Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 26, 2003
POLITICS: Partisanship and Accountability
Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias mull the helplessness of the Right in Britain and Canada, the feelbleness of the Left in Israel, and the pitiful condition of Britain's Left in the 1980s, but don't seem to understand why this happens to opposition parties in parliamentary states. In fact, American liberal commentators generally don't seem too interested in exploring why it is that politics in parliamentary systems is different from politics here in the U.S.; but in fact, the differences are fundamental and go a long way to showing the superiority of the American system, as well as the ways in which our own system could be improved upon:
Mark Steyn has a big part of the answer: the absence of federalism and separation of powers means that voters never really get the chance to compare and contrast a variety of policy proposals in action at the same time, nor do individual leaders have a chance to arise from varied regions or walks of life or on the basis of strong personal characteristics; instead, all voting is simply voting for The Party, as led by leaders acceptable to the rest of the party's functionaries. The voters never get to say, "we like this guy and his new ideas.. Live with him."
The result, of course, is that the parties are immune to U.S.-style voter revolts until the ruling party has grown so hopelessly corrupt and out of touch that it collapses into ashes. Steven den Beste notes another aspect of the problem: whereas the American system rewards the ability to build coalition parties that both include and moderate the more radical elemsnts, European states often have fairly ideologically lukewarm parties of the center living in coalitions with extremist parties. Rather than factions on the Right or Left learning to develop a coherent program, this encourages governments that steer clear of any issue that could split their coalitions.
The result of all this is less strong leadership, less ideology, less responsiveness and accountability, and more need to use the anti-populist tools of coalition-building (e.g., patronage) rather than appeals to popular sentiment.
All of this is, among other things, why I'm generally opposed to the current push on in New York City to have nonpartisan elections; having clear divides and distinctions between the two parties is the best known way to encourage real accountability, both the accountability of an adversarial system (i.e., each side wanting to hang bad news on the other) and the accountability of parties needing to police their own ranks to avoid bad press.
None of which is to say that the American system is flawless. Weakened parties in the U.S. are still susceptible to ideological extremism; look at the leftward drift of the national Democrats, and you still hear people like the son of Paul Wellstone calling for even more leftism. But the Democrats will almost certainly lose big in 2004 if they run a left-leaning, high-taxes-and-pacifism campaign, and out of that defeat they may finally learn something about which of their principles are worth sticking to and which need to be jettisoned, as the GOP learned after 1964 to push a comprehensive conservative agenda but stop fighting losing battles to eliminate the New Deal and not nominate someone who would stand on federalist principles in the face of legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or as the Democrats after the 1980s generally abandoned their love affair with soft-on-crime executives.
Stephen Green also notes a recent Daniel Henninger op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and asks why our own system's ideological partisanship has grown so nasty lately. I think Henninger is right that a large share of the blame goes not just to the transfer of power to unelected judges, but specifically to the graven-in-stone nature of judicial decisionmaking. And it's not just the judiciary; entitlement programs, current-services-baseline budgeting, gerrymandering, incumbent-friendly 'reforms' -- and yes, wars -- all allow a momentary advantage in the partisan complexion of our political bodies to be translated into near-permanent changes in the nation. Polarization is a direct result of the recognition that to today's victors belong not only today's spoils, but tomorrow's, and tomorrow's, and tomorrow's.
Check out this recent Kevin Drum post on Social Security and the comments thereunder for an example of the phenomenon; like most liberal commentators, Drum's key mantra on changing Social Security is that transition costs would be too expensive. I'll get to the merits of that some other day, but the key point here is that the Democrats in general are more interested in making it too expensive and difficult to ever change any of their programs than in designing things that stand up well to regular review by the public. To see where this leads, look at California's budget crisis; a huge part of the problem is a variety of entitlement programs and constitutional straitjackets that make it exceptionally difficult for any governor to change the direction of the state.
In either case, here or in Europe, the fault lies not in our stars but in a lack of trust in ourselves. Democratic systems work best when they stay close to the people, responsive to our concerns and changeable when experience shows that the old ways aren't working.