Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Collapse of Duverger's Law? Not so fast...

I read with interest Professor Patrick Dunleavy's piece on the rise of multipartyism in the United Kingdom. You can read it here. Dunleavy notes that declining support for the Conservative and Labour parties over the past three decades, and the surge in support for minor parties during the same period, is sounding the death knell for Duverger's Law--a "law" that I tell students about in my Introduction in American Politics class to help them understand the lack of third party success in the US election system.

Duverger's Law, in short, says that election systems dictate the amount of party competition in a state. In systems utilizing a winner-take-all, plurality system of elections with single-member, geographic constituencies, two parties are able to dominate the electoral system, squeezing out third parties.

In giving examples of Duverger's Law, I have often pointed as well to the United Kingdom's system of representation in Parliament, which also features winner-take-all, plurality elections with single member districts. But, as Dunleavy rightly notes, the rise of the Liberal Democrats over the past two decades and the more recent successes of national parties in Wales and Scotland suggest that Duverger's Law may explain very little. Maybe electoral systems don't really matter in determining the competitiveness of a party system.

I remain skeptical of Dunleavy's argument that the demise of Labour in Scotland and the rise of UKIP in England and Wales heralds an end to Duverger's Law. I'm also skeptical of his explanation of why the United States continues to have a system dominated by two parties, which hinges on our big money elections, partisan redistricting, and the fact that we don't use alternative vote systems.

I hesitate to tackle Dunleavy on the UK system, as I'm no expert. That said, let me suggest two other factors for the decline of two party support in the UK that do not imperil Duverger's Law. The first is the fact that, with the arrival of devolution and the UK's membership in the European Union, the English, Scots, and the Welsh increasingly find themselves voting in elections without winner-take-all, single member elections. This allows citizens to experience tactical voting and to vote for third, fourth, or fifth parties without "wasting" their votes. It is inevitable that this experience would eventually allow citizens to develop stronger connections to alternative parties, and that these allegiances would be transferred up ballot. In the US, alternative voting systems are rare, in part, because the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down such systems because of 14th amendment "one man, one vote" concerns and the fact that these alternative voting systems have been used on a discriminatory basis to undercut the voting power of minority voters.

Second, it is very possible that rather than spell the end of two party dominance, the electoral system is undergoing reordering in national elections. In the United States, the dominance of the main parties has not always been a foregone conclusion. Third parties are more successful electorally when the main parties seem to be ignoring a cleavage issue--think slavery in the1850s or agrarian populism in the 1880s and 1890s. The first case, the cleavage shattered the Whig Party, which was displaced by the Republican Party--a third party. In the second case, the Democratic Party absorbed much of the prairie populism and progressive reformers. Looking at the 1870s through the 1890s, and third parties were quite successful in winning congressional seats and even some votes in the Electoral College.

It is quite possible, and indeed probable, that the United Kingdom is going through such a period, after which, two party support will rise again. Perhaps with one or two new main parties displacing Labour and the Tories. Fact is the two issues both parties are struggling to cope with are the rise of nationalism in Scotland (and to a lesser degree, in Wales) and immigration. In part, the two party system is under stress both due to a cleavage issue (immigration) and regional issue (nationalism), which might be exactly why there is so much flux in the party system at the moment. Once these forces resolve themselves, it is very possible minor parties will again become crowded out of Westminster elections.

Finally, a brief comment on why Duverger's Law continues to apply to the American system. As much as European believe that money explains everything that's different (or wrong) with politics in the United States, if that were the answer, then millionaires like Ross Perot could simply buy a third party organization and displace the other parties. We saw how that turned out.

I think a combination of factors make third party challenges difficult in the US. Duverger's Law is part of the story--we simply don't have alternative voting systems in most elections that allow third parties to compete with any great success. Add to the mix how the two main parties have made it nearly impossible for third parties to access the ballot, and one quickly realizes that the rules of the game perpetuate the dominance of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Finally, primaries--not a feature of politics in the United Kingdom--allow for grassroots forces and political issues that might be ignored by political elites to create an intra-party insurgence that in the UK might best be explored and initiated outside the main parties. One begins to see more support for Duverger's initial proposition after all. The rules of the game structure choice, and that's why--at the end of the day--all the love for alternative parties in the 2015 General Election may fade once the two main parties adjust to the new issues and political realities.

Which, frankly, would be nice because then I wouldn't have to change all my lecture notes....

Friday, April 24, 2015

A New Teaching Adventure: Montana State, British Politics, and the 2015 General Election.

On May 18th, I'm leading 17 Montana State University students on a journey abroad to study the political system in the United Kingdom. I have always been fascinated with Great Britain and its politics, and have always read with interest various features about the UK that come up in my daily scan of the news. Back in 2010, I spent in afternoon in my office getting sucked into the BBC's live stream covering the results of the general election, which led surprisingly to a hung parliament and an unusual coalition government consisting of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. As the coalition government proceeded to implement a program of austerity and attempted some constitutional changes (notably the Fixed Term Parliament Act), I found myself paying more and more attention to the happenings in London and Westminster.

But, truth be told, it was the Scottish campaign for independence that completely grabbed my attention and scholarly interest. As I read newspaper accounts and followed the debates between Alexander Salmond and Alistair Darling, I couldn't help but think about similar debates concerning power sharing in our own federal system here in the United States. And, with the successful introduction of devolution in the late 1990s in Scotland and Wales--combined with the erosion of voter support for the two dominant parties--I began to wonder whether the British political system was no longer so different from the American system I studied. At the very least, the changes within the United Kingdom provided an excellent way for me--and my students--to learn about our American system of government by comparing and contrasting it to another system sharing similar features (geographic based constituencies, plurality-winner-take-all elections, and the growth of the power of the executives). And, like many academics, I got into this business because I have an intrinsic curiosity and desire to learn--so the ongoing transformation in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast alone simply spurred my desire to know and to expand my horizons.

Teaching is close to its best, I think, when the teacher can share a passion for learning with his or her students. It is at its best when the students and the teacher can learn together. I decided to try something new to the political science department here at Montana State: I would put together a study abroad class. Students would learn about the British political system through online lectures and films. We would meet every few weeks throughout the semester to discuss what we've learned, and then we would travel to the UK where we would, by engaging with English, Scottish, and Irish parliamentarians (and the British people), learn about the British political system. And, along the way, we'd learn a ton about Scottish, Irish, English, and British culture as we experienced its history, food, and people.

What I'm most excited about is the fact that we arrive in the UK two and a half weeks after the General Election, which concludes on May 7th (and yes, I'll be streaming the Beeb). Again, it looks as if the voters will return a hung parliament and it is very likely that either a coalition will have to be formed or the conservatives will be forced to form an (inherently) unstable minority government. Perhaps most interesting is the near-collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland and the fact that the Scottish Nationalist Party--a party committed to Scottish independence--will be key to determining what governing arrangements will be made in the days after the votes are counted. We arrive in the thick of interesting political times, and we expect the atmosphere to be electric.

I was raised in a family that learned by traveling (thanks Mom and Dad!). It is because of our travel that I fell in love with the American West. There is no better way to learn than by getting out of your comfort zone and diving into a place and its surroundings. Some of my students have never been out of the United States, a few haven't been on an airplane. I'm exciting to be their tour guide to another country and culture--to navigate a different currency, a different language (sort of!), and a different way of living (in an urban environment using public transportation and our feet).

On this blog, I'm going to document the experiences we have leading up to our trip, share what we learn while we are in the United Kingdom, and (I hope) to continue a conversation about British politics and how its lessons can help us not only understand the United Kingdom, but engender a greater understanding of ourselves. I'm excited to take this first step into the world of learning through travel, and I feel privileged to share it with some wonderful students from Montana and the West.