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…

Wednesday, 8 June 2005

Three parties good, two parties better

Nick Troester on the latest round of arguments about the potential success of third party presidential candidates:

Political parties, being more-or-less coalitional, actually need to take positions on a wide number of issues to be able to draw in people who are oriented towards things other than the party’s main issue—that is to say, one might think both parties are bad when it comes to good government issues, but one still probably lines up as a D or R when it comes to entitlement spending, the deficit, foreign policy, etc. A lot is needed to uproot people from where they are.

Or, to put it another way, there just aren’t enough people who care about politics who’d support the “not stupid or evil party” just because it’s not stupid or evil.

And, many observers suggest Roosevelt would have won the Republican nomination—and almost certainly the presidency—had the 1912 convention not been stacked with Taft patronage appointees from “rotten borough” delegations from the South. I don’t know that there’s a specific lesson for John McCain in there, but the route to power is much easier if you can take over a major party than starting your own… ask the Christian Coalition or the Deaniac crowd, who now effectively control the two major parties, if you don’t believe me.