Political Polarization: What the U.S. Can Learn From Latin America

Carlos Pereira and Carlos Aramayo

In the past few months, talk about the inability of Republicans and Democrats to achieve any sort of compromise in the legislative process has heightened. Pundits have many explanations for the political polarization in the United States — the latest being the extreme political rhetoric coming from the far left and far right. However, the notion that U.S. political polarization is a pure result of the unwillingness of American politicians to compromise is naïve.

Many analysts cite historical events – such as Roe vs. Wade and the civil rights movement – and their impacts on party distribution and societal ideological homogeneity as the sources of political polarization in the United States. Others have suggested that the mid-20th century’s ideological overlap that existed between conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans was a short-lived anomaly produced by other historical events, such as World War II and the Cold War.

However, these approaches do not address the implicit cost that is created by the institutional arrangements and electoral rules of the U.S. political system. In fact, many of the deep-rooted causes that magnify political polarization in the United States lie in “winner takes all” electoral rules. This “winner takes all” institutional design does not provide enough incentives for parties to compromise and cooperate. Any potential compromise between Republicans and Democrats clearly undermines either party’s electoral prospects. In this context, compromise has become a dirty word.

While the U.S. plurality winner model performs well when the president’s party holds majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, in a divided government – like the one in place now – the system becomes quickly flawed and polarized. Consequently, political bickering and charged rhetoric become the order of the day. In the end, it is the electorate who suffers since they do not benefit from a low level of legislative efficiency and a charged political environment.

In contrast, coalition multiparty presidential regimes based on proportional representation that are common in Latin America can illustrate some potential benefits. In the United States, there is a biased assumption that the proportional system is inefficient and leads to stalemate and chaos. In fact, the opposite has taken place in many Latin American countries like Brazil, where since re-democratization presidents have been able to build and sustain majority coalition in Brazil’s Congress.

Unjust Bias

For decades, the benefits of the majoritarian design outweighed those of the representative design. This bias manifests itself specifically in the assumptions based in the veto player model, whose argument assumes that the lesser the number of players the more efficient governability will be. Therefore, the U.S. plurality winner system should be more efficient and more accountable than proportional representation since the latter allows more veto players to be involved in the political process. However, it should be noted that the American political institutional arrangement is not the norm. It is in fact the outlier among presidential systems.

Multiparty presidential regimes in several Latin American countries are often described as flawed. Critics have branded them as a messy fragmented autocratic design with poor governance and governability results. Contrary to these criticisms, Brazil can be seen as a good example of how ideologically distinct and polarized political parties can sustainably function in a governing coalition. The new Rousseff administration is a coalition comprised of 12 political parties that come from all angles of the political and ideological spectrum. It should be noted that, with the exception of Collor, all Brazilian presidents have been able to build and sustain majority and heterogeneous coalitions despite the minority condition of the presidential party in Congress.

The governing coalitions have consistently achieved compromise and cooperation through power sharing deals and gains from trade negotiations. Despite partisan fragmentation, this framework has resulted in a very efficient system leading to democratic stability and economic performance. In the case of Brazil, fragmentation is not an obstacle, but rather a key feature that helps achieve legislative efficiency through incentives of compromise. While the governability map in Latin America is diverse, some Andean countries have adopted certain populist rhetoric. They include Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and to a much lesser extent Argentina. Some presidents have clearly gone far beyond their constitutional attributes and have intervened with the internal functioning of the judiciary.

The divergent paths of Latin American countries are exemplified by Brazil and Chile who have clearly outperformed their neighbors in good governance. Brazil and Chile were heavily criticized in the early 1990s for alleged flaws in their large number of parties, coalition governments and proportional representation design. However, these two countries have wielded stability and growth. Strong presidential powers create a path for implementing a presidential agenda, but perhaps more significantly, they can be useful for governability in a multiparty coalition. This equation is feasible provided the institutional and political checks are in place to curtail any executive overreach.


Despite all of the historical achievements of the United States, the recent surge in political will to tackle polarization will most likely fall short of its objective since there are not enough institutional pathways to facilitate this uphill battle. This is a costly tradeoff that the majoritarian design creates. The design does not offer enough incentives so as to adapt to the current status of contemporaneous democracies, which are increasingly socially, ethnically and ideologically heterogeneous.

When assessing polarization within the American political landscape, the majoritarian design leaves centrist voters in a “donut hole”, forcing them choose or leaving them out of the equation for the sake of accountability. Hence, in a cost benefit analysis, the governability versus representation tradeoff appears to shift positively toward the multiparty presidential system. In fact, governability in the U.S. pluraritarian divided context is no longer an obvious trade-off.

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The United States could enrich its political framework by taking into account certain lessons from its Latin counterparts by considering few consensual features in the system. For instance, multimember district and/or majority run-off for executive and legislative posts would have the potential to provide much greater representation and, as a result, enhancing incentives for compromise and cooperation in the American politics. A serious open debate about the limits of the plurality winner system and potential avenues of improving it would be more constructive to address political polarization than current blaming game.