The Progressive Fix

Is the modern partisan majority dead?

Last weekend, Australia held a national election. And for the first time in 70 years, the land down under is now facing a hung parliament.

While Australia struggles to figure out how to govern itself, it’s worth reflecting on a larger trend: there is now a hung parliament in every major nation that is governed by a winner-take-all, “Westminster model” parliament (For those of you keeping score at home, that’s India, U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). And just about every other major industrial democracy relies on some version of proportional representation, resulting in multi-party governing coalitions of varying stability.

India obviously is an astoundingly heterogeneous country, so that makes sense. But it’s not immediately obvious why the four Anglo countries should be having such a difficult achieving political consensus these days. It’s enough to make one wonder: have we entered a new era of global politics in which it’s no longer possible for any party to win an electoral majority anymore?

Some quick background: The May U.K. election resulted in the first hung parliament in 36 years. Canada has experienced hung parliaments in every election since 2004, resulting in periods of minority government, though  prior to 2004, it had been 25 years since the voters couldn’t agree on a majority. New Zealand has had minority government since 1996, when the country introduced a mixed member proportional voting system.

And then of course, there is the good U.S. of A. (not a Westminster parliament, obviously, but also a winner-take-all system) where even though Democrats control both Congress and the Presidency, filibuster powers in the hands of an obstructionist minority sure makes it feel like a hung parliament.

But the big U.S. story this election is of course how the voters are growing increasingly sour on both parties, and no matter who winds up in control of the House and Senate come 2011, it’s not like any electoral majority is going to have anything close to a meaningful national mandate.  In the latest National Journal poll 28 percent of all respondents disapproved of both parties, and the number of Independents has been rising over the last six years to the point where the plurality of voters (36 percent) now choose to identify themselves as independents. And even if most independents tend to vote like partisans, the changing self-identification suggests they are less and less happy about it.

And while there are any number of possible explanations (Is it the hyper-adversarial nature of modern politics, stoked by the 24/7 media cycle, in which every trivial tiff is the new Waterloo? Is it something about the grim global economy, and the difficult reckonings that almost all nations are facing on some level?).  One wonders: have we entered a new era in which it is impossible for the majority of any modern nation to come together behind one banner? Is the modern partisan majority dead? And if so, what do we do about it?

Photo credit:  Marxchivist’s photo stream

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