U.S. and Canadian political systems both dysfunctional, in opposing ways

Posted on October 10, 2013 in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Full Comment –
09/10/13.   Andrew Coyne

One way of explaining the current breakdown in the U.S. political system is in partisan terms. If only those Republican congressmen were not so intransigent. If only Barack Obama would negotiate.

But this does not get us very far. It does not explain how they got that way, or why it has come to this. And it does not offer much of a way out of the current impasse, or of preventing the next.

So it’s probably more useful to look at the problem in systemic terms. Intransigent, even extreme people exist in every country’s politics, without leading to the kind of cul de sac in which the Great Republic now finds itself. Why has partisanship there ended in paralysis?

The potential, certainly, has always been there. It is implicit in the presidential system of government. In a parliamentary system, the executive must, by definition, command a majority of the legislature — even if, as in minority or coalition governments, it is not all of one party. The minute that majority is lost, the government falls, leading either to the election of a new parliament or the formation of a new government from the old.

In a presidential system, the executive and the legislative branches are separately elected. Each may be controlled by a different party, and each may legitimately claim to represent the people. The president cannot always count on a majority in Congress to support his legislation, but neither is he required to. In our system a fundamental disagreement between the executive and the legislature, such as over a budget, must be resolved in short order; in theirs it can be sustained indefinitely, or at least until the next election.

To work, then, the U.S. system depends upon a measure of bipartisanship. And by and large over the years it has had it. Without the threat of confidence votes to keep their members in line, both main parties emerged as big tents, coalitions of different factions. Crucially, there was some overlap at the moderate edges: with skill and effort, a president could assemble a majority in support of his legislation at least some of the time. The problem today is that there is no such overlap.

But if their system is vulnerable to breakdown, so is ours, in its own way. If in the U.S. the executive and the legislative branches are deadlocked, in Canada the executive has almost wholly consumed the legislature: the prime minister is “responsible” to Parliament only in the most formalistic sense. What we are left with, as the political scientist Peter Russell has put it, is a presidential system, without the Congress. (The Americans, perhaps, have a parliamentary system without a prime minister.)

Two systems, both dysfunctional, in opposing ways. Is there nevertheless a common thread between the two? I think there is. Both have become hostage to small groups of voters, the objects of vastly disproportionate amounts of the parties’ time and attention. In both, the parties are sharply divided on regional lines. And in both, politics has become increasingly, corrosively nasty. I suggest these trends are not accidental, but have to do with a feature the two share: the first past the post electoral system.

The most important thing to know about first past the post is that it is highlyleveraged: not only do the parties’ representation in the legislature bear no resemblance to their respective shares of the popular vote, but tiny swings in the vote lead to exponentially larger swings in electoral outcomes.

Finding and mobilizing those votes are thus a matter of huge consequence to the parties. In Canada, these are typically the swing voters, the uncommitted and disengaged; in the more polarized politics of the U.S., it is more a matter of “ginning up the base,” motivating your most committed — and therefore demanding — supporters to get out to vote.

So where our politics has converged on the centre, theirs is increasingly dominated by the fringes. But in both politics has become less and less about the broad public interest, more and more focused on appealing to a small fraction of the electorate. Some votes really are worth a great deal more than others.

In this fevered, divided atmosphere, is it any wonder that politics has become so nasty?

Moreover, given the tendency of first past the post to reward geographic concentrations of votes, the parties’ efforts will tend to be concentrated in the same way. Whole sections of the country can be written off as “safely” in one party’s camp or another: campaigns instead focus on a few “battleground” states or ridings.

The congressmen who have dug in their heels the deepest are those in the most impregnably Republican districts. That’s partly a reflection of gerrymandering, yes, but it’s also intrinsic to first past the post. And they are not alone. Did Obama even bother campaigning in those “red” states? Why would he?

In this fevered, divided atmosphere, is it any wonder that politics has become so nasty? With so much riding on so few votes, the parties are in a state of almost permanent hysteria. If anything, that’s even more true in our system. Depending on how the vote splits, you can win a “majority” with as little as 37% of the vote, heavily concentrated in one part of the country or another. Winner take all.

Suppose instead we had a system where every vote counted equally; where it was in every party’s interest to campaign in every part of the country; where you worked to expand your base gradually, rather than in accidental jags; where the possibility of winning over supporters of other parties entered into the equation, rather than just enraging your own.

Suppose, that is, that both countries started to realize their politics had become radically dysfunctional, not so much because of their parties or systems but the incentives facing their politicians. And suppose they decided to do something about it.

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