Tuesday, 20 September 2005

There but for the grace of Duverger

The German elections have come and gone, and the results are Inconclusive; as expected, nobody got an outright majority, but less expected was the inability of the “natural” CDU–FDP coalition to gain a majority, thus leaving Germans with a series of rather unappetizing coalition possibilities:

  • The rather-unlikely “red-red-green” coalition, combining the SPD (Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats) with his current coalition partners, the Greens, and the whole lot making nice with the Left Party splinter group (itself a motley collection of ex-Communists and malcontent Social Democrats, including Schröder’s main rival on the left, Oskar Lafontaine).
  • The “traffic light” coalition including the SPD, FDP, and the Greens; also unlikely, as the FDP‘s leader has rejected it according to The Economist.
  • The “Jamaica” coalition of the CDU (the Christian Democrats, led by Angela Merkel, along with their Bavarian sister party, the CSU), the FDP (the Free Democrats, “liberals” in the European sense of the term), and the Greens. Somewhat plausible, if the Greens are willing to put aside their materialist values in favor of the postmaterialist ones they share with the Free Democrats.
  • A “grand coalition” of the SPD and CDU, with either Schröder or Merkel as chancellor. As Pieter Dorsman and Matthew Shugart point out, this is probably the worst of all possible worlds, albeit the most likely outcome.

And, to top things off, things aren’t really settled yet since a neo-Nazi candidate in Dresden died, requiring a postponement of the vote in that constituency; under Germany’s version of the additional member system, this will probably affect the final seat tally for both the CDU and the SPD, even if neither wins the seat.

Where to next? Pieter Dorsman thinks holding another vote may be the most sensible course of action, although I’m not really sure it would change much. My guess is that Germany will try to muddle through, with the CDU and SPD advancing some rather half-assed reforms that please no one… which, more likely than not, will bring us back to this point with another inconclusive election sooner, rather than later.

The comparative angle is advanced by Stephen Karlson, who notes that America’s coalition building is rather less explicit than that of Germany—of course, the muddled result in Germany, I’d argue, is largely because the SPD has failed to maintain its internal coalition. All effective governing parties are coalitions of interests—even in Israel, with easy entry into parliament for any disgruntled splinter group, both major parties (and many of the smaller ones) represent a range of opinion, not a single point in policy space. Here, I think Betsy’s Page gets the causality backwards:

Can you imagine some situation in America when we would have to have a coalition government of Republicans and Democrats running the government together. I’m not talking about divided government between Congress and the president. I’m talking about running the executive branch together. It is just unimaginable. The reason we have two parties is because they disagree fundamentally on how the government should run. And thinking of some coalition between a major and minor party would just move that party more to the extremes. [emphasis mine]

Leaving aside whether Democrats and Republicans “disagree fundamentally” about the operation of government (they don’t… try distinguishing the last four years of Republican rule from the Great Society, and you’ll find remarkable overlap), the two parties don’t exist because of this disagreement—at best, voters disagree, and the two parties try to maximize their number of votes by appealing to likely winning coalitions of voters.

More formally, the U.S. has two parties because of two major factors: our plurality (first-past-the-post) electoral system, and the loose federalism of the party system. Plurality elections do not inevitably lead to two-party systems (ask Canada or the U.K.); however, the added factors of having a relatively nationalized, largely unidimensional policy space (the key issues in America don’t radically differ between New York City and Philadelphia, Mississippi, even if the political position of the median voter in those places does, and people tend to dispute politics on a “left-right” dimension that is just similar enough to that of continental Europe to confuse observers on both sides of the Atlantic) and substantial local and state party autonomy (allowing the NYC and Neshboa County GOP establishment to largely define “Republican” for themselves), effectively ensure a two-party system—even where the barriers to ballot entry are low for new parties.

If the incentives for a two party system melted away, more likely than not our existing Republican and Democratic parties would melt away with them (or at least be transformed beyond recognition). And if you think our parties are bad now, wait until you see the parties led by Maxine Waters and Pat Robertson (or their acolytes) and comprised solely of their true believers. You’ll be begging for a grand coalition then…


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.
Tyler Cowen theorizes that with a grand coalition the two main parties might be able to push through major reforms that both parties think are necessary but are usually constrained by voters, since they can each then blame the reforms on the other party. I'm not sure how realistic that is but it's an interesting viewpoint.

My first thought when reading the argument for proportional representation was that instant-runoff voting was needed. Of course, this negates the whole proportional idea since a majority would be required and it would be accomplished by eliminating the low vote getters.

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