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October 19, 2013 3:08 PM We Are All Berliners Now

An apology for the separation of powers.

By Max Ehrenfreund

Below, I am going to indulge in the abstract, highly speculative debate over whether the U.S. system of presidential democracy is in danger and whether a parliamentary system would be better able to cope with the extremism of some Republicans. Kevin Drum as well as Matt Steinglass, among others, think it would.

First, though, thanks to Martin Longman for jumping in this afternoon with an overview of the more moderate Republicans. “The Republican Establishment created and nurtured this beast,” he writes, referring to the tea party. “I don’t think they can tame it.” I agree. If they are to tame it (assuming they actually want to), money alone won’t be enough. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spends generously in elections, but the Club for Growth simply has a more persuasive message. If the centrist, business-oriented community is going to bring the beast to heel, they will need to find a better, more compelling answer to the question of what it means to be a conservative. That is, they need some new ideas. (In this regard, see yesterday’s manifesto by Curtis Gans.)

Let’s go to Berlin, where as I type, German politicians are trying to form a coalition after the most recent election there. It looks like the moderately conservative Christian Democrats, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, will reach some kind of agreement with the moderately liberal Social Democrats. If they do, Merkel will have broad legislative support as the head of state. There will be minimal obstruction and no irresolvable disputes risking national catastrophe, and if there are, German voters will simply return to the polls. The more extreme parties — the Greens, the Left, and the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany — will be excluded from a governing coalition. What if the United States had a similar system? Could centrist Republicans and Democrats work together, excluding the tea party entirely and maintaining a smoothly functioning government otherwise?

This scenario is plausible, but not ultimately believable. Consider how a unicameral, parliamentary system of government would function in the United States, given the opinions of voters today. Instead of voting separately for the legislature and the executive as we do in the current system, voters would choose their representatives, who would in turn choose a head of state. A preliminary question is whether representation would be by district or proportionally by state. If voters in each district chose their own member, it seems like Republicans would control the hypothetical Parliament of the United States and consequently, the government. Nationally, Democrats won more votes in 2012, but dividing the country into districts so that the proportions of representatives elected from each party would actually correspond to the national figures would be difficult (see this discussion of gerrymandering for an explanation). If all the parliamentarians were chosen in statewide or even national elections, there would be a real contest for control of the parliament.

In that contest, however, conservative Republicans would have good reason to adopt even more confrontational tactics. Indeed, they’d probably choose to break off and establish a Tea Party as formally independent of the Republicans (though one would hope they’d come up with a better name for it.)

Under the current presidential system, tea party Republicans know that they will never be able to compete in presidential elections without more moderate Republicans, and vice versa. So the two groups tolerate one another, but if a moderate Republican is elected president (such as Mitt Romney), there’s little reason that he (it would almost certainly be a he) would feel bound to respect the conservative faction’s wishes.

In a parliamentary system, the conservative faction could separate and run with its own roster of candidates, which would probably make fundraising and organizing easier anyway — people would be more motivated to vote for and donate to an ideologically pure party. Then, after the election, if the Democrats failed to win an absolute majority, the hypothetical Tea Party could present Republicans with a series of demands as coalition partners. Their position would be much stronger if Republicans had to enter into an agreement with them to form a government.

The difference between our situation and Germany’s is that it is impossible to imagine a coalition between Democrats and even moderate Republicans along the lines of the emerging German grand coalition. Our parties are simply too far apart.

The objection by Dylan Matthews is that a Republican-Tea Party coalition of the kind just hypothesized would be forced to moderate its positions in power. Our current staggered and fixed terms for elected officials allow them to evade responsibility for economic problems, but American conservatives who wanted to remain in power in a parliamentary system would choose policies that were likely to succeed, not ones guided by ideology.

I’m just not sure that Republicans today are even capable of looking beyond ideology or that they can think coherently about their own future election prospects, even the ones who care to do so. They wouldn’t be able to win more than one election in a row in a parliamentary system — but that’s plenty of time in which to do lasting damage to our economy, to our governing institutions, and our geopolitical position, as the younger President Bush demonstrated in his first term. And, if conservatives were never able to govern effectively, eventually the country would become a one-party state under enduring Democratic control with a weak opposition, analogous to South Africa, which is another unappealing possibility.

This isn’t an argument that parliamentary systems are always and everywhere worse than presidential ones. Sometimes the ability of parliamentary systems to incorporate extreme factions into the legislative process can be positive. Note that if the grand coalition in Germany fails, a liberal coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left is possible — which would probably be a good thing for Europe and the world. Another example is the Dutch parliament’s approach to financial reform two years ago, which combined the support of radical parties on both sides to restrain the banking industry. My point is just that given the nature of American conservatism today — the extremism on the one hand and the incompetence on the other — I tend to think that the separation of powers is serving us well.

That is all for this afternoon. I’ll be online again in the morning.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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