Sunday, March 15, 2015

The US Presidential And Separation Of Powers System Versus Parliamentary Democracy

I have just returned from a week in London where I was lecturing at King's College.  The newspapers are full of the current election race, with the election coming on May 8, or thereabouts.  Outcome unclear, although looks like Conservatives' coalition partner, the LibDems (Liberal Democrats) will take a big hit, but unclear whether more of  their supporters will go to Labour or the Tories or some of the regional parties.  A big question is whether the tea party-ish Independence Party will break into the parliament. Probably neither of the big two will get a majority, so there will be some coalition, with some forecasting that it could be Labour with the Scottish National Party.  That has led some to heavily criticize Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.  For whatever it is worth, quite aside from policy issues, with many unhappy with those of the current Conservative-LibDem government, the press on all sides seems to agree that something hurting Labour is that Miliband seems "less prime ministerish" than David Cameron, the current one.

Watching all this up close made me think more about the comparison with our system in the US that people here take so for granted.  But it is not the most common system in the world, much as we may all go googly over Madison and his separation and balance of powers, which I grant has some virtues.  But excessive partisanship has recently led this to a state of inane gridlock.  The much more common form that Britain has, parliamentary democracy, avoids a bunch of this.  On thinking about it, I can see some other advantages, although I am not sure how many of them more broadly systemic rather than tied to specific aspects of the US and UK systems.

So, one thing that sticks out is how short their electoral campaign periods are.  We now seem to have arrived to a state of permanent presidential campaigns. They are constantly going on.  Here we are only a bit less than two years from when the next one is inaugurated, but every day in the paper and all over the TV talk shows we have the carryings on and money grubbing of the prospective candidates.   In the alternative, the contests are only a couple of months long, with far less money spent.  Much of this is due to the fact that the leading candidates are known and do not have to go through a long primary process to get their party's nomination.  The parties select their leaders, and those people are the party candidates to be prime minister.  They are there all the time, unless they resign or are overthrown, which happens from time to time.  One could say that this means there is a constant election, but it is not.  It is a constant political debate.

Which brings me to the nature of that political debate.  At least in the UK, they do not have this farce of people in Congress giving speeches to empty houses.  Of course, there was a time when members were there and actually debated.  But now, most are out raising money for their reelection campaigns, even if those are six years away and only show up for votes or committee meetings (sometimes).

In the UK parliament, they are all there pretty much all the time, including the PM and his opponent and rival, the recognized leader of  the opposition.  While in the US there are only a few debates between presidential candidates, and they are carefully scripted to avoid having candidates actually have to answer any real questions.  In the UK parliament, the PM has a question time, and the opposition can and does question him closely, with the public listening live.  Indeed, it is because of this that the public has well-developed views about these people, the PM and the opposition leader.  There is no hiding the way the politicians do here in the US, and I think this is why people have their views about the current candidates pretty well established.

Anyway, we are not going to do anything serious about our system, which I fear will simply get worse, at least in the near future.

Barkley Rosser


Unknown said...

So would you agree with Matthew Yglesias, that our system is doomed? said...

"Doomed" sounds too strong to me, but it is certainly getting more and more dysfunctional.

Bruce Wilder said...

"excessive partisanship has recently led this to a state of inane gridlock"

Wrong diagnosis. The inane partisanship is just symptomatic of the disease: plutocracy.

Parliamentary systems were designed by history for plutocracy, and adjust more smoothly to a return toward government dominated by narrow interests. The U.S. system was designed for a more broadly popular and interested politics, and presents plutocracy as an uglier spectacle. said...


Hmmm. You want to claim that all those European parliamentary democracies are bigger plutocracies than is the US? Well, the British one may be close to us in that grain, but Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Japan? Really?

Certainly it is the case that parliamentary democracies are more subject to sudden big changes of major policies, even systemic ones, than our essentially conservative system where with all the separation of powers it is hard to get all of the branches of government fully on board with some big change. But, keep in mind that those parliamentary democracies have sometimes made sudden lurches to the left, with the rule by the British Labour Party in the late 1940s when they nationalized medicine and a bunch of other stuff being a poster boy example. Of course, that can go the other way as well, such as with Margaret Thatcher, although even she did not undo British socialized medicine.

I cannot resist adding that in his Road to Serfdom, published in 1944 when he was foreseeing that postwar Labour Party victory and feared they would impose a full-blown Soviet-style centrally planned, full-bore, socialist system, he supported national health insurance, which we have still not gotten in the US. He later apparently became dissatisfied with their system due to a son working for it and being unhappy with it, but it goes well beyond the simple national health insurance he proposed in the RtS.

Peter T said...

Parliamentary systems can mostly be redesigned piecemeal - as representation broadens, the changes in parliament flow through to the executive and judiciary. The US system is more compartmentalised, and extensive federalism makes it more so.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Re: ".. In the UK parliament, the PM has a question time, and the opposition can and does question him closely, with the public listening live...."

This happens in Australia, on TV, if you want to sit up and wait to the wee hours of the morning. There's also a TV show on the Australian Broadcasting Commissions program called Q&A. Where politicians sit around a table with interesting characters and they discuss various topics of the day.

The biggest problem with both venues is that the analysis is very shallow and key information is withheld from the public. A classic example is this week's discussion about superannuation and how we all have to save more for our retirement. As if money is a long-term store of real value. As if the imposition of compulsory superannuation doesn't translate into higher prices for labour and goods....etc.

Bruce Wilder said...

"You want to claim that all those European parliamentary democracies are bigger plutocracies than is the US?"

I want to argue that "inane gridlock," as you put it, is not a technical problem, but the consequence of advanced plutocracy. That the U.S. may be more advanced on the road to plutocracy merely adds force to my argument.

There are "technical" problems with the U.S. political constitution, which the British do not suffer. One is a consequence of the character of U.S. federalism, in which the states are not creatures of the federal government, or vice versa. Britain regularly adjusts and rationalizes its systems of local and regional government; the U.S. can do so only with the greatest difficulty.

On the other hand, as I said, parliament in Britain was formed under an oligarchic landed aristocracy and reformed in the 19th century by an opulent and oppressive capitalist plutocracy. As Britain becomes more plutocratic, it will show fewer strains than the American political system, which formed in a far more egalitarian society, and arrived in its present form in the Age of Jackson, amid universal manhood suffrage and mass parties.

Parliamentary majorities, for example, can form from electoral minorities that are remarkably small. I've forgotten when the last time a governing majority represented an electoral majority in Britain (and I'm not even talking about declining voter participation). Minority rule is built in and need not be controversial.

Republican efforts at gerrymandering and voter suppression since 2010 in the U.S. have been remarkably successful and are symptomatic of increasing plutocracy at work, but they also cut against the grain of the American constitution, and so result in more resistance and protest and dissonance, as the election of President, Senate, the House, and State Governors and Legislatures must be coordinated and each has its own electoral basis, and therefore diversity.