How to Stop a Populist

One of the most effective bulwarks is having the right electoral system.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte with far-right politician Geert Wilders
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte with far-right politician Geert Wilders (Yves Herman / Reuters)

To the relief of most everyone (except his supporters), the far-right politician Geert Wilders lost in the Dutch elections. Or at least he didn’t win, which, by the world’s increasingly low standards for celebration, was seemingly good enough. Wilders’s Party for Freedom, which had made anti-Muslim bigotry its defining message, won around 13 percent of the seats, making it the second-largest party in parliament. The populists may be losing steam, but the bigger, and rather unsexy, lesson is that one of the most effective bulwarks against ethno-nationalists holding power is having the right kind of electoral system.

The fears of Wilders “winning” were somewhat overblown. Even if his party had come in first, it would have been almost impossible to form a coalition government, considering the level of party fragmentation. In a 150-seat parliament, a simple majority of 76 is required to form a government. A first-place finish of, say, 35 seats would have still been more than 40 seats short. The mainstream parties would have almost certainly imposed a cordon sanitaire on the Party for Freedom. As the Dutch analyst Anno Bunnik wrote in frustration over the fixation on Wilders: “In a system in which several parties must form a coalition government such a size of the pie is useless if no one wants to work with you.” In other words, in a parliamentary system, it is possible to win without winning.

To be sure, if Wilders had come in first, he would have happily claimed vindication for his openly racist message (In case there was any confusion on the matter, he included “no more Islam” as one of his new year’s resolutions for 2017.) He could have said, with good reason, that a plurality of voters were turning his way. He would have boosted the fortunes of right-wing populists throughout Europe, including in the upcoming French elections, where Islam and Muslims are, again, an issue to be debated and a “problem” to be resolved. But he wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have been prime minister.

In a two-party presidential system, as we have learned, an illiberal populist can win outright, assuming a certain level of charisma, and assuming a weak opponent—always a possibility with the Democratic Party’s vapid techno-liberalism. Ideally, in the American system, both parties have to move to the center, but this presumes that the center is strong enough to hold.

Presidentialism can work fine when there is basic consensus over what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a nation. But the United States no longer enjoys such a consensus. The country is now polarized along cultural, ethnic, and ideological lines. There are, quite literally and not just figuratively, two Americas. In Europe, these competing communities used to be known as “spiritual families,” which were largely self-contained, living, working, and worshipping separately. In order to survive, then, Europe had little choice but to avoid zero-sum politics. The American electoral system, on the other hand, is the very epitome of winner-takes-all, not just on the national level but locally as well, where a candidate for congress who wins “only” 49 percent can end up with 0 percent representation (a 49 percent proportionality gap).

There is also the question of what to do in the event of buyer’s remorse. Where prime ministers are subject to no-confidence votes, as in the Netherlands, presidents are generally difficult to impeach. Despite their claims to the contrary, presidents invariably represent one party—their own. And with high levels of polarization, it becomes almost impossible to imagine a party willingly turning against its own president. As it turns out, it is also nearly impossible to imagine the U.S. moving from majoritarian to consensual democracy, since whoever happens to be in the majority at any given moment usually ends up liking it quite a lot.