Friday, November 18, 2011

Forming a Government

Someone asked me recenlty for my thoughts on Proportional Representation. I am no specialist in voting systems and claim no expertise in such matters. Back when I was a political sicentist, one typically distinguished broadly between single-member electoral schemes in which the candidate with a majority or plurality of the votes in a district wins the seat (the system that has historically predominated in the UK and was inherited from Britain by the US and Canada) and various schemes of “Proportional Representation” which seek to address the evident overall inequity in the single-member system by allocating the seats in Parliament in some proportion to the performance of the competing political parties (a method, variations of which, was at various times adopted in various European parliamentary democracies). The PR method recognizes the existenceof more than one political party – and in turn encourages the existence of multiple parties. Typically such parties represents relatively narrow interests and/or ideologies. In parliamentary systems, when no party commands a majority, typically two or more parties must form an alliance – a coalition – in orderfor the country to be governmed. In such societies, the King, Queen, or President, in additon to performing the “dignified” fucntions of government in his/her role as Head of State is often at the center of the negotiations between/among the competing parties leading to the eventual formaiton of a coalition government. The US, of course, has a presidential system rather than a parliamentary system. So coalition governments in that sense cannot be formed. The American Presidnecy is in that sense the ultimate “single-member district.” Of course, coalitions have historically been formed in American politics – but before rather than after the election. Whereas parliamentary systems with proportional representation encourage more narrowly based, ideologically principled parties, which must then compromise after the election by forming a coalition in order to govern, the American system traditonally has favored forming coalitions before the election, in the form of our traditionally broad-based “big tent’ political parties. It is obvious that each system has its merits and advantages – and disadvantages. So which system one may prefer probably at any particular time depends on what sorts of outcomes one wants to see.

The current serious political dysfunction in the US results in large part from the fact that our two parties are no longer such coalitions. When I was a political scientist, there were liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats. For a whole host of reasons – among them reapportionment and the greater number of “safe” districts, on the one hand, and the rise of political primaries and the increased importance of money in elections, on the other – the two parties have become much more ideologically “pure.” Republicans candidates and primary voters are way more to the right than the population as a whole, while Democratic candidates and primary voters have become way more to the left than the population as a whole. And the “center,” while it may still exist in the nation, no longer exists at all in government. Hence, the inability of congress to compromise and achieve a “Grand Bargain” on taxes and spending, for example. And it hardly matters that Congress is is held in such notorious disrepute as a result, that a mere 9% of the population has a positive view of Congress, for example. Most incumbents will probably be re-elected – especially if they remain uncompromisingly faithful to the more extreme positions embraced by the likely primary voters in their parties.

So we now have the worst of both worlds – narrowly based, ideological parties competing with one another, but unable to do the equivalent of “forming a government.”

1 comment:

  1. "...The American system traditonally has favored forming coalitions before the election." I don't recall hearing anyone compare systems with this particular insight before.
    So, it's not that our single member, presidential system is necessarily or constitutionally less representative than PR or single-member parliamentary systems, but that the inherent tendency to form pre-election coalitions within our parties is faltering at the moment as an exception to the rule.
    I'll have to think about it for a while.