America’s Slow Presidential Transitions

Why isn't Joe Biden President already?

NPR’s Ron Elving explores the perennial question of “Why The U.S. Takes So Long To Change Presidents.” It seems especially relevant this go-around, as a petulant man in declining mental health has almost two more months to damage the country.

As Elving puts it,

Why do we wait until the latter part of January to swear in a president we elect in November? Put another way: How is it that the Brits can have a newly elected prime minister meeting with the queen to form a new government within a day or two, but we need 10 or 11 weeks to install a new crew?

Mostly, of course, it’s a function of the fact that we’re running the country based on a document written in 1787, when the horse was the fastest means of travel and also of getting the news out. Indeed, transitions used to take even longer, with new Presidents not inaugurated until March 4. Every schoolboy used to know that this was changed after William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after getting soaked during his 1841 inaugural speech—except that we didn’t actually change to the current January 20 for nearly a century afterward, in time for Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural. (And wouldn’t actually inaugurate a new President on that date until Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.)

Rather obviously, transportation and communication are no longer obstacles. Why, then, don’t we have British-style transitions?

Well, for one thing, while we hold our elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, they don’t strictly speaking elect Presidents. That, of course, is done via the Electoral College, which meets the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. And then those votes aren’t counted until the new Congress meets in January.

Still, that too is an artifact of the circumstances of 1787. While it’s next to inconceivable that there’s political will to eliminate the anachronism of the Electoral College, we could probably get support for either making it virtual (that is, simply awarding Electoral votes as states certify election results) or at least moving the date up considerably.

As Elving notes, a lot can happen during the transition period:

In 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission, concluded that the five-week struggle to determine the winner of the 2000 presidential election weakened the ability of the U.S. to detect and deter the plotters of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Just as ominous was the period after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In the four months he had to wait to take office, seven Southern states seceded and began seizing federal forts within their state lines. Any last chance of heading off the Civil War was lost.

And in the depths of the Great Depression, when banks were failing and industries collapsing, little or nothing was accomplished while the nation waited four months for FDR to take over from President Herbert Hoover, the man he had defeated to get the keys to the White House.

And that doesn’t even count President George H.W. Bush sending troops into Somalia during the lame duck period to deal with the humanitarian fallout of its civil war.

Rather obviously, Trump has stopped trying to actually govern. As bad as his handling of the coronavirus was when he was seeking re-election, he’s completely taken his hands off the wheel.

Still, while Elving provides an interesting history lesson, he doesn’t really answer the question. A Westminster-style parliamentary system operates completely differently than ours.

In the UK and systems like theirs, there is a unity of power. The leader of the party which commands a majority of the legislature—or a leader able to put together a majority coalition—will form a government. Further, the out-party will have a shadow government, Members of Parliament who are up to speed on the duties of the cabinet posts (foreign affairs, defense, treasury, etc.) and ready to step into them immediately.

We, of course, have separation of powers. We’ll have a new House and a new Senate in January. And the incoming Biden administration will have to get its cabinet and subcabinet officials—as many as 4000 people depending on how one counts it—approved by the new Senate. And, because we’re seeing a party transition, almost all of those people will be people currently outside of government.

We could, I suppose, install the new Congress (minus the two Georgia Senators) earlier. But given the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons, it likely wouldn’t get much work done.

Even if we did, though, it seems rather clear that Biden is still putting his team together. He still hasn’t pulled the trigger on his Secretary of Defense.

One might think that he would have figured out his cabinet months ago. And, presumably, he had several key candidates identified.

Still, there’s the matter of getting elected in the first place. Not only does that rather demand the candidate’s full attention but it requires unifying his party’s leadership around him. There are more senior Democrats who would like cabinet posts than there are cabinet posts to fill; disappointing them too early would have dampened their enthusiasm in working for Biden’s election. Not to mention rank-and-file Democrats and independents who might be less likely to vote if a too-progressive or too-moderate person is named.

Even beyond that, until one knows how the other elections have gone, putting together a cabinet is a fool’s errand. For example, Biden may very well have preferred Susan Rice over Tony Blinken as his Secretary of State. In a world where he had 52 Democratic Senators and no filibuster, that might well have happened. But, with a 50-50 Senate as his best-case scenario, that’s not a fight worth having.

As much as we might prefer to get the Trump Administration over with, then, there’s really not might way we could speed up the process absent a radical overhaul of the system itself. And the system makes that next to impossible,

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Presidency, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Mexico votes in mid-July and the transfer is December 1st.

    3
  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Because our past presidents have generally put the interests of the country before their own, we’ve avoided transition disasters, but our luck is running out. Trump has already made it more difficult for Biden to address problems the country is facing, even if Biden were to propose R solutions and no one should be shocked if Trump orders an attack on Iran.

    6
  3. JohnSF says:

    Surely at least part of the reason for the long transition, beyond just habit, is the difference in numbers of political appointees.

    The UK requires about 120 to 150 Ministers of the Crown (could actually get away with less) including unpaid posts; the formal limit on paid ministerial posts is posts is 109; maximum number of ministers in Commons is 95.

    There are also the unpaid ministerial assistants who are MP’s; numbers vary, but technically they have no ministerial authority i.e. don’t hold sworn office from the Crown, and IIRC have no powers to command other crown servants.

    Plus there are Special Advisors (SpAds), usually about 100 to 150, who are temporary civil servant and are political appointees, but in theory outside the chain of command.
    In practice (as often in things UK) not always, see e.g. Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain, Alistair Campbell.

    Compared to IIRC around 4,000 in US government, with about a quarter being Senate confirmed.
    Eeek!

    Actually, a better comparison might be with France? That can be non-unitary; OTOH, it’s a hybrid of executive president plus parliamentary. Not that familiar with details TBH.

    2
  4. drj says:

    In the UK and systems like theirs, there is a unity of power. The leader of the party which commands a majority of the legislature—or a leader able to put together a majority coalition—will form a government.

    In France, the presidential and legislative elections are two separate events. Even so, in France, they are able to transition from one president to the other in a single week. So it’s not that.

    Apart from a rather fossilized Constitution, I strongly suspect that another reason for the length of the transition period is the fact that in the US a far larger portion of the government apparatus is politicized than is common in many other democracies.

    If in Germany, France or even Japan, a new government comes in, there is no need to replace top civil servants, ambassadors, etc. They stay in place and simply continue to serve the next government. There are far, far fewer political appointees. (Also: elected judges and elected law enforcement officials are mostly unheard of in other parts of the world.)

    US consitutional arrangements are fairly atypical. Not many other countries have opted to follow them.

    3
  5. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Then let’s do a radical overhaul of the system itself. It’s kind of precious to assume that is a valid reason not to do anything to improve how we do things. I never cease to be amazed at how self-inflicted our problems are and how we regularly default to the do-nothing stance.

    When I was in school, our teacher told us the long period between early-November and mid-January was because the Founding Fathers and their peers didn’t realize there might be a faster way to get both results and congressional butts in seats than by riding a horse. Obviously that’s changed.

    3
  6. Michael Cain says:

    The first step is to change how elections are conducted. From memory of what I’ve read about the UK, they vote for their MP, and only their MP, and they do it for districts of about 100,000 people total (call it 70,000 voters max?). Require any mail ballots to be received by the time the polls close. Sort the papers into two piles and count them. An hour or two to do the sums, and they know who won.

    California can certify as late as Dec 11 this year. My Colorado ballot probably had 40 things for me to vote on this year: President, US Senate, US House, state senate (our senator was in the half up this time), state house, university regents, judge retentions, state-level referenda and initiatives, county referendum, city initiatives… A scanning error in any of the elections kicks the ballot out for special handling. And on and on and on.

    How much time could we whack off if we knew, beyond a doubt and with no possibility of court challenges, who won by the day after the election at latest?

    2
  7. JKB says:

    @Michael Cain: From memory of what I’ve read about the UK, they vote for their MP, and only their MP, and they do it for districts of about 100,000 people total (call it 70,000 voters max?).

    Well, in the UK, the Parliament is sovereign, not the People. This little detail is rearing its ugly head for Brits, Aussies, Canadians and Kiwis as their parliaments have taken actions against the people. So while they hold elections, the PM is chosen in the manner that Nancy Pelosi has been elected to Speaker of the House. And the PM is not independent of the parliament, but its creature.

    1
  8. drj says:

    @JKB:

    as their parliaments have taken actions against the people.

    Taking this nonsense at face value for argument’s sake, how do you feel about Trump having become President despite the stated wish of the people back in 2016 when he lost the popular vote?

    10
  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    @JKB:

    No, in all the countries you mentioned it is the monarch, not Parliament that is sovereign.

    These countries are electing a government and the parties run on a platform that they execute if elected. The PM is a creature of Parliament, by design.

    Most republics that are democracies have a parliamentary form of government because it works better than the mess that the US has.

    7
  10. drj says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Well, to be fair: in the UK it is Parliament that’s sovereign. Being a consitutional monarchy and all that, the monarch is on a pretty tight leash.

    I’m pretty sure that @JKB has picked up some vague blabbering about the UK parliament defying the wishes of the people by not uncritically embracing some particular Brexit lunacy following the UK’s referendum on that issue. So that’s bad! Because “the will of the People.”

    But while the libtard elites in the UK should follow the wish of the people when it comes to glorious independence from the socialist hellhole that is the EU, in the US we are a republic, not a democracy so it’s OK if the Electoral College distorts the will of the people (if they live in coastal states, that is).

    In any case, @JKB knows exactly what the people want, so shut up you hippy you.

    It’s all very situational, you see.

    7
  11. gVOR08 says:

    A point of curiosity that I’ve never seen explicitly stated. My understanding is that in the UK, and other parliamentary governments, shadow cabinet members have no official role and no particular access to “their” ministry nor to classified information. Is this true? Is there some equivalent of our Gang of Eight for defense and intelligence shadow ministers?

    1
  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I see JKB is over his post-election breakdown. It must be so confusing for the Culties: should we count votes? Should we not count votes? Can we just throw out Black votes? To coup or not to coup? Should we pretend that Rudy Giuliani is sane? Should Sidney Powell go under the bus? And what of Fox News treeeeeeeason?

    I suspect when JKB talks about the people being sovereign he’s buying into the sovereign citizen nonsense. It will give him a thin reed to hang his inevitable support for Trumpist white terrorism on.

    8
  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    @gVOR08:

    JohnSF would best answer this. The shadow ministers are usually minority members of parliament representing the party(s) out of power and would be privy to what ever information any legislator would through a committee assignment.

  14. drj says:

    @gVOR08:

    My understanding is that in the UK, and other parliamentary governments, shadow cabinet members have no official role

    I’m not the best person to ask about specific UK arrangements, but shadow cabinet members have no offical role (as far as I know).

    By the way, a “shadow cabinet” only works in a two-party system, so in most parliamentary governments it doesn’t even exist.

    Having said this, it’s not unusual for the leaders of parliamentary opposition groups to be confidentially briefed on certain national security issues. The assumption is that the opposition doesn’t actually hate the country.

    1
  15. JohnSF says:

    @JKB:

    in the UK, the Parliament is sovereign

    Incorrect.
    The Sovereign is sovereign (the clue is in the name).

    However, the Crown does not possess the power to make law.
    That is where “Paliamentary sovereignty” comes in: only Parliament may make new laws.
    Whether that power is inherent in Parliament, or is a delegation from the people is an interesting question.
    A lot of political theorists and modern constitutional lawyers say yes.
    A lot of historians would argue that as the powers of Parliament in this regard preceded anything remotely like universal suffrage (even just male) that reasoning is nonsense. And if Parliament is an agent of anything it is of the people in abstract i.e. the Country, not of the populace as voters, which is merely the method of selection.
    Whatever.

    And via “Crown in Parliament” and the modern mode of misiters responsible to a dominant Commons, the Powers are unified: executive, legislative and judicial intimately conjoined.
    (Ooh err!)

    Of course the Prime Minister is not independent of Parliament; without a Commons majority he or she is nothing. The theory is that the Cabinet is appointed to conduct the Crown’s business in Parliament, and to carry out the executive functions as the agents of the Crown.

    Strictly speaking the position of Prime Minister is one of convention, not statute or other written definition; the formal title of the minister concerned is “First Lord of the Treasury in Commission”, and their leadership based purely on the consent of fellow Cabinet ministers and the capacity to carry forward the sovereigns business in Parliament.

    IIRC it’s still not a formal requirement that they be a Commons MP. Though there hasn’t been a lord as PM since Lord Salisbury in 1902. In practice, of course, the Commons wouldn’t now permit a Peer as PM.

    In practice, a PM with a disciplined party behind him can reduce Parliament, and most other parts of the system, to subservience; and bully his own back-benchers too, on an individual basis, as long as they do not rebel against him as a group.

    Now, constitutional arcana to one side, would you care to tell me what exactly the heck you mean by

    “…their parliaments have taken actions against the people.”

    I mean, I think that the current Parliamentary majority have acted contrary to the interests of the Country by following, or rather, using, a particular view of the “will of the people”
    But I suspect you are thinking of something else.

    Then again, unlike you, I’m not a liberal. 🙂

    7
  16. gVOR08 says:

    @drj:

    The assumption is that the opposition doesn’t actually hate the country.

    Good point. But I don’t suppose there’s any way to cut out the GOP members of the Gang of Eight just because they do hate the country.

    1
  17. KM says:

    Crosspost from other thread as it really fits here better:
    “Don’t talk to me that way. I’m the President of the United States. Don’t ever talk to the President that way”

    Umm, yes we do and yes we should.

    This is what an abuser or someone with NPD (or both) sounds like when someone challenges them on basic reality. They try to invoke authority and demand respect they don’t give when you point out their transgressions. They’re Right because they’re the Boss and who are you to question them?! He’s rambling on about how he didn’t lose during the Thanksgiving Address (supposed to be about blessings and uninity and wholesomeness) and gets pissy that someone called him out.

    What a pathetic little man. What’s even more pathetic are the people who will praise him for this as showing off Alpha power moves. We truly have been diminished as a nation by this man’s odious presence.

    7
  18. kennyb says:

    @gVOR08:

    Generally senior shadow ministers will be members of the Privy Council and can receive information confidentially (on “Privy Council Terms” as it’s known) about information that would otherwise be secret. The view is that whilst they can use the knowledge to shape their party’s policy they wouldnt openly reveal the information in public.

    The actual Cabinet is a sub committee of the Privy Council rather than parliament so its a handy mechanism for this exchange of information ebtween cabinet ministers and their opposite numbers.

    1
  19. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The most amusing thing about it is that, while the culties can rationalize Trump’s defeat by claiming the election was stolen, there’s no way for them to handle the fact that Trump will no longer be president on Jan. 20. Their invincibility doctrine doesn’t just require that Trump be the rightful winner, it also requires that Trump never loses anything–and no matter how they spin it, they damn well know his being pushed out of office is a defeat. But they simply can’t fit that into their reality. In fact until the moment he does leave, many of them are going to be convinced he’ll find a way to stay. And after he leaves, I’m sure some of the Q people will be saying he’s still somehow in control.

    5
  20. drj says:

    @JohnSF:

    The Sovereign is sovereign (the clue is in the name).

    This is a fiction, surely. Parliamentary sovereignty, by contrast, is something that has real-life implications.

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kylopod:
    I wonder if anyone has researched the post-fall history of cults? Are there still Branch Davidians roaming around west Texas? Is there a random Heaven’s Gate person still waiting for the mother ship?

    Trump out of the White House will be traumatic for people like JKB and keef and the rest. Some will accept reality. Many will delay that acceptance, taking it one small bite at a time, clinging to their happy lies as long as they can. I assume a great many will foster a new Lost Cause myth. And some will just follow that flushed orange turd right down the toilet bowl into crazy town.

    1
  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    @drj:
    Sovereignty ≠ Power. Parliament has the power, the Queen is sovereign.

    1
  23. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Trump out of the White House will be traumatic for people like JKB and keef and the rest.

    I’m not so sure. They probably relish having a Lost Cause. So much easier than dealing with reality. It’s only about their feelings anyway.

    The William Barrs of this world however…

    5
  24. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:
    @Sleeping Dog:
    As with most things British … it’s complicated.
    🙂

    The Shadow Cabinet and ministers have no official standing in the eyes of the Crown.
    But the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition does.
    They have a Crown salary along similar lines to a Cabinet Minister, and is appointed as a Privy Councillor.
    Also, members of the Shadow who were ministers in a previous government would be Privy Council members as well.
    As Privy Councillors they may be briefed on matters; but is usually at the current governments discretion (gets a bit murky; there are aspects of how the P.C. operates in practice that are not open to public scrutiny; it is possible the Household may brief them on terms: who knows?)
    Privy Council terms are basically, the matter will be kept strictly confidential.
    Usually “Privy Council terms” briefings are restricted to special matters of national security.

    There are also oblique occasional references to “meetings that never happen”: semi-formal Privy Councillors meeting on matters of major national importance, conducted by an officer of the Household, rather than in the presence the monarch, on terms of absolute confidentiality.
    But, as they never happen…

    Then there is their role in Parliament: because that’s the business of Parliament (or the specific House) and not at all of the Crown.
    And some things are informally carried on via the “Usual Channels”.

  25. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Just because I’m picky today, here’s the first paragraph from Parliament’s web page on Parliament’s authority:

    Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution. It makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law. Generally, the courts cannot overrule its legislation and no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change. Parliamentary sovereignty is the most important part of the UK constitution.

    My take is the Queen is Sovereign with a big S, but not sovereign with a little s.

    3
  26. dazedandconfused says:

    That they included a human element in the Electoral College strongly indicates the idea was they would deliberate the issue among themselves. There is no reason to elect representatives to wield a rubber stamp. That meant there had to be plenty of time for them to assemble in that 3 mph world of no paved roads, lots of unbridged creeks and rivers, and in winter. After all are in one place the process of selecting a POTUS begins, and such an issue must be expected to take a significant period of time.

    Gathering a cabinet is unlikely to have been much of a consideration in that world, the office was not considered critical. There was all but no Federal army envisioned. The structure places a heck of a lot of power within state’s government. Yet still the issue was supposed to be undecided until the electoral college had made the choice, and the winner needed time to get to Washington after that.

    March seems about right.

  27. JohnSF says:

    @drj:
    It’s a fiction of sorts.

    Even theoretically, the Crown cannot make law, only Parliament has that power.
    Or interpret law, for that matter; only judges have that power.
    Though, in theory the Crown must assent to acts for them to become law; and the judges are appointed by the Crown.

    In practice, the executive powers of the Crown are almost all delegated to the Cabinet, who are all Members of Parliament.
    This tends to cause friction with MP’s, who tend to have a very high opinion of themselves, and are often unable to grasp that, though the Ministers are fellow MP’s, and responsible to the House, the powers of the Cabinet as Ministers often derive from Crown prerogative, not from the statutory powers granted by the Commons.

    Such as: dissolution of parliament, declarations of war, making of treaties, pardon, refusal to prosecute, annexations (not an everyday one lately LOL), control of the armed forces, granting of honours, ecclesiastical appointments, and “emergency powers”.
    And some prerogative is, of necessity reserved to the monarch alone: most especially the appointment of a prime minister; and “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn”.

    Now, as to whether the will of prime minister or monarch would prevail if it came to a contest over an assent, or a dissolution, or an appointment: who knows?
    It would be a foolish monarch who would push such a crisis.
    On the other hand, it would be a foolish prime minister who would assume that the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry would obey their orders over the monarchs, if it came to it.

    But: when it comes to the constitution, I’m rather in the monarchist conservative camp; a democratic liberal might well give a completely different account.

  28. Michael Cain says:

    @JohnSF:

    Now, as to whether the will of prime minister or monarch would prevail if it came to a contest over an assent, or a dissolution, or an appointment: who knows?
    It would be a foolish monarch who would push such a crisis.

    A British friend describes it as, “The Monarch currently holds certain powers that they can exercise once. Because after they use it, Parliament will take it away.

    1
  29. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnSF: @Michael Cain:

    Silly Brits with their ill-defined, irrational system of government. What those people need is to divide the country up into 50 separate states with wildly different populations, each with a legislature composed of car salesmen and real estate agents, who can pass laws unless the federal government’s Senate, composed of lawyers and con men, doesn’t like the law they passed, in which case it’s decided by nine old people chosen by presidents elected by people called electors who no one knows, or by the House of Representatives with its surplus of loons and creeps elected by people who literally couldn’t find their own country on an unmarked map of the world.

    That’s how a superpower does it.

    7
  30. gVOR08 says:

    @kennyb: @JohnSF: @JohnSF: Thanks. Quite informative.

    1
  31. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Well, the Brits are currently governed by upper-class twits pretending to be men of the people. Still can’t shut up about WW2.

    Even now (well, in 2016, tbf), some of these fools are ready to send in the Royal Navy like it’s 1899.

    You’d be better off taking an example of the Germans…

    1
  32. JohnSF says:

    Well, that’s how it’s assumed it will turn out, because that’s how it turned out in the confrontations of the 17th century.

    A confrontation in extremis could be monarch versus prime minister, or monarch versus Commons, or a combination.
    The most likely trigger would be be a the rise of a fascist (or less likely, communistic) party with a monarch determined to resist such a force.
    In that case it might be Parliament that was curbed.

    I am always reluctant to assume that history only moves in one inevitable direction. Or that the majority are inherently justified (in a variety of senses).
    (Doesn’t mean I’m one of those daft “libertarian neo-monarchist” types either, in case you’re wondering.)

    1
  33. JohnSF says:

    @drj:
    Or the French; they are perhaps the closer to an American system than most, having a sort-of executive president.
    OTOH, they are not at all federal; it’s in some ways the most centralised Western state of all.

    governed by upper-class twits

    IMHO by upper middle class twits, pretending to be upper class. Which is a source of a lot of their issues.
    For instance the ludicrous Rees-Mogg, who affects the airs of a 19th century aristocrat.
    In reality a Cavendish or a Spencer etc. might employ him as a land agent (or a valet LOL) but would never consider him an equal.

    And as for the “send in the Royal Navy ” re. Gibraltar thing, I’ve a bit of bad (?) news.
    The mouthy twit in question, Luke Coffey, is an American.
    🙂
    Currently director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
    As I’ve remarked before, there’s a lot of transatlantic connections among the upper levels of new right politics and lobbyists.

    2
  34. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Are you familiar with the Sabbatai Zevi?

    2
  35. drj says:

    @JohnSF:

    might employ him as a land agent (or a valet LOL)

    Ouch!

    2
  36. Kathy says:

    On November 1st, there were 9.2 million total COVID cases in the US. Today that figure is past 13 million. America is averaging over one million cases per week.

    That’s how slowly the transition is going.

    2
  37. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    If memory serves, the Millerites expected the apocalyse in 1844; later became the Seventh Day Adventists, who are still around and still annoying.

    There were the Fifth Monarchy Men in England in the mid-17th century, who were rather peeved by the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and largely came to a sticky end in their abortive rising of 1661.

    And there were lots of various millenialist sects in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church took a dim view: “Everybody expects the Holy Inquisition!”

    2
  38. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kylopod:
    Well, now I am.

  39. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Silly Brits with their ill-defined, irrational system of government. What those people need is to…

    I have had nightmares about a US as polarized on major policies as we are now that has a Westminster-like system. The Republicans win and… the medical insurance companies are deregulated, electricity from renewable sources is banned, abortion is illegal. The Democrats win and… private health insurance is reregulated, gas taxes quadruple, churches lose their property tax exemption.

    I asked a British friend once why there weren’t wholesale policy reversals when control passed in Parliament. His answer was “Some things just aren’t done.” In the US, there seems to be a decreasing list of things that “just aren’t done.”

    4
  40. An Interested Party says:

    Then again, unlike you, I’m not a liberal.

    There’s nothing liberal about JKB…

    I asked a British friend once why there weren’t wholesale policy reversals when control passed in Parliament. His answer was “Some things just aren’t done.”

    Really? Those things were done when Thatcher came to power in 1979…

    2
  41. Michael Cain says:

    @An Interested Party: My bad, I should have been clearer. Why aren’t there wholesale policy reversals every time control is passed?

  42. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    I think an increasing number of Conservative activists would like such a “winner take all” approach.
    And some aspect of “it’s just not done” are being eroded.
    Look at the way the Conservative governments since 2016 have overridden parliamentary conventions, and winked at right wing media attacks on the judiciary and the civil service as “remoaners”

    But there are some more basic political factors that anchor both sides in realism and continuity.
    The vocal activist base of “Brexity KipperCons” or “BluKip” are a minority in the Conservative Party, just as the Corbynites are in Labour.
    Most Tory membership are rather reactionary, but they are not “enthusiasts” (and are rather too old to long for upheavals).
    They are comfortably off, and would like to continue to enjoy being comfortably off.

    There is a good deal of consensus in British politics, and elections cannot be won by “turning out the base” or “mobilising the non-voters” (Corbynites and Faragists have proclaimed otherwise; seasoned politician know better).
    Crucially, electoral victories generally depend on swing voters and “borrowed” constituencies; the “hardcore” seats might stick with ultra policies, but they aren’t enough to govern with.

    The NHS is overwhelmingly popular; one of the third rails of British politics. Do not touch.

    Only a few fringe cases would support the right to arms ( There’s a family anecdote there I may tell some time).

    Abortion is a settled matter, by statute: it is legal, but under restrictions which satisfy most non-fundamental objectors.

    A Labour government could quadruple petrol tax: but it would be demolished at the next election. (Any way, fuel tax is currently 70% of the total of £1.30/litre; that would be about $1.5/liter or $5.75 ? /gallon. Top that, kids.)

    Generally speaking, the British people and the ministerial/civil service/parliamentary/monarchic system favours pragmatism and continuity.

    The one area where the current government can get away with playing silly buggers is Brexit.
    For a variety of reasons.
    And I think Johnson is under the illusion that this will persist; I suspect he, along with a lot of the country, are due for a nasty surprise in the New Year.

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  43. JohnSF says:

    @An Interested Party:
    Oh, it’s how I often tease American Republicans.
    You support a written constitution? equality before the law? freedom of speech? majority rule? free markets? freedom of religion? no established church? natural rights of man? separation of powers? independent judiciary? property rights?
    Congratulations! You’re a liberal!

    (And on quite a few of those, I am not.)

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  44. JohnSF says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Those things were done when Thatcher came to power in 1979

    The Thatcher “revolution” is overstated both by allies and opponents.
    She left the NHS absolutely alone.
    Education policy was essentially untouched; indeed the expansion of higher education the “new right” bleats about was accelerated.

    The main changes were: reduction in higher rates of tax; but it still stood at 40% in 1988; with base rate cut to 25%. But largely paid for by VAT going up to 15%.
    Benefit payments were cut, in some case heavily, but far from abolished.

    The main areas of Thatcherite radicalism were anti-union legislation, curbs on subsidies to nationalised industries and willingness for uneconomic ones to shut down, the privatisation of some nationalised (not all) industries, the sale of council houses to tenant on easy terms, limits on local government spending, and, ironically, the EU single market.
    Plus monetarism/strong pound/high inerest rates.
    In regards to the the unions and the nationalised industries, Thatcher followed the national consensus rather than leading it.

    Previous Labour governments had already been trying to curb union power and nationalised money pits, but had been inhibited by their historic institutional connection to the Trade Unions.

    Opinion polls all showed that the unions and N.I.’s were viewed with disfavour even by Labour voters.