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10 An Economic or Spatial Theory of Democracy. An Economic Theory of Democracy. A spatial distribution of voter preferences was developed by Anthony Downs in An Economic Theory of Democracy [i]

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an economic theory of democracy
An Economic Theory of Democracy
  • A spatial distribution of voter preferences was developed by Anthony Downs in An Economic Theory of Democracy[i]
  • A half-century later, Downs’s theory remains the best way to discuss much of the why behind what we see in modern representative democracies

[i] Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. 1957. New York: Harper & Brothers.

an economic theory of democracy3
An Economic Theory of Democracy
  • The one difference between this figure and the earlier ones is that this one adds an indicator of the concentration of voters along the line stretching from the liberals on the left to the conservatives on the right
  • The height of the curve indicates the number of voters holding a particular ideological preference
  • The curve is lowest at the ends and highest in the center
  • This represents the fact that most voters are concentrated near the middle of the political spectrum; they are moderate
  • While it often seems the opposite, public opinion polls suggest that most people are in the middle
an economic theory of democracy4
An Economic Theory of Democracy
  • The figure assumes two things that may seem obvious:
    • People will vote for the candidate that is as ideologically similar to themselves as possible, and
    • Candidates wish to get enough votes to win the election.
  • Given these assumptions, the spatial approach can be used to make some interesting arguments regarding:
    • the likely ideological position of successful candidates
    • the most effective ideological position of political parties, and
    • the number of parties a democratic structure is likely to host depending on how its rules are structured.
winner take all
Winner-Take-All
  • Downs used his calculations to explain why the United States has, and will probably always have, a two-party system
  • Further, he argued that those two parties would always remain close to the nation’s ideological center
  • The United States uses a winner-take-all(no proportional representation), first-past-the-post (no run-off elections), single-member district system
  • In other words, each election has one winner, that winner is the sole representative of a given location, and winning is a simple matter of receiving the plurality (most) of the votes cast in the election
winner take all6
Winner-Take-All
  • One can now see how an extremist can manage to win an election when there are a large number of candidates
  • Although most of the voters are in the middle, there are three candidates competing over this area of the graph
  • By dividing the votes in the middle, it was possible for a representative of a more extreme position to win
  • Fewer voters overall were near Bruce, but he did not have to share those votes with any other candidate
winner take all7
Winner-Take-All
  • The number of people voting for each candidate equals all of voters who are closer to that candidate than to any other.
  • The height of the curve represents the concentration of voters; therefore, the area under the curve, bounded by the two lines, is the total number of candidate votes.
  • The candidates in the middle get a narrower slice, but the slice is taller.
  • The candidates at the extreme get a wider, but shorter slice.
winner take all8
Winner-Take-All
  • In most elections, candidates want to be in the middle.
  • If one picks any two of the five candidates and runs them against each other, and the one closest to the center will always win.
  • In a two-candidate election, the midpoint of the curve is critical.
  • The one vote in the exact center is called the median voter; his name is Karl.
  • Downs argued that this fight over the median voter (Karl) explains why the United States will always have two political parties that are very close to the political center (moderate).
winner take all9
Winner-Take-All
  • To win the general election in a two-party system, a party must run a candidate who can capture the median voter of the overall population.
  • But the parties represent different sides of the political spectrum.
  • In a two party system, the candidate exactly in the center of the overall population is on the edge of their party’s political spectrum.
  • The competition for the center yields fairly similar candidates.
  • However, there must be some difference between the candidates because within the candidates’ parties those who are at the middle of the overall population are extremists within their parties.
winner take all10
Winner-Take-All
  • The need to win the overall election drives parties’ to the overall center, while the need to win the primary drives candidates toward the party’s median vote.
  • The likely result is that there will be parties that claim ideological ground just to the right and left of center (locations 4 and 6).
  • Once these two parties are established, it almost impossible to add a third party.
  • New parties usually form to represent a dissatisfied portion of the population.
  • Most dissatisfied voters will be out at the extremes.
  • Rather than help dissatisfied voters get a representative that is ideological closer to their views, the new party does the opposite.
  • A new candidate representing a more extreme ideological position, e.g., at 8, guarantees the election of the moderate candidate farthest from the new candidate’s ideology.
  • The new candidate at 8 steals most conservative voters from the candidate at position 6, which hands a victory to the candidate at position 4.
winner take all11
Winner-Take-All
  • This scenario has happened several times during U.S. presidential elections
  • Whenever a third candidate captured a significant share of the vote, the candidate from the established party that was ideologically closest to the added candidate lost the election
  • To win an election in a winner-take-all single-member district system like the United States, the winning candidate must be able to achieve a plurality to win any election district
  • A political party that wins 15 percent of the vote across the country could win none of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives
  • To the degree that a new party has ideas that may appeal to the center, the centrist parties will quickly absorb those ideas
winners take their share
Winners Take Their Share
  • Given Downs’ work, how can there be so many countries with more than two political parties?
  • Not all democratic systems have rules like the United States
  • Modern democracies come in two basic flavors:
    • the single-member district systems used in the United States where one winner represents one location
    • the proportional representation systems that are common in many parliamentary democracies around the world
winners take their share13
Winners Take Their Share
  • The most common alternative to a winner-take-all system is a proportional representation system (PR).
  • Proportional systems focus on political parties instead of candidates
  • At election time, voters across the entire country cast their ballots for political parties, not candidates
  • The seats in the parliament are divided among the parties based upon the votes they receive
  • All parties that get more than a certain minimum percentage of the vote (e.g., get at least 5 percent) win seats
  • The number of representatives seated from each party’s list of candidates is based on the proportion of the vote the party receives, i.e., it is a proportional system
winners take their share14
Winners Take Their Share
  • If there are only two parties (A & B), both try to move toward the ideological center because people vote for the party closest to them on the ideological spectrum.
  • The strategy of capturing the middle moves the parties away from the people out on the extremes
  • Those people may want representatives that better reflect their preferences, and they will form a new party (i.e. the HGCP)
  • The HGCP party will capture all the votes from the midpoint between it and Party A and all the votes from the extreme left
  • The HGCP will win seats and win the right to vote in the legislature
  • If the HGCP wins enough seats to prevent either Party A or Party B from holding more than 50% of the legislature, it will have power far beyond its numbers as it can affect the race for prime minister
winners take their share15
Winners Take Their Share
  • Noticing the dramatic gain in the HGPC’s influence will likely lead to a new party on the right (BGBB).
  • Any dissatisfied group can offer its own party.
  • The only limiting factors are:
    • the percent needed to pass the qualifying threshold for at least one seat and
    • the strategic need to capture enough seats to either dominate or be a relevant party
  • This typically results in one or two large moderate parties and a large number of smaller parties that vie for relevance
  • The lower the qualifying threshold, the easier it is to get a seat and the greater the number of smaller parties
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