Monday, October 7, 2013

On the concurrent majority and the Westminster system

With the recent US government shutdown, there has been a lot of talk on the nature of majority rule and the way our system works in comparison to others.  I want to go over some of the things I've been hearing and my thoughts on them.

The first idea that I've seen bandied around, mainly by supporters of the brinkmanship used by Ted Cruz and his faction of the GOP, is that the government shutdown is the inevitable consequence of rule by simple majority and the lack of respect for minority rights.  To the extent that government shutdown is a way of restoring the balance, these people claim, it is beneficial to avert a "tyranny by majority."

If this idea sounds at all familiar, that is because it is.  This idea of governance is the idea of the concurrent majority,  giving certain minority groups veto power over all laws by only allowing laws to pass if a majority of both these factions and those not in these factions agree - hence, concurrent majority.  The problems with this idea are many.  First, who gets to decide what the protected minority groups are?  One might argue that the minorities most deserving of protection are the ones historically downtrodden or opressed, but in this particular case, it is a major political party that is being pushed forward for protected minority status.  In the past, this included agrarians, slaveholders, and many different forms of the elite, but in the United States has never included Native Americans, victims of Jim Crow, interned Japanese, women's groups, or other historically oppressed minorities.  Second, any concurrent majority doctrine makes any protected minority effectively able to pursue its own interests to the detriment of the majority, even if their perceived harms are much lower than the benefits.  We have elements of this already with the old pushing for increased benefits at the expense of current generations.  Third, there are far less destructive and paralyzing ways of ensuring minority rights, many of which are already explicitly enshrined in the constitution: separation of powers, bicameral legislature, executive veto, legislative veto overrides, and so on.

Either way, I would find the (largely inadvertent) revival of this idea to be amusing if it weren't so appallingly historically ignorant.  The idea of the concurrent majority led to several instances of brinkmanship and constitutional crises.  The idea finally died when it culminated in a bloody showdown from 1861-1865.  I'd thought the question was resolved then, but instead it seems people have forgotten that the concurrent majority has been largely discredited; instead, they've just taken the message that certain forms of brinkmanship have been disallowed, so that they can just try others in pursuit of super-powerful minority rights.

The second comment I see mainly from foreigners and some iconoclastic Americans talking about how a government shutdown would never occur in their type of political system, usually the Westminster system.   However, I really believe that most of them fail to see how the Westminster system is less suited for large countries like the United States than their own nations and, more importantly, how much the Westminster system depends on informal institutions in its home countries and that, if adapted to an American context, would certainly result in people strictly preferring our current system of checks and balances and not addressing fundamental problems afflicting US politics.

The great advantage of the Westminster system is that governments can and do govern, subject to the discipline of their own party members.  Powerful insurgencies lead to votes of confidence and, if sufficient to derail their own party's agenda, early elections.  Intransigent opposition leads to early elections to secure a popular mandate for a policy agenda.  The party or coalition that forms a government has a clear mandate in the form of a majority of representatives, there is no separation of the legislative or executive branch, and a government has the power to enact its agenda. 

As a side note, with elections at unpredictable times, electioneering is a mercifully shorter affair. Another perceived benefit is that it reduces the incentives for "big tent" parties given that the chief executive job is no longer decided as a winner-takes-all contest, giving regional, moderate, or other alternative parties the ability to play on the field.  It also means that governing coalitions may shift from right, to left, to center.

The problem with the Westminster system in an American context is largely that those proposing it as a solution to America's problems are fundamentally looking to treat a symptom - governments unable to govern - rather than soberly looking at where it would accentuate or mitigate the fundamental political difficulties in this country.  In many cases, it looks to be a case of believing the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

For one thing, being able to govern in a Westminster system is a double-edged sword.  A government works to enact a policy agenda, usually much more rapidly than in the United States and often more decisively.  There are few ways in which that might play out in the United States to everybody's satisfaction, probably because the gap between political parties in the US for economic and social policies are much larger and much more starkly polarized than in other regions.

The idea of approximately one half of a country being able to have governing powers only restricted by the compliance of their backbenchers and fixed term of office is one that would undoubtedly be deeply uncomfortable for the majority of Americans.  To name one example, imagine the outrage that would emanate from a large part of the population if an unfettered Tea Party [here an actual political party]-Libertarian-Religious Right-Business Conservative coalition (i.e., more or less the pool of GOP voters) captured control of the government and executive.  Similarly, imagine a green-progressive/social democrat-labor-liberal coalition (i.e, the Democrats) governing with the same level of control and the apoplexy that would result from large portions of the country.  And that's really the problem - the US is a large country.  Pissing off too many people matters if there are a lot of them.  In India, this has resulted in very timid policy, which is one modal outcome; in the more starkly geographically divided American context, it might result in something close to open revolt in certain regions, which I envision is another.

This is compounded by the fact that the US, if it imported the Westminster system, would almost certainly not include many of the informal institutions of those systems that go against American politics.  Many Americans do not realize the number of formal and informal institutions that support the Westminster system in many countries, and how antithetical many of them are to American politics.

The most prominent example of this, in my opinion, are issues that are almost completely cultural or social in nature such as gay marriage, abortion, state support for religion or religious expression, acceptance of non-traditional gender or relationship models, and gun rights*.  In the UK and most Commonwealth countries, these issues are considered issues of conscience not covered by a party platform and are subject to unwhipped votes, ones where each MP is expected to vote according to their personal opinion independently of each other.  In the United States, "culture wars" are a big part of our politics.  Any Westminster system adapted to the US context would immediately be able to enact a social policy agenda.  The next party to take power could roll it all back and then some. 

The objection may be raised that you could have moderate coalitions govern; for example, a coalition of liberals, business conservatives and libertarians might work, as might one of Christian Democrats and the Religious Right.  However, in practice I don't think that works as well in an American context either; American voting preferences are heavily polarized and characterized by identity politics, and those parties that might capture the strongest identity affiliation would tend to do best.  This probably would result in continued empowerment of relatively reactionary and radical parties, such as a Progressive Party and a bona fide Tea Party, which would have genuine trouble governing together and are unlikely to pick up support from smaller and more moderate factions on the other side of the traditional American left-right divide.

Another point to emphasize is that moving to a Westminster system does not change the partisanship of our current representatives.  Arguably, it makes it worse, since Westminster system parties are self regulating and will field candidates that toe the party line to ensure that their policy agenda is enacted. Westminster systems rely on heavily ideologically aligned parties with MP candidates often selected for their loyalty rather than the desires of their erstwhile constituents**.

Arguably, moving to a Westminster system would also require changing our voting system.  Our first-past-the-post voting system would result in a still less representative government, given that any district in which the seat is contested by more than two viable candidates would ultimately result in many representatives receiving support much less than a simple majority.  Run-off elections, approval voting, or the Australian ballot might fix this, but they are all voting schemes with a very high information requirement and a high participation requirement.  Australia solves this problem with mandatory voting; in America it is difficult to see that working.

* Yes, gun rights are most definitely a cultural issue.  Public safety only enters into American debates as a proxy for culture.

** An exception is Canada, where local associations will often select their own candidate.

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