Monday, October 7, 2013

Elsewhere: Spin, Lazy Republicans, more

My TAP column today is about why we get too much coverage of spin, and why we're stuck with it.

At Salon over the weekend, I talked about lazy Republicans and the party-aligned press that encourages them to stay that way.

And, hey -- I did some TV today. Well, not real TV; WaPo's version of it. It was supposed to be on the question of whether the shutdown was a sign that the US system was inferior, but it wound up being more about the shutdown in general...anyway, if you want to see a skype version of me, tune in.

Oh, one more: I argued over at PP on Friday that it's not Madison, it's the Republicans.


  1. The PostPartisan piece has a few gaps. For instance:

    It’s also (essentially) impossible, in the U.S. system, for elections to yield a multiparty mess in which no coalition can put together a government that can win a majority in parliament. Each system has its own kinds of failures.

    This is also essentially impossible in the British parliamentary system, which, as we've seen, yields either single-party rule or simple two-party coalitions. The key variable isn't parliamentary vs. presidential / "Madisonian" -- it's where you set the threshold for winning seats in the legislature. The unstable systems you're referencing set it too low, i.e. they give substantial numbers of seats to very small parties, thus encouraging the creation of such parties. Eliminate that problem, and parliamentary systems suddenly look way, way better compared to ours.

    The thing is that a broken party, one adamantly against compromise, would be just as dangerous in a parliamentary system (if it took power) as in a Madisonian system. More, in fact: It’s easy to imagine a Republican Party with a tea party prime minister doing all sorts of things to lock in their electoral victory permanently and then passing unpopular measures that appealed only to a small fraction of the electorate.

    Yes -- "IF IT TOOK POWER." But how is it going to take power? Outside of the occasional "by-election" in a single district (if there are single districts), there's no equivalent in most parliamentary systems to what we affectionately call our "low-turnout midterm elections." That is, there is no opportunity for a minority party to "win" a "mandate" the way the Republicans did in 2010 -- let alone to control one house of the legislature based on 1.4 million fewer votes than the "minority" party. (Admittedly, the latter problem might be solvable withing the "Madisonian" structure if political parties didn't get to draw their own districts. But you'd still have the potential for separate mandates and Linz's "dual legitimacy.") In a parliamentary system, you either win a national General Election, on which the entire nation's attention is focused, or you don't. There's nothing in-between, as our system idiotically provides.

    1. "But you'd still have the potential for separate mandates and Linz's "dual legitimacy.""

      Just for the sake of completion, I first heard Linz use the term "dual legitimacy" in reference to parliamentary systems, specifically parliamentary systems like France and Portugal that have both a parliament/prime minister and a popularly elected president.

    2. I'm relying on the definition in Linz's article in the Journal of Democracy, Winter 1990: "no
      democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the execuitive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the
      people." To the extent that there's a popularly elected president with real power, you're introducing elements of what Linz calls "presidentialism" and no longer really have classic parliamentary democracy, but instead some kind of hybrid. I don't know what the rules or norms are for political "cohabitation" in France or Portugal, but if they've solved this problem and we can borrow their solution, by all means let's do it.

    3. No, Linz thought it was a problem there, too. He talked about it at a conference in 1989. The subsequent essay can be found in (I take that back--it could be found, if you could find it, in)

      Kenneth Maxwell and Scott Monje, eds., Portugal: The Constitution and the Consolidation of Democracy, 1976–1989, Camões Center Special Report No. 2 (New York: Camões Center, Columbia University, 1991).

    4. Jeff,

      You are mostly correct on your first point; the Brits could wind up with a mess in which no one can form a government, but it's unlikely. OTOH, the Brits are very much able to have a minority party win a national election - anyone who uses single member simple plurality can do that, and the Brits (IIRC) are far less concerned about equal size districts than the US is.

      As far the second point more generally: in the US case, ideological extremism costs a party, but not prohibitively so; that's why Reagan was able to win in 1980. Since I've written that I think Ted Cruz could win the presidency, I certainly think that today's GOP with a mainstream conservative nominee could win. And while I should always point out that I'm no expert on other nations, I really don't see any reason to believe that a GOP-like party couldn't win in a parliamentary system.

    5. I should add: I did think that Cruz could win the presidency. I think he's hurt his chances for the nomination in the last month, perhaps fatally, and he's probably also hurt his chances in November if he did win the nomination.

    6. I thought we were talking about ideological extremism in parliamentary systems. That it's a viable strategy in our system is already pretty obvious, I think.

    7. Further to that: The Cruz case is probably a point in favor of parliamentary arrangements, because if he's really hurt his presidential chances, it's by acting up in the legislature in ways that offend his colleagues and other party actors/observers. That's exactly the mechanism that parliamentary systems rely on to weed out extremists -- you rise to leadership from within the legislature and have to have support from your colleagues. Another flaw in our system is that a president can be close to unknown to people in national politics, and totally unknown to the public, until just months before s/he's elected. That's marginally less likely when you have to contend for party leadership through a series of known steps within a legislative caucus.

    8. Sorry, my comment was pretty unclear. What I meant was that if it's only a minor negative in the US system, I don't see why it would be anything more than a minor negative in parliamentary systems - and therefore a bigger danger, since if a GOP-like party won an election in a parliamentary system they could make more trouble.

    9. OK, thanks for clarifying, but I think the issue in dispute is what it means to "win" and what opportunities the different systems offer for doing this.

      The Republicans "won" in 2010, although they didn't take over the Senate, and the presidency wasn't contested. The Democrats "won" in 2012, although they didn't retake the House (though they did win more votes for it). So now, we're in a constitutional crisis because both parties hold power and a claim to rule simultaneously. Furthermore, the more extremist party won the lower-turnout of those two elections, which I think most observers would agree is not coincidental.

      What is the equivalent in a parliamentary system for any of this -- unless, and to the extent, that it incorporates "presidentialist" elements? How does a parliamentary system NOT solve at least this problem?

  2. The only way out of this I can even imagine is that some prominent Republican stands beside a Dem leader and says that the debt limit is above politics and the budget should be passed to reopen the government.

    The problem is: what Republican has enough heft to do that effectively, and help raise this to a level of patriotism?

  3. Another tack that might be taken: Obama could start offering some ideas of his own that strike Democrats as reasonable, with the notion that "negotiation" isn't possible unless the Republicans will agree to "compromise." Some possibilities: (a) a $200 billion per year carbon tax, rising to $500 billion per year by the end of the decade; (b) a temporary doubling of taxation on unearned income, with the increased revenues devoted to debt reduction; (c) increased federal R&D spending; (d) reducing the Medicare entry age to 60, then to 55 at the end of the decade.

    Also, there ought to be a few more national parks and national battlefields. And rangers ought to get a decent pay raise. What true Republican would deny this urgent ned?

  4. Our system is inferior, but active sabotage combined with unrestrained plutocracy has a lot to do with it.


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