the legislative agenda. A party with that much power can run amok, without having to listen to other viewpoints. Our outdated single-winner systems don’t even guarantee the party in charge got more votes than the other party. Often they don’t.
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America and Canada’s winner-take-all electoral system works if you happen to like the side that has power. But it can also flip and give minority, sometimes even extreme, parties complete power.
In contrast, proportional representation guarantees majority rule while allowing for minority voices. It calibrates control, giving each party as much power as voters wanted them to have, with the result that they must work together to come up with final policy solutions that are nuanced and broadly acceptable. No party can seize power without support from a majority of voters or being part of a coalition with majority support.
BC’s referendum would keep out truly fringe parties by setting a minimum bar that a party would need to win at least five percent of the vote in the province and the region to win any seats. Parties with support from more than five percent would have a voice in parliament. But they would not be able to gain control without majority support. This moderated approach ensures that even a relatively popular party like the 1930s National Socialist German Workers’ Party can’t gain control of the country without majority support from voters. Proportional representation protects governments from getting taken over by a Hitler who does not have majority support.
Minority voters have a voice, but the majority rules. Although David Brooks was wrong about Hitler, he ends up being right about proportional representation. He correctly points out that proportional representation means that “people with minority views in their region have a greater chance to be represented in Congress. … There’s a reason voters in proportional representation countries are less disenchanted with politics than we are. Their systems work better.”
What you say is true as far as it goes, but, as is generally the case with apologists, it omits the moral against party proportional elections in general. They all only have a one-order of choice vote, like First Past the Post, which means they suffer from the same fatal deficiency of split voting. Party lists can suffer from split voting between parties, just as FPTP can suffer from split voting between party candidates in single member districts.
And what is the likelihood, that the party list system split the vote of an anti-Nazi majority of parties?
Well, you have to take this general consideration into account. A really nasty party may have a core of fanatical supporters but it is unlikely to have many friends elsewhere.
The best safeguard against the nasties is to have a many-order choice of candidates, so the best individual characters of more than one party can be equitably elected in order of popularity, for a democratic choice of coalition. This is what the BC Citizens Assembly recommended. And what the BC government has excluded from referendum three.
Peace-making Power-sharing; Scientific Method of Elections; Science is Ethics as Electics;
FAB STV: Four Averages Binomial Single Transferable Vote;
(editor) The Angels Weep: H. G. Wells on Electoral Reform;
(in French) Modele Scientifique du Proces Electoral.
Geoffrey Zhehao Li
Split votes would not necessarily result in an opposite coalition in most mature democracies with a list PR system. Let’s assume that under List PR, Conservatives won 125 seats, Liberals 108 seats, NDP 64 seats, Bloc Quebecois 38 seats, and Greens 3 seats. Who would lead the government? You may assume that Conservatives would, as they are the plurality, but actually Liberals would, as Liberals can form a Liberal-NDP-Greens coalition of 175 seats, but there’s only one centre-right party with seats in the Parliament in the example above. The reason why there cannot be a democratic coalition in Germany in 1932 was because the seat number of pro-Weimar Republic parties combined did not result in a majority of seats.
Geoffrey Zhehao Li
Correct: It should be “there couldn’t be” in the last sentence.
Proportional Representation with a base as low as 5 percent could easily lead to a fractured parliament with 6 – 8 parties represented and none achieving a majority of seats. This would require a coalition of minority parties to achieve a majority of seats to govern. The English-speaking world has little experience with such coalitions, and I would expect lengthy periods of dysfunction following such elections.
I believe we all need to be looking at restructure, not just in the area of fair voting systems, but much more, including an economic system that works for the people. The English speaking countries and the systems in place now are not working for the present century.
The description of Hitler’s winning control of Germany is inaccurate. He was appointed chancellor and, despite the minority status of the Nazi party, was able to browbeat parliament into passing an “enabling” act, giving him dictatorial power. It was certainly not a democratic process, but without proportional representation he would never have come to power. At least not in that fashion.
But Hitler’s aren’t really preventable by any form of voting. The real problem with proportional representation comes when a small minority holds the balance of power between broader based political coalitions. They can then impose their idiosyncratic views as a condition of joining in creating a ruling majority. In fact, that was at least one element in Hitler’s becoming Chancellor. Israel is perhaps a better example where small religious parties impose their beliefs on everyone, determining even who is really a Jew. .
As for Trump, he is hardly the first president elected without a majority. Remember George W. Bush? Bill Clinton? Richard Nixon? John Kennedy? Harry Truman? Of course only Bush and Trump failed to get a plurality. But in all those cases, the candidate who won had broad public support. It was not the leader of a party who got less than a third of the vote.
Of course this same problem exists with any partisan division in government. Partisan divisions create the opportunity for representatives elected by a small minority of voters to effectively hold power. I am always amused at people who vote for the “person not the party”, when the most important vote that representative will make is which party will hold power. After that vote, they are virtual slaves to the majority in their own caucus, bound to follow its dictates. The result in almost all cases is that a large majority of people voted for someone who has no influence over decisions.
If you want to make government more representative. Then you need to spread real power to multiple government bodies. You also need to engage the majority in self-government beyond voting. If peoples only lever on power is voting every two or four years, why would you expect outcomes that served their interests?
I’m disappointed that you felt the need to waste so many words striking a blow for your tribe against David Brooks. I believe his opinion piece was essentially arguing for the same reforms you are with the same hope that these voting reforms will protect our democracy from extremists (right or left).
With respect to the complicated sequence of events that led to the rise of Hitler, it looks like there is a new book dedicated to the subject… The Death of Democracy by Benjamin Carter Hett.
First Past the Post electoral systems lack Democracy’s one simple basic principle;
“50% plus one” burdens the “winner” the obligation and authority to make decisions.
Their use of the word “democracy” is but a euphemism, camouflage to lure to gather power over all voters. Serves Traditionalists nicely for generations.
Present effective, efficient low cost communication among the educated, FPtP’s biggest threat.
Proportional representation is literally the electoral system that elected Hitler.
Geoffrey Zhehao Li
Non-traditional protest parties would win seats under any system if people are frustrated enough towards the establishment parties.
PR was also enacted to secure a majority by Mussolini (literally the guy who invented fascism).
Geoffrey Zhehao Li
Mussolini intimidated others to vote him in 1924. Same with Poland in 1947. In a fair and square election with a sufficiently low threshold(like 2%, like in Israel in 2013), the results would generally be a fractured Parliament with a diverse coalition(for example, Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition in 2013 include a broad-right electoral bloc, a right-religious party, and 2 social-liberal parties).