Carrot-and-stick voting and political populism  

Richard Parncutt 
8 April 2014, revised 20 August 2014

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012

Far-right populism seems to be on the rise in the EU. Many are asking why. Are the far-right voters so disaffected that they would vote for blatant xenophobia and racism? Are they so frustrated that they would risk a slide toward fascism?

The support for the far right is part of a broader phenomenon. People are increasingly getting the feeling that democracy is not working. For that reason, many are not voting at all (more). Perhaps the main problem is that democracy is being gradually undermined by the rising wealth gap and rising income inequality (more). The increasingly skewed wealth distribution pushing up unemployment and pushing down wages relative to average incomes.

But there is another fundamental problem in our democratic system. It is about the way votes are counted. The far right may not be as popular as they seem. Instead, our voting system may be exaggerating their popularity. That is because the system is fundamentally unbalanced. At elections, we are asked only to vote FOR political parties. We are never asked to vote AGAINST parties. Most people have well-founded opinions on both these questions. But only one of those questions is asked.

There are many different voting systems: simple majority, first past the post, preferential systems, proportional representation, open and closed lists, single-winner and multiple-winner methods. As always, you can read about them in Wikipedia.

Now, imagine being presented with this in a ballot box:

THE YES VOTE: Which of these parties would you like MOST to see in power? Please mark ONE of the following parties with a cross (x):
Far left Centre Left  Green  Liberal  Centre Right  Far right

THE NO VOTE: Which of these parties would you like LEAST to see in power? Please mark ONE of the following parties with a cross (x):
Far left Centre Left  Green  Liberal  Centre Right  Far right

Note: Only ballots with one cross in the top line and one cross in the bottom line are valid!

After these votes were counted, every party would get a certain number of yes-votes and a certain number of no-votes. One would then subtract the no-votes from the yes-votes to get the final result. If for example the centre-right party got 1000 yes-votes and 900 no-votes, the result for that party would be +100. The positive sign would mean success: a certain number of people in that party would be "voted in", the number being proportional to the result. If the sign was negative, that party would be unsuccessful.

We got this idea from "systemic consensus", a proposal in which each option is rated on a scale, e.g. from 0 to 10. This allows people to express either support or opposition to each option - in this case, to each party or politician. For the purpose of an election, a rating scale may be too complicated - the chance of voters misunderstanding is high, and the counting process would be more complicated. The idea that we are promoting is a bit like rating each option on a 2-point scale: like or don't like. By the way, "systemic consensus" comes from Graz, Austria, and so do we. In case you haven't heard of Graz, it is the centre of the universe! Well, that is a little joke, but we are rather serious about the positive implications of this idea for multi-party electoral systems, and would welcome comments and suggestions.

Most of us think our electoral system is fundamentally fair, because it treats everyone equally. We conclude that there is not much one can do about the far right, except to complain regularly and loudly, and hope that every time they manage to get into government they will soon be out again when the voters realise that they are either morally problematic or fundamentally incompetent.

Think again. The usual voting system is imbalanced. It only allows people to SUPPORT parties - not to REJECT them. If political parties perform badly, all you can do in the current system is to vote for another party or not vote at all. You cannot DIRECTLY punish politicians and parties for their poor performance or corruption in the ballot box. Voting for another party does not send a clear message, because there are several parties. Not voting sends no constructive message at all. To get a clear picture of what the general public really wants, they should be asked two questions, which options they LIKE and which they DISLIKE.

If that happened, the far right would become weaker. That is because most people who do NOT vote far right are generally more opposed to the far right than to any other party. This is a fundamental asymmetry. Of all the people who do NOT vote centre left, a lot would list the centre left as their second-favorite party. The same applies to the centre right, the greens, or the liberals. But it does not apply to the far right. Of all the people who do NOT vote far right, very few would list the far right as their second-favorite party. Instead, most would list the far right as the worst choice of all. They would say that the far right is the one party that we should keep out of government at all costs.
The system that we are proposing would allow voters to punish the far right for their unique combination of institutionalised discrimination against minorities and "foreigners", corruption, incompetence, and populism. Of course voters could also punish any other party in the same way, if there was a good reason to punish them - and there often is.

The "carrot and stick" principle is already applied in many areas, even if it is not explicitly named. If you want your horse to perform well, you can either hit it or give it a carrot. Usually you get the best performance by combining the two. School children perform best if they get a balanced combination of praise and criticism. Praise alone may not work, because children who are only praised never learn what they did wrong, so they cannot correct their mistakes. Criticism alone is demotivating, and children never learn to recognize and build on their strengths. What you need is a balanced contribution of praise and constructive criticism. Political parties in a democratic system should be treated similarly. Voters should have the opportunity to both praise and punish politicians. Punishment is particularly important when there is populism, dishonesty, discrimination, corruption or incompetence. When things like this happen, and they unfortunately happen frequently, politicians must be subject to democratic controls.

The financial crisis following 2007-2008 has made this question increasingly urgent. Economic belt-tightening ("austerity") became necessary because the rich managed to extract enormous amounts of money from the global economic system at the expense of the general public. This is basically what caused the crisis.
Some politicians clearly benefited from this trend, but in subsequent elections voters were unable to directly punish them.

The Austrian federal election in 2013 was a good example. In the months preceding the election, every major party except the Greens was plagued by scandal. Major cases of corruption had been discovered in the ranks of the centre left, the centre right, and the far right, and reported in the media. Most voters admired the Greens for their honesty and integrity, but surprisingly few voted for them. For many, the Greens were evidently their second-favorite party. The result was a swing away from the centre parties and a big increase in support for the far right. If the election had been conducted according to the "carrot-and-stick" principle, most people would have voted AGAINST the far right or of one of the two centrist parties - regardless of whom they voted FOR. That would have benefited the Greens, who according to opinion polls were especially popular due to their "white shirt" - their failure to get involved in major scandals.
The Greens would have taken 3rd rather than 4th place - just after the centre left and centre right. They would have been available for participation in a governing coalition.

Our current system is a yes-vote system. It is based purely on carrots. Such systems encourage populism. Populists are mainly concerned about the number of people who support them; they don't particularly care what non-supporters think about them.
Populist politicians do and say things that are evidently bad for the country and its people, while at the same time pretending to be the greatest nationalists. They try to fool a large minority people into supporting them with arguments that are false or deeply problematic. The majority of voters may realise that, but they can't do very much about it, because at the election they cannot directly vote against the far right. They can only vote for another party. In the current system, populism cannot be directly punished. If voters could also vote against  populists, that would be the end of their victory run. A carrot-and-stick election would give voters that option.

Why am I writing this proposal? I belong to a large minority of well-educated people in industrial countries who critically read good newspapers, have a good idea of how politics works, have studied the history of political systems especially during the 20th century, and genuinely care about less fortunate people and future generations. For this reason, I am one of many people who are very worried about far-right populism. In the past, we have felt powerless to prevent the far right from participating in government or disturbing the social peace. In the present proposal, I believe that I have found a promising solution. I would welcome feedback including any references to relevant literature.

Acknowledgment. I am grateful to Bernd Brabec for giving me this idea and for interesting discussions.

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