Thursday, June 17, 2010

More On Majorities

Matt Yglesias says:
What I want to add is that the more realistic version of this vision would be to imagine a system not where a president can remake vast swaths of policy merely be decreeing it, but rather a system in which a unicameral legislature can remake vast swaths of policy through majority vote. Such very real, totally non-tyrannical places as Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and many others operate in this way. 
In fact, however, the unicameral legislatures in most democracies (although there is a range, and I'm not at all an expert on where the various nations fall within that range) don't "remake vast swaths of policy."  What they do is take whatever the government proposes, and ratify it.  The governments (that is: the prime minister and the other ministers) are from the parliament, but not really of it.  The big power retained by individual legislators on the majority side is simply to threaten to bring the government down altogether, not to actually draft and amend legislation.  The United States, by contrast, has a "transformative" legislature, in which Members of Congress actively shape laws.  We often think of this in terms of "veto points," and that's not wrong -- but it's also true that there are far more "initiation" points.  For example, in the current banking bill, Al Franken's amendment on the ratings agencies was a serious, substantive addition to the Senate bill.  It didn't come from the president, or from the Secretary of the Treasury; it came from a single Senator, and an extremely junior one at that.  And of course now the bill is in conference, and I guess there's a compromise, all worked out by Members of Congress, with minimal input from what in Britain would be called the "government." 

While the question of majority or supermajority rule is related to the extent to which legislatures are independent actors, it really is a different question.  I really don't know much at all about the Unicam in Nebraska, but as far as I know it's as much of a transformative legislature as is the California or New York or Texas bicameral legislature. 

And there are really good reasons to want to have that sort of arrangement.  I wouldn't exactly call the British system "tyrannical," (although it does strike me as pretty goofy that the minority Conservatives have so few constraints on implementing their ideas), but I do think that the American system is far more open to meaningful participation by small and new groups of activists.  And, while I'm not a big fan of majority rule on principle, in reality majoritarian systems generally provide, in my view, more of an illusion of majority rule than the real thing anyway -- because in reality, public opinion doesn't break down by political party very often, so the "in" party probably represents the majority on some issues, but the minority on others.   At its worst, if the political parties are hierarchical and impermeable, I think a case could be made that these systems are not very democratic.  On the other hand, the American system has its own problems, chief among them a likely (stronger?) bias in favor of the status quo.  That's not necessarily all that democratic, either. 

I guess I would say this: at their best, parliamentary systems are great at efficiently translating election results into policy.  The inherent problem with that is that it gives elections a meaning that they generally cannot support.  At its best, the American Madisonian system is great at encouraging participation and finding ways for millions of people to meaningfully participate in politics and government.  The cost is a whole lot of frustration when election results are not rapidly translated into policy. 


  1. "At its best, the American Madisonian system is great at encouraging participation and finding ways for millions of people to meaningfully participate in politics and government. The cost is a whole lot of frustration when election results are not rapidly translated into policy."

    You lost me. Isn't voter participation relatively low in America, historically, compared to that in other Western (i.e. mostly parliamentary) democracies?

  2. The US does badly on voting by one measure: % of eligible voters who vote. On the other hand, if you stick to voting, remember that the US has far more elections, and votes on many more things, than pretty much any other nation. So some of us are voting a *lot* more than Brits or Canadians or Germans vote.

    But that's just voting. On other forms of participation, the US generally score pretty high.

  3. Canada is not unicameral although you might be excused for not noticing our Senate;(nor is the UK with the House of Lords although its powers are diminishing).
    Vacancies in the Canadian senate are filled by the current PM. Term is until 75, so some people may serve 30 years. when I was in school it was referred to as the house of sober second thought.

    It often reviews legislation, holds hearings and makes many technical amendments. Seldom does it stand in the way of the PM, but every once in a while...

    What is interesting about the British system is how it has evolved from the 1776 system you basically copied (King is elected for 4 year terms; legislators can't hold executive office) through a period when King lost power; Cabinet ministers gained it through to current incarnation when, at least in Canada cabinet ministers are mere cyphers and more and more power is concentrated in PM's office.

    What I find amazing is how much your media and citizenry talk as if your President was a Prime Minister with control of the legislative branch.

    Your statement "the minority Conservatives have so few constraints on implementing their ideas" is, i think, far more applicable to Canada than it is to UK today. The coalition govt in UK commands a majority in parliament, and represents a compromise between its two constituent parties. More applicable to your point is the minority government in Ottawa. Canadians are strangely adverse to coalition govts, and the presence of several parties able to obtain a plurality of votes in many individual constituencies has left us with minority govt for much of the last 53 years.
    Usually the minority govt has been Liberal, and tended to look for support leftward; however, with the advent of Stephen Harper, (think the paranoia of Cheney with better masking and presentation skills) drifting towards tyranny is not an inaccurate conclusion.

  4. Is there any evidence that British type systems result in fewer differences in policies of the main parties? I have read comments along these lines.

  5. Thoughtful stuff. No system is perfect, but what's good about the British system is elections can more easily lead to change. The U.S. system is very dysfunctional right now, because, simultaneously, the minority party can avoid governance, yet obstruct almost everything. (If it's the GOP, rather nihilistic these days, it will.) The minority should always have their say, but there's a reason for debate, discussions and amendments, and elections should mean something. The problem is mostly focused in the Senate, which in theory is supposed to be more sober and cautious. Our "upper chamber" hasn't been marginalized as have Britain's and Canada's, alas. The 2 senators per state set-up is pretty ridiculous now (given that state populations vary tremendously, much more so than in 1787), but wouldn't be that big a deal if senators voted with some sense of responsibility. During health care reform, senators representing about 1% of the population were able to grind things to a halt and demand measures opposed by both expert advice and public opinion. The filibuster rule is both solely by Senate choice and completely ludicrous. Tom Geoghegan has argued it's unconstitutional as well. Senate "holds" are ridiculous, too. Basically, in the Senate, a small minority – or in some cases, a single senator – can halt things. The chances that, in a group of 100 people, at least one would be dishonorable, is about 100%. It's insanity, and only gets worse when one political party chooses obstructionism as their central principle. Every member of Congress deserves a voice and vote, but not a veto.

    Looking at broader reforms, the Electoral College is a relic that skews presidential elections, and allows candidates to effectively ignore large sections of the population – why court conservatives in CA or liberals in TX, for instance – or really anyone not in swing state or early primary/caucus state? In theory, all this would even out, but doesn't always – and certainly there's massively unequal pandering by state (and unequal spending of campaign dollars). A rotating regional primary system would also break up some of the silliness. Public funding of elections would help tremendously (and the Citizens United decision really hurts). Most congresscritters are in the richest 1% of the population, and beholden to corporate interests and our increasingly plutocratic society. A more representative Congress would be a big improvement. Public funding would help the primary season as well, although our (mostly) dreadful political press is probably an even bigger problem. The press declared Obama the Democratic nominee after the Iowa Caucus, because 0.03% of the American population chose him. Then they declared the slightly-unexpected-but-entirely-comprehensible Hilary Clinton win in the New Hampshire Primary a stunning development. (Tim Russert: "One of the greatest political upsets in American political history." Total BS – but if Russert didn't see it coming, it must have been so, and hype sells.) Meanwhile, the media ignored almost every other candidate they deemed not viable. (Additionally, there's really nothing good about caucuses, which have abysmal turnouts and exclude anyone who needs to work, that can't be accomplished through other systems. Instant run-off primaries with early absentee ballots and early town meetings to allow for advocacy and blather would do the trick. However, that's for each state to decide.) I like the U.S., and our national political system has its merits, but also some serious structural problems. Unfortunately, those problems are self-reinforcing, and creating a more representative, responsive, responsible system – and not coincidentally, a less aristocratic one – is going to take a sustained effort. Any improvements will probably be incremental. Anyway, thanks for some food for thought.


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