Painful Truth: Politics is a series of calculated failure-states

This week: why all electoral politics is flawed, and why that’s kind of okay.

Why are we upset with election results?

First, usually, because our favoured team – sorry, political party – lost.

The way we express our disappointment is kind of weird. We don’t want to just whine that we lost and the other guys won. So we usually start criticizing the process.

This is when I always want to start arguing with people, and scribbling on napkins, and is probably why I don’t get invited to more parties.

So now I’m going to inflict my election-nerdiness on you. Strap in.

(Or, y’know, click over to something else. There’s some good stories in the Community section!)

There is no such thing as a perfect democracy.

But we’ve never tried to build one. Ever. We’ve only tried to build ones that were broken in ways that seem more-or-less functional, usually to the rich upper class white guys who were building them in the first place.

One of the primary criticisms of our current first past the post (FPP) system is that it allows people to win a majority of seats with a plurality of votes.

For years, Liberals and NDPers carped that Harper hadn’t won a majority of votes! He was ruling with about 38 or 39 per cent of the popular vote!

Then Justin Trudeau won a majority with about 39 per cent of the popular vote, and boy howdy, did the federal Liberal supporters button their lips quick!

The FPP system was designed, over time, to keep small parties out of politics. It’s a system that generally returns majority governments which get a plurality (i.e. less than half) of the votes.

Why is this good? Well, it’s fairly stable. A government with a majority can pass legislation based on its election promises (more or less) and make plans for the medium to long term. A minority coalition is going to have to compromise or dilute its promises and risks constant infighting and more frequent elections.

You also tend to get “big tent” parties like the Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives, which all tend to hew towards the middle, more or less.

Other systems have other virtues. Proportional representation means many more parties can take part. They can be more ideologically pure, without worrying about pleasing a vast voter base to win any seats. You can have parties animated by purely regional interests, too. Which is why some European governments have two or three members of the Left Handed Southwestern Folk Yodellers (Marxist-Leninist) in their coalitions.

The advantages? Well, the people get to choose a party that best represents them, rather than the least-bad of three or four options. Almost every vote counts, too, rather than seeing millions of them wasted on no-hopers, as we do in Canada.

It also forces compromise. Coalition governments mean multiple parties that must talk through their differences and find common ground. A major party that can’t compromise will be thrown back to the electorate for judgment.

That’s just the two most common electoral systems.

Each has flaws. But in some cases, the bug is a feature.

For example, how would you design a perfect democracy?

You might start by creating a society in which every citizen got to vote on every law. (This is now technologically possible – it wasn’t when Canada was being formed through Confederation.)

You’d get government by a series of referenda. We can do it over the internet, no problem!

But even here, we start to see the need for practical compromise. How do we create a national budget, for example?

Do we create a budget jury – randomly selecting 100 citizens to put together a budget for a vote? Or do we elect a group to do it? Or do we hire educated experts?

You’d have to design a constitution that accommodated this.

Beyond that, how do we ammend the constitution? What checks and balances are needed to protect citizens’ rights from a democracy with no leaders? Is mass advertising to be allowed to sway public opinion?

When we say that it’s wrong for a party that won 39 per cent of the vote forms the government, there is something very true in that. But it would also be true to say that it’s wrong to 49 per cent of the people if a government wins 51 per cent of the vote.

Our democratic institutions are often flawed. And I have no objection to changing them! But any change is going to mean a new set of compromises and failure-states. The goal is to minimize them, not to eliminate them.

Because getting failure out of politics is impossible.