Moving Beyond Win/Lose, Polarized Politics

A review of The Punter’s Guide to Democracy: What it is, Sadly, and What it Could be, Gladly, by Peter Emerson

Valery Perry, DPC Senior Associate

Peter Emerson has been writing about and advocating for a new and fundamentally different approach to decision making for decades. His basic argument is that the 50% + one, “majority rules and the loser loses” approach to elections – and to decision making in general – not only fails to generate options that could help to solve problems as small as local community budget decisions, or as large as minority participation within a broader polity. The dominance of win/lose decision making procedures and mindsets is contributing to the erosion of the basic process of and trust in democracy, with dire consequences.

As with his previous books, The Punter’s Guide is informed by his life in Belfast and the politics of the Northern Ireland conflict, in addition to his preferred approach of seeing the world, including destinations far off the beaten path, by bicycling and by foot. This very grassroots sensibility certainly informs his people-centric view, as well as his bafflement that so little has structurally changed in terms of how decisions are made in spite of more talk about democracy and democratization than ever before.

In The Punter’s Guide, he gives a survey of voting and of decision making processes and systems, looking at both stable and consolidated democracies, as well as more contentious zones of conflict and often violent conflict. He looks beyond just “western” practices, to include experiences from Africa and Asia. (The fact that he has traveled widely in China talking about how decision-making is made, is an impressive feat in itself.) And while some readers may be intimidated by any signs or suggestions of math in a book about politics and society, he makes it easy to understand through explanation as well as his engaging style of writing.

Throughout his work he offers a different model for elections or other decision-making processes. This option includes three basic elements.

First, a mechanism for people to propose multiple various options or outcomes to be considered; second, a process by which voters note and rank one’s preferences from a final list  of these options (perhaps half a dozen), consolidated by an independent mechanism; and third, a method for tabulating individual preferences that goes beyond just their first choice.

The first step is inherently consultative, encouraging brainstorming and thinking outside the box. The second step seeks to encourage voter consideration of what their ultimate ideal preference may be, but in addition what they would also be willing to accept. The third step brings this together to identify the option that the most people would find acceptable.

Taken together, the system aims to replace the win-lose equation at the heart of polarized binary systems, with a more moderate process for the individual as well as the collective or polity in general. In other words, “I really want Bernie Sanders, but as a second choice I would be ok with Hillary Clinton.” Or, “I would really like my town to spend this money on a swimming pool, but I would also be happy with spending the money on a park.” Or, “I would really prefer that a mine in my community not be exploited for its resources, but if it is, then I want to ensure compulsory environmental regulations.” And so on.

It’s clear through his writing that he has heard countless times that any election or decision-making system that is perceived as different can be labeled as “too complicated,” making it easy to ignore or dismiss. And it is telling that this continues in spite of the ubiquity of apps and technology that now render this argument moot. (It’s possible to use the system just to test it, or to help in real-life decision making –

It’s also clear, that while gains in the adoption of ranked choice systems in places ranging from Ireland to many states in the US speak to a hunger for a better system, there is still a stubborn or simply lazy reliance on 50% +1/ first-past-the-post systems, or to proportional party representation systems that not only are often devoid of direct constituency links but promote tribal dynamics, and also principle-shattering coalition dealmaking. Such inertia is divorced from the reality of today’s global crisis of democracy, whether looking at so-called consolidated democracies, or at less-consolidated or conflict-affected states. The slide of politics into winner-take-all arenas of competition by their very nature force people onto teams or tribes, or leave them to drop out completely. The sorting of people into tribes then takes on a dynamic of its own, as the very notion of such a tribal identity and belonging can soon overshadow any talk of practical and real-life policy issues.  As someone who has spent a lot of time in the space of the former Yugoslavia, I always found it frustrating that the words for “policy” and “politics” in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian are the same; however, looking at political developments elsewhere, most notably in the United States, it’s evident that even having different words for the concepts does not protect them from becoming conflated.

After more than three decades of post-Cold War democratization and democracy support, it has been interesting to see just how effectively autocrats have learned to manipulate the process and meaning of elections for their own non-democratic and certainly illiberal means. The post-invasion referenda on the status of Donbas and Luhansk were just one high profile example; others abound. And yet there has been little similar meaningful learning on the side of those organizations claiming to support the values of liberal democratic governance.

While there have been technical innovations related to the process of casting and counting ballots, and while there has been appreciation of the fact that elections are more than the day-of balloting and counting processes, the large organizations that often stand at the forefront of election related activities (and related spending/procurement) remain reluctant to look at the link between systems that promote win/lose options and the emergence or continuation of political polarization and conflict.

As a longtime observer of postwar politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I continue to think that one of the single biggest missed opportunities by the international community in the country was in 2001, with their role in and seal of approval on an election law that did nothing to contribute to moderate politics, but instead entrenched and calcified the wartime political interests while providing a gloss of democratic legitimacy. (It should not be surprising that the election law in the country continues to be one of the ways in which entrenched elites are seeking to lock in their advantage without regard for whether or not citizens believe that the system is delivering results for accountability.)

While it is understandable why many politicians everywhere are seemingly permanently wedded to their old business as usual election systems, it’s more frustrating to see that there is not more innovation and creativity among organizations in democratizing the decision making process. Efforts in support of citizen participation in public and political life either seem to consist of one-off roundtables and events, or calls to participate in an election according to the unsatisfactory rules that exist; the quality of decision making processes and the constituent-representative relationship is ignored, cynically accepted with a shrug and the oft-stated adage, “turkeys don’t vote for Thanksgiving,” thereby letting politicians vested in the old system off the hook. They accept the metaphorical electoral straight jacket as a given, and then spend money to try to help people to figure out if they can wriggle their way out of it.

While the interesting experiments  in ranked choice voting provide some reasons for optimism,  democracy support agencies, international organizations and NGOs are lagging far behind in terms of their own use of and promotion of decision-making systems that promote real cooperation, consultation and moderation. A good first start would be to see these tools integrated into the programming and events of organizations ranging from the OSCE, the Council of Europe, USAID, countless UN agencies and others working in fragile and conflict affected states. The EU and also individual member state development agencies would do well  to recognize that money invested in broken systems will never yield the results intended. This can start in their own high profile conferences and events, but should also be integrated into project work and any decision-making that is required communities where they are working.

It will be argued that these bodies are only ever working in accordance with local law and practice. However, it was very often the same agencies that facilitated the integration of failure prone win/lose election systems into these very places. At a time when it seems to be increasingly clear that the democratic experiments of the past 30 years are at risk of rollback and decline, a back to basics approach to how people make decisions in their community and their country is necessary. Emerson’s long history of work on this issue remains evergreen, and the tools being freely offered online remove any excuses for why such new thinking is impossible.