Americans often describe Singapore as a “dictatorship.”  I’ve occasionally done so myself.  After further study, though, I’ve concluded that this view is simply wrong.  Singapore is a democracy in practice as well as theory.  Yes, the ruling People’s Action Party has 82 out of 84 seats, and has held the reins of power for the country’s entire history.  But Singapore follows the rules of British parliamentary politics.  Opposition is legal.  It just doesn’t win.

Like most Americans, my natural reaction to these facts is to assume massive corruption.  No party can win 82 out of 84 seats honestly, can it?  But when you delve deeper, you’ll find almost no supporting evidence for these suspicions.  Singapore gets stellar scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.  Even more amazingly, the World Bank’s Governance Matters index gives Singapore near-perfect scores in every area except “Voice and Accountability.”  Neutral observers basically say that Singaporean democracy is honest but unresponsive.

Learning these facts left me even more puzzled than I started.  Singapore seems to be sui generis; where else on earth does honest democracy lead to total domination by a single party?  After extensive reflection, though, it hit me: Instead of comparing Singapore to other democratic countries, I should compare it to other democratic cities.  There are many major cities in the United States where one party wins supermajorities year after year.  Democratic mayors have continuously ruled in San Francisco longer than Singapore has been an independent country!  And while corruption plays a role in American urban politics – think of the notorious Daley machine – corruption is hardly necessary for one-party rule.

Why is it easier to have a one-party city than a one-party country?  There are probably a lot of reasons, but the most obvious is that smaller polities (measured in terms of both population and land area) are less diverse.  3 million people squeezed into a few square miles might converge on a single worldview.  300 million people spanning a continent almost certainly won’t.

Notice, moreover, that size matters on both the demand and supply sides of politics.  On the demand side, smaller polities have less voter disagreement about the kind of politicians they want; on the supply side, smaller polities have less diverse candidates to offer.  If Singapore had a hundred times as many people as it does, it would be a lot more likely to contain a Ross Perot ready to spend his fortune to challenge the status quo.

Question: I’ve named one mechanism underlying one-party urban democratic politics; what are some others?