Wrestling with Democracy

Wrestling with DemocracyWrestling with Democracy is an ambitious, historical examination of the changes in voting systems across a large number of Western liberal democracies over the course of the twentieth century that argues that ‘most major voting system reforms in the twentieth-century west have been intimately linked to larger social struggles over the parameters of democracy itself, specifically just what any democratic state should do with its power (49).’ Unlike many political science studies of voting systems reform, this is not a book about numbers, graphs and dependent variables; rather, it is a book about ‘democratic struggle, what shape it will take, and who will benefit from its workings (53).’

Pilon’s book is situated within the comparative historical tradition, eschewing the ‘dominant positivist models’ that ‘assume causal laws of constant conjunction (21).’ Such static approaches fail to sufficiently account for the complexity of voting system reform because they fail to properly account for human agency. By trying to establish causal links from which they can derive generalizable ‘laws’ of political science, they subsequently downplay the politics involved in voting system reform. In contrast, Pilon’s approach brings together class analysis and critical institutionalism in a way that is meant to capture the ‘dialectical interplay of the institutional structures and social dynamics in western societies’ that ‘fuel the disputes’ that have sparked debate over voting system reform (26).

Pilon argues that attempts to implement voting system reform were part of larger struggles ‘to politicize economic and social cleavages’ by competing political forces within each specific country over the course of the twentieth century. In particular, movements towards voting system reform have ‘attended to the emergence of a working class cleavage, and its subsequent manifestation as a political cleavage in socialist and labour parties.’ As a result, Pilon’s book focuses attention on the ‘perceived threat left parties posed to the political system through their promotion of a distinct “democratic imaginary,” and how this influenced institutional reforms like a change in voting system (228).’

Democracy here does not merely mean ‘polyarchy’, or a procedural mechanism ensuring the peaceful competition of elites. Rather, democracy is justifiably presented by Pilon as a concept – or perhaps more accurately, a series of practices – contested by the forces of the left and the right. On the left, socialist, labour, and social democratic parties sought to advance a program of democratization that entailed not only the extension of the franchise to the working class, but also the institutionalization of social and economic rights. On the right, conservative and liberal parties sought to contain the left by conceding only what would not jeopardize the power, privileges and property of the elite. Rather than conceptualizing democracy merely as an institutional process that emphasizes the formal mechanisms of choosing government, Pilon brings the reader’s attention to the importance of understanding democracy as a ‘historical accomplishment’ that ‘focuses on discovering what democracy has been understood to be by different social actors, how the dominant social meaning of democracy may change over time, and what factors contribute to democracy remaining a site of political struggle (33).’ By understanding democracy in this way, Pilon avoids anachronistic readings of the history of voting system reform that explain the motivation for reform in light of the outcomes.

The bulk of the action takes place after WWI due to the growing concentration of the working class as a consequence of the mobilization efforts for ‘total war’, and the problems of demobilization regarding veterans returning from the front. As Pilon points out, the war had ‘altered the class composition of western countries and mobilized their populations’ to demand a ‘more expansive form of government, a kind of social democracy.’ In the context of an upsurge in working class militancy that witnessed a number of general strikes, workers’ council movements and general working class unrest in Italy, Germany, France, Canada and the US, the threat was real, and ruling elites made political concessions in return for the adoption of proportional voting systems that would prevent them as a minority being overwhelmed by working class voters. These PR systems would ultimately be judged in terms of their efficacy as a form of ‘“conservative insurance” against democracy (144).’ While elites in all western countries ‘conceded various labour and social policy reforms’ in the context of this upsurge in working class militancy, ‘their varying responses were conditioned by the strength of their opponents, their own past experience with mass elections and labour politics, and the particular historical sequence of events (153).’ Subsequently, as the threat of the left began to wane throughout the 1920s, so too did elite interest in voting system reform.

The next wave of struggles regarding voting system reform occurred during and immediately after WWII. A resurgent left, benefiting from its war time resistance to fascism (and the collaborationist tendencies of many forces on the right), drove the initial process of voting systems reform, making PR a ‘consensus position across the political spectrum (189)’. Fractious right-wing political parties accepted the implementation of PR in order to ensure their representation in the emerging post-war order. As such, ‘the struggle over voting system reforms in Italy, France, and Germany played out against distinctive backdrops involving the nature of political party resources and competition, nationally specific cleavage structures, and the unpredictable effects of previous political decisions.’ From the perspective of the forces on the right, the motivation for voting system reform was to ‘assure democracy remained safe for capitalism and free from left interference (188-9).’

During the neoliberal era, Pilon argues that voting system reform did not occur as a result of rising ‘post-material’ values de-aligning established party systems. Such explanations mistakenly presume the diminishing political significance of class cleavages rather than their political re-articulation. In contrast to this, Pilon argues that voting systems reform resulted from the efforts of left parties to ‘shift positions on the ideological spectrum’ in the context of the internationalizing pressures of neoliberal economic forces. Rather than signifying a decline in class based cleavages, these efforts ‘sparked a struggle over politicized cleavages’. As a result, in some cases, ‘the institutional reform terrain was taken up by popular forces to limit the movement of left parties, while in others left parties pushed the issue to marginalize former supporters or create space for their own political reinvention (198).’

Pilon’s book is essential reading for scholars of comparative politics as well as twentieth century political history. He deals adeptly with the twists and turns of the political history of the west with great skill and clear prose. Most importantly, however, this book puts the politics back into voting systems reform and puts the struggle back into the study of democracy.


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