25 Sep America’s Different Democracy, or How Change Has Come to America*
America’s Different Democracy, or How Change Has Come to America
America’s government is a Constitutional democracy that differs significantly from most other democracies, many of which do not have written constitutions and the majority of which are parliamentary. In parliamentary democracies, the country’s head-of-state is chosen by the country’s legislature. Voters choose legislators, and a majority of those parliamentary legislators choose one of their own as head-of-state – as a Prime Minister or Chancellor. The executive and legislative branches of government therefore are aligned, the Prime Minister and Parliament fused. They work together because they are from the same political party with an agreed-upon governing platform. Because the majority party in parliament has selected the head-of-state, it may remove him/her at any time by a vote of no confidence (which has happened quite a bit recently). This fusion of legislative and executive branches is how democracy works or doesn’t in most of Europe, Oceana, Canada, Israel, Japan, India, Singapore, South Africa, and elsewhere.
Although parliamentary democracies frequently operate with two principal political parties (which most often pit left-center against right-center), deepening philosophical, economic and political differences have spawned a variety of special interest political parties, especially in those countries that have adopted proportional representation rather than first-past-the-post electoral systems. The recent proliferation of special interest parties has fragmented the vote and in a number of countries prevented any single party from achieving a majority … which has forced philosophical painstaking compromise. Without a majority of parliamentary seats, the party with the plurality has the first shot at forming a government and will attempt to do so by building a coalition of somewhat compatible power blocks. Without a majority mandate for its policies, a plurality party is forced to find allies and share power … and ideas – it is forced to compromise, which is an abiding strength of parliamentary democratic systems. This allows governments to evolve by incorporating the agenda items of what begin as splinter parties and become integrated into government. This promotes positive change. In an era of proliferating political parties, however, parliaments sometimes become so fragmented that forming coalitions becomes progressively more challenging. At times, the result has been government gridlock with no single party or alliance of parties agreeing on a policy agenda for power-sharing (Spain and Italy being recent examples). At other times, negotiations between philosophically-aligned parties have led to parliamentary coalition-formation and constructive policy compromises with at least temporary governing alliances.
America’s Presidential system is different. Its mechanism for effecting compromise also is different.
America’s Constitutional system is founded on three co-equal branches of government with each of the chief executive – the President – and Congress elected separately, and those two branches selecting members of the judicial branch. The President is elected for a fixed term and cannot be removed except by extraordinary measures – a President has a fixed term-in-office whereas a parliamentary head-of-state is subject to removal at any time by a vote of no confidence. The powers of the President are balanced against the powers vested in Congress – the legislative branch that passes laws requiring the President’s approval – and the judiciary, which is vested with overseeing the proper functioning of the executive and legislative branches of government pursuant to the Constitution and the Rule of Law (an intentional tripartite balancing of power that differs materially from a parliamentary system – see, for example, “It’s Congress’s Fault” in the July 15th TLR). Because America’s Constitution requires that the President be elected by a majority vote of the Electoral College on a winner-take-all (that is, first-past-the-post) State-by-State basis (see “The Faithless Electors of America’s Electoral College” in the September 13th TLR), America operates with a two-party system. Third-party Presidential candidates cannot overcome the Electoral College structure and, because the President wields veto authority over Congressional actions, third parties have been virtually invisible in American politics … except, that is, where they deprive similarly-aligned Presidential candidates of their votes. This is a strength of America’s Constitutional system in that it avoids the fragmentation and single-issue politics created by multiple political parties … as exists in parliamentary democracies. It also is a weakness since it eliminates the opportunities for consensus-building, compromise and constructive pre-government-formation change created by the parliamentary system. Compromise in the American system is necessary only in those circumstances where the Presidency is held by one political party and Congress by the other (filibusters having been all but outlawed in Congress). Since the President and Congress are elected separately, there is no assurance that a single party will control both. When power is divided, neither party is able to pursue its agenda. The result sometimes is confusion, shifting policy agendas, and gridlock … or what historians refer to as a “crisis of governability.” Other times, it results in constructive compromise. We are not currently in a “constructive compromise” era.
Parliamentary systems by their nature have a mechanism that promotes change-through-incorporation of minority party policy. In parliamentary democracies, disparate special interest parties – parties that have different policy agendas (for example, pro-Brexit versus pro-EU) and/or different political philosophies (for example, socialists versus free-marketers) and/or that are single-issue-oriented (for example, environmentalists) – are forced to work out their differences prior to forming a government in order to achieve their goals. They are compelled to align themselves with other special interest parties to form a majority government. In the U.S., government first is formed and, if there is not a single party controlling the Presidency and Congress, compromise thereafter has to be worked out, or not.
How then does the American system, and American government policy, adapt and change, incorporating progressive, minority views?
It does so at the Political Party level. America’s Republican and Democratic Parties shift their political philosophies – recently quite radically – to adjust to their constituents’ shifting philosophical, social and political views.
The Republican Party of the 20th Century believed in fiscal rectitude, avoided Federal deficits, controlled expenditures, and lowered taxes. It believed in smaller government, though only up to a point. It believed in a strong foreign policy that often required unilateral American military action (whether in Vietnam or Panama or Nicaragua). It believed in the priority of States Rights over centralized Federal control and promoted the appointment of Supreme Court Justices who supported strict Constitutional constructionism above all other issues. It was firmly grounded in laissez-faire economics, having little sympathy for unions and union organizing. It virulently opposed government subsidies for businesses and bailouts for industries. It promoted internationalism and globalization, always under America’s paternalistic guidance and with America’s military protection. As a free-market Party, the Republican Party promoted conservative social values, like prayer in schools, and opposed abortion, but did not attempt Constitutional Amendments or Congressional action to cement those views into law – because of its free market and States Rights credentials (that is, it supported leaving social matters to the States).
Few of those policy cornerstones of Republicanism exist today. Fiscal profligacy, exploding deficits and out-of-control expenditures dominate policy. Military action of any sort is anathema. States Rights have been subjugated to Federal control. Supreme Court appointments are driven by social issues rather than Constitutional ones. Protecting and actively promoting union jobs, especially manufacturing ones, has become a priority. Internationalism and globalization … no need to go on. What survives is a continuing drive for lower taxes and for a gutted smaller government (though one can question whether a more intrusive, more activist, Federal government indeed is “smaller”).
The Democratic Party also has changed. As the Republican Party has moved to the right on social issues and to the left on Federalism, Constitutionalism and economic policy (driven there by Donald Trump), the Democratic Party has moved further to the left on virtually the same items (pushed there in part by non-Democrats Bernie Sanders (an independent) and Ralph Nader (an unsuccessful third party candidate whose candidacy in 2000, in the view of many, changed that year’s Presidential election result). Democrats are in favor of further fiscal profligacy, exploding deficits and out-of-control expenditures. Like their Republican colleagues, they are believers in Keynsianism and Modern Monetary Theory (see, for example, “Will Modern Monetary Theory Work” in the April 14th TLR and “They’re All Keynsians Now” in the March 27th TLR). They too believe in a dominant Federal government that is more intrusive than in the past, as well as a larger one. They also believe in protecting and actively promoting union jobs, although their methods differ from those of the Republicans. Where Democrats and Republicans now differ is in their approaches to internationalism and globalization – Democrats largely favor both – and in their definition of bigger government – Democrats want to increase taxes on the wealthy and spend even more than the Republicans, if possible.
The changes in American government policies over the past 20 years have been driven by Republican and Democratic Party revolutions. Donald Trump was a Democrat who didn’t embrace Republicanism until he decided for the Presidency. He was an outsider who recognized an electoral unrest need … and successfully appealed to that need. Bernie Sanders still is not a member of the Democratic Party and he too recognized an electoral unrest need. Both understood that they would gain no traction from a third party candidacy. They influenced their respective parties and, as a result, Change Has Come to America.
Finally (from a good friend)
- You can’t see your ears without a mirror.
2. You can’t count your hair.
3. You can’t breathe through your nose while holding your tongue out.
4. You just tried #3.
6. When you tried #3, you realized it is possible but you looked like a dog.
7. You are smiling right now because you realize you were fooled.
8. You skipped #5.
9. You just checked to see if there is a #5.
*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.