By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
Different democracies strike different balances between individual and collective interests represented by a bi-party or multiparty system. They have different ways of determining what the collective interest is, and they stake out different positions on that continuum between efficiency and minority rights. How? Read on to find out.
Tyranny of the Majority
Some democracies opt for a more centralized approach, sacrificing minority protections for the sake of a more streamlined political process. But in practice, most include at least some protections against the tyranny of the majority; it’s just that the protections tend to be different from—and in many cases, less paralysis-inducing than—in the US system.
Take, for example, the multiparty parliamentary democracies that we see in most of the democratic world outside the United States, from Canada and Costa Rica to Germany and Japan. Most of these countries are led by prime ministers who oversee coalitions, and parliaments with multiple political parties—whether that’s five or six parties, like one sees in Germany or France, or the dozen or so that we see in Israel, Sweden, or the Netherlands.
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Understandably, multiparty democracy has its virtues.
First of all, it gives voters a lot more choice. With just two political parties, voters are constantly faced with the unpleasant task of picking the party they dislike less. Multiparty democracies, on the other hand, are like marketplaces with a wealth of options, and, therefore, a higher likelihood that we, the consumers, will find a party that represents our particular combination of interests.
For example, what do we do in the United States if we’re pro-choice and pro-gun? Or a pro-life tree-hugger? What if we want to see an increase in the minimum wage, but also a crackdown on illegal immigration? Right now, we’re stuck picking between two parties, neither of which satisfies our particular combination of values.
In a system with a dozen political parties, each scrounging for one or two seats that might push them into the ruling coalition, there’s more likely to be a political party representing each and every ideological niche. But notice how that can also be a curse.
Representing Radicals and Racists
Multiparty democracies might have political parties devoted exclusively to the interests of students, or tree-huggers, or pensioners, or people with disabilities. And that can be really empowering. But the problem is that they also do a better job of representing radicals and racists. After all, people like that also represent an ideological niche, and multiparty democracy has a tendency to represent them, too.
If the United States had a dozen political parties, one could easily envision something like a Black Lives Matter or a Me Too movement turning into a viable political party in its own right. But one could also get groups like the Proud Boys or Antifa or the Ku Klux Klan—not just as a fringe element out there in society, but as an unrestrained, independent political party, with a national stage for its extremism.
The problem with representing everyone is that we represent everyone.
So, representation is a bit of a double-edged sword. Just as we’ve seen regimes stagnate under US-style gridlock, we’ve also seen multiparty democracies torn apart by radicalism. Multiparty parliaments can remedy some of the worst dangers of the two-party presidential systems. But in practice, they sometimes replace conflict between the branches of government with infighting among the parties of the ruling coalition.
The Right Representatives?
Consider the radical movements and strongmen that have come to power in multiparty democracies not by force of arms but by winning elections.
That’s how the Nazis came to power in Germany, that’s how Viktor Orbán did it in Hungary, that’s how Recep Erdoğan did it in Turkey. And that’s also how neofascists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders have come within striking distance of national leadership in France (the country that arguably invented parliamentary democracy) and in the Netherlands (one of the oldest democracies in the world), respectively.
So, clearly, there’s no magic formula. There’s no one right answer.
Tension between Efficiency and Representation
Even in the world’s democracies, there’s a constant tension between efficiency and representation—a constant debate about how best to identify the collective interest, and how to reconcile that with the rights of minorities and individuals.
Of course, dictators aren’t held accountable in the same way that their democratic counterparts are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t face limits in terms of what they can do. Even authoritarian regimes have procedures—however opaque—and, more often than not, the outward trappings of accountability: a rubber-stamp parliament, packed courts, rigged elections, and so on.
Moreover, even though dictators aren’t accountable to an electorate, that doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want. Dictators are often checked and balanced by other powerful institutions in society, such as the military, the religious establishment, or the bureaucracy of a ruling political party. Sometimes a figurehead ruler is as much at the mercy of these institutions as a democratic leader is of the electorate.
Common Questions about World’s Democracies, Multiparty System, and Minority Rights
Some democracies opt for a centralized approach, sacrificing minority protections for the sake of a more streamlined political process. But in practice, most include at least some protections against the tyranny of the majority.
Multiparty parliaments sometimes replace conflict between the branches of government with infighting among the parties of the ruling coalition.
In the world’s democracies, there’s a constant tension between efficiency and representation—a constant debate about how best to identify the collective interest.