Extremism and Proportional Representation


Jeffrey Goldberg is among those who think Israel’s problems can be lain at the feet of its proportional representation system:

The Arab world doesn’t have enough democracy; Israel has too much. Israel’s is an insane system, which gives every lunatic fringe party disproportionate say in the running of the country, and therefore encourages radicalism. Lieberman is incorrigible, but if he had to exist within the framework of a center-right party, he’d be marginally less offensive.

First, it needs to be said that Israel’s system, whether you like it or not, is hardly an “insane” outlier. Most small democracies use very similar systems and Israel is a small democracy.

Second, as regard Lieberman I think this is totally wrong. If he had to exist within the framework of a center-right party in an American-style system, he and his followers would be the “base” of his party. He wouldn’t be a viable national leader, but he could still, à la Mike Pence, be an influential force. But more to the point, the larger center-right party would be anchored to the base’s views. Under the current Israeli system, there’s no procedural rule forcing Netanyahu to govern in coalition with Lieberman. The current electoral results are consistent with a center-right coalition grounded in a Likud-Kadima partnership. By contrast, in the U.S. system only coalitions that start at the extreme and work inwards are viable on anything other than a spot basis. And one consequence of this is that centrist dealmaking tends, à la Nelson-Collins, to devolve into inane horse-trading rather than a genuine effort to develop a synthesis of ideas.