Exceptional Democracy

[ Posted Wednesday, April 7th, 2010 – 15:52 UTC ]

Americans, in general, like to believe in the concept of "American Exceptionalism." This doctrine can be summed up as: "We're the best damn country on the planet, wouldn't the rest of you lesser countries agree?" But to me, what is telling is that whenever nascent democratic forms of government develop in other places in the world (born through the ravages of war, popular revolt, simple modernization, or any of a number of other reasons) and the people affected have the opportunity to select what form their new democracies shall take; they almost without exception (pun intended) choose some form of the British parliamentary system, rather than American-style representative democracy.

The reasons most fledgling democratic governments choose parliamentary systems rather than our presidential/congressional system are likely as varied as the countries in which they develop. But I'm guessing there are two differences in the British system that are more attractive to new countries than what the American system has to offer. Both of these, in a tangential way, have recently been in the news.

The first comes from Britain itself -- the announcement that national elections are about to take place. Now, for Americans, this announcement is unusual in and of itself, because our elections take place on a very rigid calendar-based schedule. Every House member is elected once every two years, every Senate member is elected every six years, and presidential elections happen, like clockwork, every four years. These happen on the first Tuesday in November, (which is really a holdover from when America was largely a rural nation, and the fastest form of transportation was a good horse). Anyone elected in early November has a leisurely few months to get to Washington to start their new job.

But knowing the date when the election will be means that while the end of the election season is set in stone, the beginning is flexible. And, election cycle after election cycle, it keeps getting pushed back further and further, until it will (in the near future) become almost mandatory for presidential hopefuls to move to Iowa (to prepare for their run) about one week after a new president is sworn in. Even in Congress, honest politicians decry the "permanent election" mentality which causes them to spend more time raising money for the next go-round than actually doing the job they've been sent to Washington to do.

Which brings us back to Britain. Prime Minister Gordon Brown just announced that a national election will be held April 6 -- one month from now. The entire election season for a national election (the equivalent here would be a presidential election year) will be, as usual, exactly one month long. Which is a big difference from the American system, as anyone will tell you who has ever gotten tired of the flood of political television attack ads so common in America. Rather than spending over a year deciding who will run their country, the Brits get the whole thing over with inside of one month, from candidate announcements to ballot box. Prime Ministers do have a deadline (of five years) for each term in office, and within this period they must hold another election. So there is a ticking clock on them, too, but the difference is that they get to choose the timing of the election within this period. Of course, they always try to run an election when the mood of the electorate favors their party, but no matter when it is called, the whole process takes place with blinding speed (at least, as seen through American eyes).

The British can manage to do this due to a few other reasons why their system of democracy is different. The first being that they don't actually directly elect their Prime Ministers, the way Americans (kind of) directly elect our presidents. The political parties, after the election is over, decide who will be their leader (the party that wins biggest gets to lead the country is the basic idea, but more on that in a moment), and he or she becomes Prime Minister as a result. In America, this would have likely meant President Nancy Pelosi the last time around, or perhaps President Hillary Clinton (depending on which one more congressional Democrats favored). A "backbencher" (or a politician without much seniority) such as Barack Obama never would have even been considered (Hillary was somewhat of a backbencher herself, I should mention, but she had her own certain star power, due to obvious reasons). Americans, of course, like our system better, where we choose not only our local representatives in the legislature, but also our country's chief executive. But then, to be fair, we don't have the added complication of the royalty confusing the executive concept.

The second reason the British can hold elections at what seems like light speed is that they don't have the concept of a "primary" election. In Britain, the parties choose the candidates. To become a party candidate, you have to convince the party machinery and bigwigs that you are worthy -- instead of your party's voters. While this seems like a closed system and inherently less democratic than the American system, you've got to admit that it certainly does save time on the election calendar.

But even this drawback is mitigated by one other big reason a parliamentary system differs from the American system. Parliamentary elections are much friendlier to third (or fourth, or fifth) parties, meaning they can wind up (even without holding primaries) with more candidates on the ballot than we get a choice of here in America. And, as a result, more parties are represented in their parliament after the elections. The Italian Parliament, for instance, recently had more than 70 parties represented. Think about that for a minute. Now, obviously, the Italians went a bit overboard, but even in Britain (whose proportional representation system I am somewhat oversimplifying here, I admit) the main two political parties (Labour and Conservative) don't always get an outright majority in Parliament after an election, and thus have to make deals with smaller third parties in order to "form a government" (read: "make a political alliance") so that their coalition does add up to a parliamentary majority. These deals are cut with the smaller parties by offering them the chance to fill high government offices (in America, the equivalent would probably be Cabinet secretaries), so perhaps they might wind up with a Green being in charge of their equivalent of the E.P.A., or some such. But this can set up the same situation as the American Congress faces, where the ruling party can have its agenda derailed by the actions of a small faction (see: Blue Dog Democrat, for instance). This difference is pronounced in the British system, since losing a "vote of confidence" can force a national election, as well.

Which brings me, in a very roundabout way, to the second story in the news recently about democracy. Iraqi militant leader Muqtada Al-Sadr (or, perhaps, optimistically, "former militant leader," assuming he won't return to his past violent ways) just did a stunning thing, and few in America even took notice -- even those that should have (to bolster their arguments about the possible future of Iraq).

Iraq just had a national election. Once again, when deciding what type of democracy to have in their country, Iraq chose the parliamentary system (this happened years ago, I should mention). In the national election they just held, their two biggest parties came very close to each other -- Bush/Gore close. The party led by the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki lost by a sliver, giving them 89 seats in the new Parliament, to 91 seats for the challengers. But the Iraqi Parliament has a whopping 325 seats. Meaning, to hold a majority, you need a minimum of 163 seats -- far more than each of the biggest two parties actually got.

Which means these two parties are now scrambling to put together a winning coalition with all of the various smaller Iraqi political parties. Whichever major party can do so first, wins control and the Prime Ministership. One of the key smaller parties is the Kurds, who likely will be bought off with a deal which settles their claims on Kirkuk. But the real news is that one of the biggest third parties in Iraq is run by Muqtada Al-Sadr, and his faction (likely because he explicitly told them, just prior to the election, not to boycott it this time around) just gained ten more seats, for a total of 39 seats -- quite a big bloc of votes.

And Al-Sadr, who was once the most feared militia leader in the country not so long ago, faced with the choice of which major party to back, did an extraordinary thing: he called his own "election" among his supporters. They all, last weekend, got to vote on what Al-Sadr's party should do. Faced with a choice, the hopefully-ex-militia leader chose more democracy to show him the way.

As I said, this is truly stunning, and I wonder why it didn't get more media play. Because the only way any civil war or guerrilla war can transition to a lasting peace is when the leaders of the armed groups realize that politics is a more productive way to solve their differences than killing each other. Al-Sadr seems to have taken a giant step in this direction, not only by encouraging his followers to participate in the national election, but by holding a sort of "primary election" among his party afterwards, to decide what direction to take. He says that he retains the right to actually decide what to do (the poll isn't "binding" on him in any way, in other words), but even the fact that he would give his followers a say in the decision is certainly a positive sign for the future of democracy in Iraq.

I'm not trying to make too much chowder out of one oyster here, I should mention. Iraq is still in a very fragile state, and it has been suggested that this whole "poll" was a face-saving sham. From a Washington Post article today:

Al-Sadr's spokesman Salah al-Obeidi announced the results of the poll but left open whether al-Sadr would follow the guidance of his supporters in the course of future negotiations, which are expected to take months, saying that "each event has its own way."

The poll of al-Sadr's supporters was widely viewed as a way for the cleric to give himself the opportunity to back someone other than al-Maliki, under the guise of following the people's will.

In other words, the whole thing may have been a public relations stunt. But, even so, isn't that a rather positive sign in and of itself? One might even say that, although Iraq chose a more British-style parliamentary system rather than the American system for their new governmental structure, their system still retains a definite flavor of American-style hucksterism within it.

Iraq still has a long way to go before it can truly be a democracy that endures. The threat of widespread violence is still very near at hand. But I still wonder at times why countries like Iraq, who get to set up a new democratic form of government from scratch, almost invariably -- even when they do so as a direct result of an American invasion -- choose the parliamentary system. If America is truly supposed to be exceptional in all things, why do other countries -- almost without exception -- decide our governmental structure isn't really for them, when it comes time to choose?

Again, not to over-generalize, but I would venture to guess that a large part of such decisions are made because the parliamentary system is inherently much more open to minority parties getting much better representation than third parties do in the American system. And, while doubtlessly a lesser reason than minority representation, the choice between the absolute spectacle of American election season versus a single month spent campaigning seems like it also might have a degree of influence in such a decision.

The sincerest form of flattery, it has been said, is imitation. But what could be considered "unflattering" (by the same reasoning) is the fact that if our American system of government is so gosh-darned exceptional, why do newborn democracies almost always reject it in favor of the system we ourselves rejected over two centuries ago?


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “Exceptional Democracy”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I would bet that many people in the world think that they know more about how the American system of government works than they do about their own systems - they see it in all its glory, all over the media, all the time.

    Unfortunately, what they see most is how the American system doesn't work. If the US media is good at anything, it is their ability to accentuate all of the problems with the system to the virtual exclusion of what has made this system relatively exceptional.

    This might have some ingrained influence over the decisions that are made in nascent democracies.

    In the parliamentary system, with our without monarchical influences, our election campaigns are mercifully short. And, that is about the best that can be said for it.

    If we had election campaigns in Canada that lasted for more than six weeks, at the most, then someone would have to shoot us to put us out of our collective misery. Without a doubt.

    As far as I know, in the case of parliamentary general elections in Britain, as in Canada, the party leaders are in place well before an election is called, even in the most unusual circumstances where a party chooses to change its leader in the lead up to an election call.

    In order to change a party leader, the party needs to hold a leadership convention to choose a new leader or confirm the old one. While this process can occur at any time, it is never left to the immediate aftermath of an election. That is not to say, of course, that a losing party leader would not have to fight for his job.

    We all know, once the hand-marked paper ballots (on which we must make one choice between a handful of names at most who our next member of parliament will be - end of story) are manually counted (oh, yeah) who will be the next Prime Minister!

    Oh, yes ... parliamentary elections are much friendlier to third ...and fourth, and fifth and any number of other parties.

    And, that is why, in Canada, we are now locked in a situation where we will have weak minority government from now until we all become so cynical and complacent that we just don’t care anymore. Wait a second ... most of us are there now. This also doesn’t bode well for the talent pool in the House of Commons (see below).

    I can’t imagine how they manage in Italy ... or Iraq, for that matter, where the political landscape is so completely fragmented that they’ll probably end up mired in inertia or in a downward spiral toward civil war.

    If I had to name one overarching reason why I would prefer the system that gave us American exceptionalism it would be how the cabinet is selected ... or, should I say, from what pool of talent can the country's leader select individuals to help him effectively govern?

    In Canada, as in Britain, cabinet members must be chosen from the members of parliament. Right.
    Let me put it this way ...

    How do you think we would have fared in the midst of the greatest global financial crisis since the Great Depression, two very hot wars and a host of other international crises if President Obama had to chose his cabinet from the 435 souls in the House of Representatives?

    I rest my case for American exceptionalism!

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    How do you think we would have fared in the midst of the greatest global financial crisis since the Great Depression, two very hot wars and a host of other international crises if President Obama had to chose his cabinet from the 435 souls in the House of Representatives?

    When the lady is right, she is DEFINITELY right... :D


  3. [3] 
    Hawk Owl wrote:

    Compliments to Chris and Elizabeth. You reminded me of what it's like to read good writing, i.e., someone who's informed, can draw on personal experience, and is interested in examining an idea form more than one angle -- rather than just checking a list of criteria indicating whether you're morally/politically "pure" or on the "Right Side" of an Armageddon vision.
    You both gave me something to think about today and I am grateful.
    Hawk Owl

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    This site will go "dark" on Thursday, April 8, 2010, for a few hours.


    Sorry, just COULDN'T resist..... :D


  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    It seems equally odd to me that (at least to my knowledge) none of the other possible structures get tried out.

    I have two favorite ideas. (1) Instead of having geographical districts, let people choose what seat in the legislature to vote for. This would result in a multi-party system, favoring whoever is organized enough to get enough of their supporters registered for the same seat. (2) Don't have any voting at all. Laws can be passed only by absolute unanimity. However, everyone gets to vouch for one person as their delegate. Anyone who's so designated by ten people becomes a member of a second tier (the whole population being the first tier). Anyone who's so designated by ten people in the second tier becomes a member of a third tier, and so on. Any tier is empowered to make law, provided that it represents a majority of the tier below it (and so do all the lower tiers). Laws passed by a lower tier trump those passed by a higher tier, just as the Constitution trumps statute which trumps regulation.

    Those don't address the relationship between the legislative and executive branches, but I have an idea about that too (although this one's more of a thought experiment than a serious proposal). Put the legislative function back into the legislative branch. Specifically, put the ratio of representatives to constituents back where it was when the country was founded. Then have the constitutional amendment say, "Congress shall make no law granting to any entity the power to make any rule, other than to committees of the House of Representatives, or to the legislatures of the several States. But any such grant of power to the legislature of any State shall grant power uniformly to the legislature of every State." There would still be hired experts, but they would be congressional staff instead of executive-branch staff.

    If I can come up with these, there must be many more possibilities out there. Yet all other democracies, as far as I know, follow the basic parliamentary model, with maybe a few extra offices tacked on.

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Two interesting suggestions. I must admit, your first one sounds pretty close to pure democracy, where everyone votes on everything.

    The second idea might prove to be unworkable, for the very reason they started limiting the House. If we went with the constitutional standard (30,000:1, I believe), we'd have over 10,000 House members. We'd have to build a new House just to get them all into one room! But, practical problems aside, it would indeed make for a very interesting (and much more representative) House, that's for sure. The problem might be, though, that it'd be impossible to get enough of them to agree on anything. But it is an interesting idea, that's for sure.


  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:

    I don't think the first one would turn into everyone voting on everything. The way I figure the it would work out is that all the legislative action would be at the top two or three tiers. There would normally be a top tier between zero and twenty members, a second tier between twenty and one hundred, and a third tier between two hundred and a thousand. It would be sort of like a quasi-executive council, a unicameral legislature, and a standing constitutional convention that's also involved in constant building and rebuilding of coalitions for representation in the legislature.

    In the most extreme case, the second-from-top tier would have between eleven and twenty members, with ten members appointing the one and only member of the top tier. There would usually be a ruling super-majority in the next-to-top tier, consisting of those who could agree on delegates to the top tier. The minority in the next-to-top tier would have an incentive to cut deals, in order to overturn the past decisions of the second-from-top tier.

    In the lower tiers, there wouldn't be any legislating going on. Getting unanimity in the third-from-top tier would be rare, on a par with passing a constitutional amendment. Unanimity in larger tiers would be essentially impossible, so people wouldn't even try. They would consist mostly of partisans just filling the seats to make the numbers work. But any ten citizens could form their own bloc to join or leave any party organization at the second-tier level, any hundred citizens could do so at the third-tier level, and any thousand citizens could do so at the fourth-tier level. There would be lots of minor-party activity, with the major parties leading coalitions of minor parties. Disgruntled members of a major party could leave the major party itself, and join one of the minor parties in its coalition. That would be just as effective in maintaining the major party's representation in the top two tiers, but it would change the dynamics in the coalition-building activities of the intermediate tiers.

    I could go on, both about this one and the big-House-of-Representatives idea, but I'm getting long-winded already.

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