Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Parties and Elections

The expectation (inaccurate as it turned out) of a fractiously inconclusive election in Israel (where no one party has ever in the country's history attained a majority in the Knesset) and the cumbersome process of coalition forming afterwards reminds me of how I used to look at American political parties. Back when I was a political scientist, I looked favorably on multi-party parliamentary systems, where well defined ideological parties competed in elections and then afterwards made the necessary compromises to create a coalition to govern. (A serious weakness is such multi-party parliamentary systems was always the possibility of rather small parties acquiring disproportionate power as key elements in coalition-making - as has notoriously been the case historically in Israel.) In the American political system, in contrast, a series of institutional and other factors (first-past-the-post single-member districts, the electoral college, etc.) had produced two relatively broad-based parties which were themselves essentially pre-election coalitions. The result, I used to argue back in the 1970s, were elections and a politics that were less ideological, with issues being less clearly articulated. 

Of course, since then, American politics has changed almost beyond recognition as the two parties have sorted themselves out ideologically, with each party in the process becoming more internally coherent and consistent - and much more exclusive and extreme. But, since it remains an incorrigibly two-party system, in which (among other factors) single member districts severely distort the vote, the result has been the present impasse, which is every bit as dysfunctional as a deadlocked parliamentary system, in which the process of forming a viable government may seem to take forever . (See my 2011 post Are We Becoming Belgians?

Of course, having two closely matched ideological parties such as we now have in the contemporary U.S. testifies to the deeply polarized character of our society, to the serious absence of basic consensus - the sort of consensus we used to take for granted in the post-war years in the U.S. and which we associated with our messy (but at that time seemingly functional) two-party system. While other factors are also at play - notoriously the excessive power of money in American politics - the ultimate dealbreaker has been the catastrophic breakdown of the social consensus that ruled - or at least appeared to rule - in American society for the twenty or so years after World War II. The breakdown of that consensus was ratified electorally with the Reagan victory in 1980, and nothing, as the saying goes, has ever quite been the same again.

Political parties in the U.S. no longer really aim to convince voters. The few who vote are already generally sorted out ideologically, and elections are largely about turning out one's "base." This is exacerbated by the increasing self-segregation of the American public into separate societies with distinctive media outlets and less and less effective interaction and hence fewer opportunities to hear other points of view. No wonder that less intensel ideological voters seem less and less inclined to vote!

On top of all that and making everything worse is the destructive role of money in our politics, which has largely usurped the once fundamental functions of the political parties. If widespread individual gun-ownership is one of the overwhelming obstacles standing in the way of a seriously civilized society, by analogy the widespread influence of money in our politics is one of the overwhelming obstacles standing in the way a democratic, citizen-based politics.

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