How liberals ended PR in the US

Proportional representation is a mostly left-wing cause in the US. Some see it as a path to bigger Democratic House delegations. Others see it as a way out of the Democratic Party, period. Much liberal-wing anger centers on the party’s ties to Wall Street. If we had PR, the story goes, the liberal wing would seat its own party. If not, it might at least scare the Clinton wing into moving left. And the affinity between PR and left politics might draw on a myth, neatly summarized below:

Proportional representation systems were tried earlier in the past century and then discarded precisely because they favored minority representation (racial and left wing/socialist) too much.

I’ve found evidence that the most liberal Democrats were actually PR’s worst enemies. Yes, racially and economically liberal. I’m talking about the AFL and/or CIO and Young Democrats. At roughly the same time they were pulling the Democratic Party leftward, they were working to repeal PR in at least three of the cities that had it.

Let’s begin with New York City and Cincinnati, since the PR eulogy rests heavily on these cases.

In New York, all signs suggest repeal was about kicking the left off City Council. The CIO did take PR’s side there in 1947, but the Young Democrats opposed it.

What about Cincinnati? It’s said that repeal in 1957 was a reaction to desegregation, simultaneous events in Little Rock, and the success of a local black politician under PR. The other big argument cites Democrats’ bolt from a three-decade coalition deal. Much of what we know about American politics implies these ought to have been (racially) conservative Democrats. And we’d expect the CIO and Young Democrats to have opposed them. Not so, and not so.

I argue here that the CIO-affiliated Steel Workers were critical to repealing PR in 1957. Upshot: they gave the GOP a comfortable margin in favor of repeal. Stranger still, their leader was city council’s main advocate for desegregation and collective bargaining. He and the successful black politician were on the same side of every major policy initiative except one: a flat municipal income tax. That tax could not have been a point of policy agreement. While the CIO opposed it, their GOP partners in repeal did not.

What about the Cincinnati YDs? Although their role in 1957 remains unclear, it looks like they caused the 1954 attempt to repeal PR. As with 1957, this involved a deal with disciplined, conservative Republicans.

We find the same basic pattern in Worcester, Massachusetts. Consider this slice of history, from December 1959:

Worcester AFL-CIO supports repeal of PR.

Archival sources show the Worcester YDs mobilizing against PR in 1955. This involved rapprochement with the former Democratic “machine.” YDs also tried to get control of the CEA nominating process. Finally, they tried to get the CEA to pull PR from its platform. CEA was the coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats that benefitted from PR in Worcester.

Make of this role what you will. It looks short-sighted in retrospect. It’s clearly ironic. The very people you’d expect to clamor for PR today — idealistic activists and militant labor organizers — are largely why the working PR examples are gone.

The obvious question concerns motive. Maybe they saw Democrats on the demographic upswing and, in that, a chance to flush Republicans from city government for good. That only explains Cincinnati, however, if the Republicans were ignoring trends that the YDs and/or unions were not.

Anti-communism is another big possibility. One problem is that Communists (or anything plausibly resembling them) only gained from PR in New York City and its suburbs. Independent left-wing parties were a non-issue by the time Cincinnati and Worcester got around to repealing PR. Worcester, in fact, never had anything resembling an independent left-wing party.

What about action by African-Americans outside the normal channels of two-party politics? One common story is about black Cincinnati council members regularly crossing parties. Although it’s not in the version of the paper above, ideal point estimates have these men in opposite corners of a two-dimensional policy space. The other controversial figure was Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who won the 1944 Congressional primaries of both parties (plus ALP). Yet Powell was very reliably a Democrat when he got to Congress. What about the intraparty dimension, you say? True, conservative Democrats would have wanted to prevent more Powells. Yet the impetus for repeal came from liberal Democrats.

Clearly there’s work to do.

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