National electorates in Canada and Great Britain expressed themselves clearly on one question: would you favor a little less stability for a little reform in how you elect your government? Both electorates said no. Left of center “reformers” have been told brutally what their right of center counterparts in America can learn for free. Effective government is the dominant concern today.
The British electorate was offered a modest alternative to the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system that Britain (and Canada) has employed since the emergence of disciplined political parties in the mid 19th century. The alternative vote (AV) proposal wasn’t very complicated; after making the effort to decide who you favored first, you could choose who you liked next on the ballot and, if you had opinions on every candidate, you could rank all of them. This wouldn’t discourage the lazy or advantage the zealots and would lead to a winner with the consent of at least 51% of the voters in each riding.
The downside was slight: modeling indicated a slight shift in seats away from the two dominant parties (Labour and Conservative) and a slight shift of seats in favor of the Liberal Democrats. Forming majority governments would be only slightly more difficult. It would, however, be easier to cast your first vote for an emergent protest party. You’d be able to have as good a say as others in choosing the ultimate winner; once your preferred marginal candidate was eliminated your second choice would be counted.
AV was rejected by 70% of those who voted in the referendum. The British didn’t say the status quo is perfectly fair. But, clearly, they weren’t prepared to make it any easier to fragment the electorate or any more difficult to elect strong majority governments.
Last Monday’s Canadian election is instructive as well. Every decade or so, Canadians change their minds on the merits of majority verses minority government. At this moment, they clearly moved away from the “responsiveness” of minority government, rejected the idea of coalition government, and embraced (or at least accepted) a return to majority government. Only in Quebec, whose plurality has been voting as a regional lobby for a generation, do the machinations of coalition/minority government have persistent appeal. Canada gave a five year, uninspiring, uncharismatic, dogged conservative incumbent the majority he campaigned for. Even in a two party system he could have won a tiny majority in English-speaking Canada.
Unless we’re told convincingly, and often, that the world isn’t changing and that Canada and the US are free to bicker rather than address big issues, North American politics will be heavily constrained by a growing popular desire for strong government.
In Canada, the center left will get nowhere selling proportional representation and coalition government to avoid an institutional merger of the Liberals and New Democrats. And in avoiding a merger—in eulogizing their so-called cultures and ancient ideological roots—they’ll undermine their primary task of convincing the public that they’re competent to govern.
In the United States, Republicans will soon have to find a new way to demonize Obama or quickly help him put the most divisive budget issues behind both of them. If they run again as the “official opposition” they could lose both the House of Representatives and the White House. If Obama could campaign today for a “working majority” like a British or a Canadian incumbent he’d likely easily win.