The Gist: Why so many 50:50 results?

Why have so many political results ended up as nearly 50:50 splits in recent years?

The Gist: Why so many 50:50 results?

The US elections have safely passed, with a less-pronounced shift in the direction of authoritarianism than expected. This has been hailed as a victory of sorts for the proponents of the current very very poor US democratic system.

How effective Democrats in the US Senate can be may come down to a single seat repeated race in Georgia (again) after the candidates received 49.4% to 48.55% of the vote. (A libertarian candidate got 2.1%, because there’s always one.)

In Brazil, the non-fascist candidate squeaked in ahead of his repugnant opponent 50.9% to 49.1%.

And, of course we can look back a few years at the Brexit referendum with its chaos-unleashing 52% to 48% outcome.

What all these places and elections have in common is a political system that presents choices as a binary- Yes/No, Leave/Remain, Moral Homunculus Fascist/ A.N. Other.

Ireland doesn’t have that sort of binary choice for its electoral system. In 1920 Britain faced a huge surge of support for Sinn Féin- created when the British wrongly asserted the party had been behind the 1916 rising.

They switched Ireland’s electoral system from the First Past The Post system to Proportional Representation, Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) so that SF wouldn’t win every seat contested. Doing so, they probably accidentally ensured the long term viability of post-independence Ireland.

That PR-STV voting system has endured, through two constitutions and two more referendum efforts to change the constitution to go back to First Past The Post.

Ireland loves the plurality of PR (it also loves the greatest game in the world, The Count).

Media in FPTP nations regularly present coalition governments, or multi-party systems in general, as inherently weak or unstable.

Look at the weird emphasis there on rapidly declaring a winner too.

I think this is probably because people unconsciously absorb the norms they grew up and live in as universal, and so see differences as deviations from that norm, not as potentially better alternatives. There is an excellent and enjoyable US audio documentary from Radiolab which tries to explain the workings of an Irish election (as an example of PR at work) for a US audience. It is striking for an Irish listener just how exotic the idea of not just installing the candidate who does best on the first count is treated.

Ireland is a post-colonial nation, and its electoral system was originally a decision of the Imperial power imposed on its colony.

But Imperialism is built on hard binaries. UK, France, US, Russia. None of the 19th/ 20th C Imperial powers use PR.* Binaries are the water empires swim through, invisible to them, because they are everywhere.

(*Well, Germany has a form of PR, but it was imposed after Nazi Germany was destroyed and occupied by the other empires)

It is an exercise left to the reader to recognise their own best example of the susceptibility of Imperial nations to appeals to, and insistences on, either/or binaries throughout society.

But why are so many binary states hovering around 50:50?

This is a real question- and not one that I think we have a clear answer for. Binary choices deliver Yes/No results. But they don’t ensure that the Yes/No would be evenly split.

Imperial, binary, thinking is alien to the long term stability of a polity. Empires fall, not evolve, because they are hard but brittle.

One answer might be voter mobilisation. Faced with truly terrible consequences if the other side wins, you can mobilise more people to vote.

But then, why so evenly mobilised?

Individual binary systems will have particular institutional tilts towards one side or the other (via gerrymandering, media environment etc). The division of voters may not be 50:50 at all, but the system might be rigged to favour one side or the other.

But I tentitively suggest that binary political systems all tend towards an equilibrium of near 50:50 in the division of power over time, to allow for periodic changes of government.

Once people have self-sorted, a binary identity becomes internalised as one of their personal traits. Think about the long tail of voters identifying as Leavers/Remainers in post-Brexit Britain, despite it being a one-off referendum split.

But this creates significant social and political tensions- if almost everyone has chosen a side in a binary society, and each side is calcified at nearly 50% (to allow for some amount of change of government) then you have, in effect, two standing armies running like a fault line through the country, fighting on ever decreasing ground for those who can be persuaded to switch, or to care enough to vote.

Imperial, binary, thinking is alien to the long term stability of a polity. Empires fall, not evolve, because they are hard but brittle.

Allowing for a range of views defuses societal tension and improves (though on it own, can’t assure) long-term political stability.

The weaknesses that Imperial states see in proportional representation, or multiparty coalition parliamentary models are actually their strengths.

And, as we struggle to make global and difficult decisions in the face of a climate emergency,  it is becoming clearer just how weak clinging to that Imperial binary model is.

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