Q&A Time

Hopefully answering a reader question (but probably just making it all worse).

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In the comment section of the previous post frequent reader, Marked Man writes:

So my problem isn’t in understanding or accepting your perspective, it’s that when we get to “and then…” you trail off. You find well deserved fault with the current system but seem unwilling to promote any specific alternative. For example, I could infer from your statements that you would champion more parliamentary-like systems. But when I point out that there are parliamentary systems that seem to yield results as bad or worse than here in the US (Britain, Brexit; Israel, extreme religious control of many important social and policy areas; Italy, Berlusconi and decades of chaotic government) you merely make vague statements about how those cases are unique and shouldn’t be considered. But in what way are they institutionally different from more successful systems? Because if the same institutional structure can lead to either the Netherlands or Israel, to Sweden or Italy, then it can’t be the institutional structure itself that leads to better or worse results.

Because the comment box is too restrictive, let me provide at least a partial answer here.

Let me try and address some of the specific:

but seem unwilling to promote any specific alternative.

I’ll be honest, that strikes me as unfair, but I will try and accept that perhaps I haven’t been clear enough. I will admit, as expounded on below, that I have cleaved more to diagnosis than solution of late.

it’s that when we get to “and then…” you trail off.

This is not entirely unfair (especially in any given post), although I think it undersells a lot of things I have said in terms of “and then…”

First, I am aware that I have doubled down, to a degree, on the diagnosis of specific issues, rather than prescriptions for fixes. This is for several reasons. The main reason is that I have decided, whether correctly or not, that the country needs more and better diagnoses before it will ever listen to remedies. And it is my assessment that this is also true for a lot of the readers here.

Indeed, I have a sense that the general way that even very smart people talk about American politics (and not just here by any stretch) is so steeped in American mythologies and lacks any deep understanding of how politics can function beyond the American model, that continued deep analysis of the pathologies of American politics is a worthwhile goal. I will also say that when it comes to primaries specifically, I am thinking more about their role and so simply want to write about them. My interest in party control of labels dates back to my doctoral dissertation on Colombian politics, for whatever that is worth.

Second, in the past whenever I have talked about solutions, especially more dramatic ones like electoral reform, I find that most readers just don’t see it. Or, if I said “hey, parliamentarian sure would be cool,” I suspect that I would be accused of pipe dreams (indeed, I often am, even when writing about modest changes).

In fairness, I have made some very concrete proposals on this site, which I referenced a couple of weeks ago: An Action-Oriented Prescription.

To be direct, as I have before, my “magic wand” preference would be to go a lot closer to Germany: a parliamentary system with MMP (mixed-member proportional representation) and federalism that takes states seriously but without overly empowering them in a way that undercuts national policy.

My less pipe dreamy, “and then” is to get as many people as possible to understand that our political pathologies will not be solved with better messaging by the parties, via better people in politics, or just time. My modest goal is to convince and educate as many people as I can to at least think about how structure and institutional choices shape the governance we get. I honestly think (or delude myself into thinking) that I have made some modest progress in this arena.

I have made a number of low level suggestions, including increasing the size of the House, adding states, expanding the Supreme Court, moving away from primaries, and popular election of the president. These are all hard, but modest, reforms–several of which could be done via legislation.

Back to MarkedMan’s comment:

For example, I could infer from your statements that you would champion more parliamentary-like systems. But when I point out that there are parliamentary systems that seem to yield results as bad or worse than here in the US (Britain, Brexit; Israel, extreme religious control of many important social and policy areas; Italy, Berlusconi and decades of chaotic government) you merely make vague statements about how those cases are unique and shouldn’t be considered.

So, yes, as noted, I would prefer parliamentarism (not that I expect that to happen, well, ever). I think, too, this is an area in which the commenter (and many readers, and even the mainstream American press) radically oversimplifies (or straight-up does not understand) what a parliamentary system means. The UK and Israel are radically different because while both are parliamentary (the executive is elected from within the legislature) their electoral systems are vastly different. The UK has an electoral system very similar to the US system, i.e., single-seat districts with plurality winners while Israel has one of the most proportional electoral systems one can find (list-PR in a single national district).

As such, the UK is more comparable to the US in many ways than it is to Israel, despite both being parliamentary. The UK has a system that produces two large parties, but it does not use primaries, and also has some important regional differences (most notably the Scottish National Party) that creates its own dynamics. Israel’s system is highly proportional, and therefore creates a fragmented party system.

To say that either the UK or Israel provides all one needs to know about parliamentary democracy would be a mistake (because it is a gross oversimplification).

I cannot stress enough that it is not parliamentarism that directly influences the number of parties that compete and win seats, it is the broader electoral system that serves that function (but this is often conflated in the US press).

And, I would note, my preference for parliamentarism is not because it produces some promised outcome, but rather because it produces a better system than the one we currently have.

I would also note that Brexit is not a result of parliamentarism, as much as it is the result of a massive political calculation by David Cameron.

In terms of citing specific problems with specific parliamentary democracies, it is less that I dismiss these examples, as it is to say that it is super easy to argue that nothing is perfect (yes. no joke). Also, my argument is not that parliamentarism or, more specifically, a more representative electoral system fixes everything, but that it would improve a number of key flaws in our politics.

I will also admit to finding it more a bit frustrating for the counter-argument to be: there is this one thing in Israel I don’t like, as well as this other thing in the UK that is bad (and man, isn’t Italy a mess?). All well and good, but that still ignores dozens of other cases and, moreover, since nothing is perfect when humans are involved, why should it be considered dispositive to be able to list a couple of examples as if they are slam-dunk counter-arguments?

I accept that Israel has produced some bad policy (but since I am not arguing for the Israeli system, so what?). The UK has a glaring example of a monumentally stupid policy–no argument there, but there is still a pretty good argument that the US is engaged in ongoing problems, so how does Brexit demonstrate that the US doesn’t need reform? And yes, the Italians have a long track record of issues with their government, but why is that supposed to mean the parliamentary governance itself is a problem?

And, again, none of that takes into account variations in electoral systems and other institutional variables. Just casting it all as parliamentary v. presidential is, quite frankly, excessively simplistic.

But, in terms of trying to find common ground, I would agree that if we could wave the aforementioned magic wand, I would not adopt the institutional structures of any of those three cases (even if there are elements that they possess that I might prefer to the current US configuration).

Again to MarkedMan:

Because if the same institutional structure can lead to either the Netherlands or Israel, to Sweden or Italy, then it can’t be the institutional structure itself that leads to better or worse results.

Let me stress that none of those systems are identical and what we would need to consider is what features (e.g., electoral system, executive-legislative relations, structure of legislature, federal-unitary arrangements, etc.) we are actually talking about. It is grossly simplistic to simply say that the comparison is parliamentary system v. presidential system.

I will end here. Maybe this has made thing clear, or maybe it hasn’t (but I did try!).

FILED UNDER: Comparative Democracies, Democracy, Democratic Theory
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Taylor –

    I appreciate your lengthy and detailed analysis. But main frustration is that neither academia nor the press is doing a good enough job of covering what is the actual issue: Minority rule. We currently have a structure that not only favors the minority population states, but with SC approved gerrymanders, encourages minority rule in even larger population states (Wisconsin comes to mind).

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  2. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    While I don’t always agree with your opinions, thoughts, and occasional rationalizations, I always appreciate your willingness to explain exactly what you were trying to get across to us. Yes, sometimes that leaves you in the position of explaining exactly why you were holding a stick while standing next to the dead horse, but at least you continue the discussion. Since we all bring our own biases and baggage to the table, I’ve just come to accept that I’m not often in consensus with others here. Heck, I’m frequently just the confused, illiterate comic relief.

    But I appreciate your (and our other hosts) willingness to continue herding this unruly bunch of cats. Carry on, everyone.

    @EddieInCA:
    And while I agree with you, Eddie, I have no faith in the ability of academe or individual members of the press to break through the screen erected by the ruling class owners who control the media. Suggestions?

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  3. BugManDan says:

    So since this is Q&A, I will repeat a question I asked yesterday. Is there a reason other than tradition that US parties allow anyone that wants to use their label? If not, why don’t they close the parties? And I don’t mean with superdelegates which only applies to Pres anyway.

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  4. BugManDan says:

    I just wanted to say that I also appreciate the time you take explaining everything. But that it is quite depressing to know that none of it will ever change outside of a revolution and then who knows what the final outcome will be.

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  5. @BugManDan: A short answer is that primaries emerged out of the progressive era and was a reform that was instituted to cut out corrupt political bosses. It has been ingrained in our politics for over a century (as it pertains to non-presidential elections, and for roughly half a century for the presidency).

    And the reason it likely won’t change (or, a least a reason) is inherent to the problem as I wrote about yesterday: who is The Party to want to change it? That is: there is no central control in the parties for those collective actors to want to change. And those who do hold power in the parties largely have that power because of the current system, so they are unlikely to want to change anything.

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  6. @EddieInCA:

    But main frustration is that neither academia nor the press is doing a good enough job of covering what is the actual issue: Minority rule.

    This is a massive problem and part of why I have been focused on the messaging v. structure issue and primaries. Message matter less if the rules are stacked against the majority and primaries underscore the way in which relatively small numbers of people can shape mass movements. (Among other issues and effects, to be sure).

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  7. Just nutha says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never thought fading off about solutions was a problem since this discussion started. That none of the solutions can be acted may be distressing to the DO SOMETHING!!! part of the audience, neither you nor I can fix.

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  8. @Flat Earth Luddite: Oh, the poor horses! 😉

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  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Even if there was no primary system and a strong party chose its candidates, the strong party would still have factionalism. There would still be jockeying for power in the party itself and by the same factions that dominate the primaries. The primaries aren’t sui generis petri dishes which create these rifts. They’re reflections of the same forces that would be sitting in the middle of a strong party.

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  10. Modulo Myself says:

    I think a strong argument against the primary system is that it has prioritized an endless campaign theory of politics, where the winner has won because of a series of master political strokes rather than because of general conditions and a small amount of chance. The way Clinton’s 1992 campaign is mythologized is case in point: he did the Sister Souljah thing, executed a black guy, and slammed welfare and that was why he won, rather the huge recession which was going on. Same goes with Trump and his trolling and MAGA base. In retrospect it seems impossible that Jeb Bush could have eked out an EC victory over Hillary Clinton, but who knows?

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  11. @Modulo Myself:

    Even if there was no primary system and a strong party chose its candidates, the strong party would still have factionalism.

    Sure., But some factions would break away and form new parties if they didn’t have the primary process to both stay in the mainline party and do whatever they want.

    I think this is key: primaries utterly destroy any real incentive to new party formation.

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  12. Scott F. says:

    Thank you, Steven, for your persistence. An old adage of my colleagues in the problem solving business is, “a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved,” so I support your relentless focus on the underlying problem even though I recognize you are whispering into the wind.

    But, as the structure enables minority rule and the only genuine fix is to change the structure, even if the population were perfectly informed on what the actual issue was, those with the only power to change the structure are disincentivized for change, as they most benefit from the brokenness. This strikes me as an intractable condition.

    You’ve suggested that a major political crisis is prerequisite for any reform. I agree, so I ask this question with utmost sincerity. Since apparently a mob breach of the Capitol is insufficiently major, what would it take?

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    Steven, my main critique remains the same: you appear to be begging the question. You make an a priori assumption that certain systems are better than others but don’t provide any proof that one system or another actually yields better results. In fact, you don’t even define what “better” means.

    Sometimes I think that you are saying that voters having more choices is an inherent good, and that it is therefore better to have the chaos of post war Italy rather than, say, the Truman/Eisenhower era, simply because there were more parties to chose from.

    For my part I can, for example, suspect that California governance should decline in effectiveness once it became effectively a single party state, but my impression is that instead it has become more effective. It seems that rivalries and interest groups play out in Democratic races and the cranks, extremists and malcontents who normally pull a government into chaos sideline themselves by staying in the Republican Party.

    I could be wrong about California, and I certainly don’t think that all de facto one party systems provide effective governance (see Mississippi, Alabama, etc). Which is why I’m interested in understanding exactly what institutional structures promote effective governance. I realize that is not your exact area of research, which is why I’ve asked about others who may study this directly. Essentially scholars who say, “here are the ten parameters to measure government effectiveness, and here are one hundred institutional structures and mechanisms. Which of the latter are causative in positive movement in the former?”

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  14. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Scott F.:

    Since apparently a mob breach of the Capitol is insufficiently major, what would it take?

    I’m afraid the answer to the question is revolution. Bloody revolution. Civil War II. But as I noted earlier, I’m just the comic relief here, and I hope the flock I’m wrong.

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  15. Kathy says:

    The only way I see to change things is the usual:

    Promote the issue in the media to make people aware of it, lobby and pressure state and federal legislators to do something about it. That takes time, and a lot of money.

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  16. Mimai says:

    I wonder if part of the resistance (if one could call it that…maybe “misunderstanding” is more apt) to your thesis is that it focuses on the system rather than on individual actors.

    We need people to blame. Not only does this satisfy an innate desire, but it also makes for a simple diagnosis (them are bad, us is good) and thus simple solutions (eg, replace bad them with good us; us need to message better than them; etc).

    Racism seems a parallel, though not a perfect one. We have historically conceptualized racism at the intra- (bad racist people…) and inter- (…doing bad racist things) personal levels. Only very recently have we (as a collective) started to appreciate the elephant of systemic racism.

    And yet despite this greater appreciation (reflected in our discussions about “systems of injustice” and “antiracism” and the like), intra- and inter- personal diagnoses/solutions are tough to resist.

    There’s evidence that we’ve turned the corner on this wrt racism; ie, appreciating that systemic factors are key despite our ongoing attraction to intra- and inter- personal factors.

    Time will tell if/when we turn a similar corner wrt our political system. And even if we do, there’s no guarantee that what lies around the corner is “better” than what we have now. Worth the risk? Depends on one’s current perspective of “us” and “them.”

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  17. @MarkedMan:

    Steven, my main critique remains the same: you appear to be begging the question. You make an a priori assumption that certain systems are better than others but don’t provide any proof that one system or another actually yields better results. In fact, you don’t even define what “better” means.

    I honestly think that I have. Likely not completely, and clearly not to your satisfaction. I honestly suspect that I could write 10,000 words on it and it would likely not satisfy.

    Sometimes I think that you are saying that voters having more choices is an inherent good, and that it is therefore better to have the chaos of post war Italy rather than, say, the Truman/Eisenhower era, simply because there were more parties to chose from.

    I think that you are putting words in my mouth (and unfairly at that).

    Which is why I’m interested in understanding exactly what institutional structures promote effective governance. I realize that is not your exact area of research, which is why I’ve asked about others who may study this directly. Essentially scholars who say, “here are the ten parameters to measure government effectiveness, and here are one hundred institutional structures and mechanisms. Which of the latter are causative in positive movement in the former?”

    I am fairly certain I have pointed you to Chapter Ten of A Different Democracy that, at least in part, answers some of your questions (but, I suspect, not in a way that will satisfy–still, it seems not unreasonable to point you there again).

    Overall, I am not sure that you know what would satisfy you, save you know what you don’t like (Italy and Israel’s laws on marriage). That’s fine, but you have to admit you get a bit one-note on your critique.

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  18. @MarkedMan: I am also a bit at a loss as to why wanting a system that a) does not unfairly privilege the minority over the majority and b) that provides better representation of the population would not be an improvement over the current circumstances.

    It would seem that, for example, such a system might have been health care, more equitable taxation, and more consideration for women’s rights and for minority rights (as we see in many other democracies with more representative systems worldwide).

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  19. @Mimai:

    We need people to blame. Not only does this satisfy an innate desire, but it also makes for a simple diagnosis (them are bad, us is good) and thus simple solutions (eg, replace bad them with good us; us need to message better than them; etc).

    I think this is a huge obstacle in these conversations. We want to blame the bad people and just want good people to step up and solve the problems. But despite the movies and the other stories we tell ourselves, it is more complicated than that.

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  20. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am also a bit at a loss as to why wanting a system that a) does not unfairly privilege the minority over the majority

    Sure, if we add, “… excluding ‘improvements’ that don’t make other things substantially worse.” This isn’t an academic addition. Protecting the rights of the minority is one of the most important differences between the USA and governmental systems that preceded it.

    that provides better representation of the population

    There is my whole point in a nutshell. What does “better” mean here. More choices for voters, in and of itself? If that’s your metric, fine, but we would have to disagree on whether that alone yields “better” results.

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  21. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am fairly certain I have pointed you to Chapter Ten of A Different Democracy

    Fair enough. I just bought the book and even from a cursory glance at chapter ten I see I will need the context from the rest. I will touch back after I’ve read the whole thing and given it some thought.

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  22. @MarkedMan:

    Protecting the rights of the minority is one of the most important differences between the USA and governmental systems that preceded it.

    Indeed. But then again, I feel I have been pretty explicit about this being an essential element of democracy. I have never, ever (ever) stated that I think fundamental rights should be subject to a majority vote.

    I feel like you are so focused on that (with Israel being your main example) that perhaps you aren’t really seeing what I am trying to say.

    There is my whole point in a nutshell. What does “better” mean here. More choices for voters, in and of itself? If that’s your metric, fine, but we would have to disagree on whether that alone yields “better” results.

    As one of my comments above notes, as way of some simple examples:

    It would seem that, for example, such a system might have been health care, more equitable taxation, and more consideration for women’s rights and for minority rights (as we see in many other democracies with more representative systems worldwide).

    I really don’t think I have been as vague as you suggest.

    I get it: “better” is always better.

    But, surely, it is obviously better if you are going to elect a president for the majority to win rather than the minority?

    Surely, it would be better if each voter had an equal say in government?

    Surely, it is better for the legislature to be able to deal with policy problems instead of most things being blocked by a minority?

    I mean, I could get specific, such as the fact that there are votes for modest democratic reforms that won’t pass because of the filibuster.

    I could go on, but I have written a lot of words about this stuff already.

    My interpretation of your critiques is that you best want better without even saying how to get there, to be honest. Indeed, what is your definition of better?

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  23. @MarkedMan: Fair enough.

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  24. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But, surely, it is obviously better if you are going to elect a president for the majority to win rather than the minority?

    Ok, let’s grant that. But in many parliamentary systems important, even crucial, areas of governmental policy is controlled by extremist minorities. Is it the institutional structure of those specific systems that lead to such outcomes? If so, what are those structures and how do they differ from systems that did not yield such results?

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  25. @MarkedMan:

    1. I think you exaggerate this point (and your main example is Israel). Also, the degree to which they control those bureaucracies is also exaggerated. To be the Minister of X doesn’t mean you have total control over that policy area.

    2. Every parliamentary government has to have the support of the majority of the parliament (even a minority government requires majority acquiescence). And all policy decisions ultimately have to be agreed to by the majority.

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  26. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Also, the degree to which they control those bureaucracies is also exaggerated.

    You may be correct. And it maybe true that regardless of the type of governments democracies such as Egypt, India and Turkey would impose majoritarian and harsh, even deadly, strictures on their minority populations at the behest of powerful religious minorities necessary to the survival of the government. And it may also be true that countries such as Venezuela, Haiti, etc would have ineffective, corrupt and chaotic governments regardless of structure. FWIW, I think it quite likely, if unproven. But doesn’t that just emphasize the need to identify the circumstances in which specific types of structural changes improve governance rather than merely enhance the power of a committed single issue minority?

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  27. @MarkedMan: Egypt has never been a democracy. Turkey got close, but never really got there and regressed. India is a democracy, but has had some problematic moments.

    Venezuela’s democracy (which functioned pretty well for decades) broke down.

    Haiti barely had a functioning democracy, if it ever really had one.

    And yes, level of development matters.

    And yes, governing people is complicated.

    TBH, I am increasingly not sure what your point is, save that you seem vaguely dedicated to the notion that I am wrong to suggest the usefulness of different institutional designs.

    But doesn’t that just emphasize the need to identify the circumstances in which specific types of structural changes improve governance rather than merely enhance the power of a committed single issue minority?

    I know you are fixated on the bolded part–but that has never been my point.

    And I have, IMHO, repeatedly noted how “specific types of structural changes improve governance” but you seem to disagree that I have done so.

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