How PR Can Decrease Polarization
The United States stands out among Western democracies for its extreme partisan political polarization. It has reached the level of “pernicious polarization,” by which I mean a division of society into two mutually distrustful political camps that harms democracy. In fact, among expert ratings of this kind of polarization, the United States is closer to younger and less wealthy democracies like Brazil and India than to countries like the UK and France. Importantly, Americans are not so divided on the issues themselves—there is broad support for middle-of-the-road compromises on even contentious moral issues like reproductive choice and gun safety. But the two major parties have each become more and more homogenous in their views, and elected officials have grown further apart and less willing to compromise.
In pernicious polarization, polarizing candidates and elected officials adopt an electoral strategy of painting the other side as an existential threat that must be vanquished, rather than a normal adversary who may win this time around or may serve as a constructive opponent. In presenting the other side as uniformly evil and threatening, polarizing candidates erase the option of later bipartisan compromise or consensus, because the voters now view compromise as “selling out” their own principles and interests, and even as traitorous to the nation. Surveys show that these messages get through, as Americans today who identify with either Republicans or Democrats distrust the opposing party and perceive it as an existential threat to an unusually high degree, making every election a high-stakes affair.
The United States is also exceptional among Western democracies in its electoral system—the way we elect members to the House of Representatives, the indirect election of the President through the Electoral College, and the powerful role of the Senate. Together, these institutional characteristics of our democracy grant a representational advantage to more rural and less populous states in choosing the President and members of the Senate. And because the United States is one of only three major Western democracies (and the only presidential system) that elect lawmakers through single-member districts (one representative per geographic district), every district presents a winner-take-all type of election.
Is there a relationship between a country’s electoral system and its degree of political polarization? Recent research comparing democracies around the world indicates that there is—majoritarian systems like single-member districts (SMD) tend to have higher “us-versus-them” polarization than more consensus systems like proportional representation, in which representatives are chosen based on the actual share of votes their party receives in a given district, each of which will have two or more seats to fill. This does not necessarily mean the electoral system causes polarization, and certainly the way we vote is not the sole cause; likewise, changing the electoral system alone will not guarantee a more harmonious state of political affairs. But changing it is likely to help for several reasons.