Friday, December 11, 2009

Multiparty democracy in parliamentary systems

Matthew Yglesias points out Clay Risen's reflection on the recent German election and Germany's experience with multiparty coalition democracy, although Yglesias and his many commenters note some problems with the piece.

But as American liberals tend to wistfully wish for a system more like Germany's, with multiparty coalition politics in the context of a parliamentary system or proportional representation, it's healthy to have a splash of cold water now and then. I certainly wouldn't endorse the view that the American two-party system is the best possible, but I tend to think that electoral fusion is a likelier and possibly more productive way for third parties to coexist in American politics than the electoral system underlaying Germany's party system.

German Lessons: Germany is a vibrant parliamentary democracy, yet its body politic is asleep. ...Next to European health care and European urban planning, the aspect of European life for which liberal Americans pine most often is the continent’s parliamentary politics. Whenever I run down the litany of niche German political parties–alongside the Greens, the FDP, and the Linke, there’s the Animal Protection Party, the new-age Violet Party, and the Retired People’s Party, among others–for left-leaning American friends, they sigh and say, "I wish." Parties that actually represent people’s interests? Coalitions built on cross-party compromise, rather than ideological stone walls? Wouldn’t that be great, they say. ...After seeing German politics up close, I’ll take my two-party system, thank you very much.

...Clinton’s welfare reforms of the 1990s also produced enormous disagreement on the left. But because there was nowhere for dissenting factions to go, they had to fight it out internally–and, over time, these centripetal forces created a new consensus, which formed the basis for Barack Obama’s ride into the White House and the backbone of support for his progressive agenda. The German left, on the other hand, simply picked up its toys and went to play elsewhere, thanks to the centrifugal forces of the parliamentary system. The result is a rump center-left, an eco-centric postmaterialist left, and a self-righteous neo-Marxist far-left, none of which had anything constructive to say during the recent economic crisis, a time when, typically, left-wing, pro-government parties are needed most.

The constant proliferation of parties is an expression of the system’s shortcomings, not its strengths; rather than adapt to sociopolitical changes, as America’s does, it fragments. ...The problem is that the big decisions in contemporary politics–climate change, global terrorism, international financial reform–demand a policymaking coherence and stability that only broad-based, pragmatic parties like America’s can provide. Not surprisingly, big changes, particularly on climate, are increasingly passed up the ladder to the EU, where less transparent, less democratic bodies can make the tough decisions that national parliaments can’t.

This post is probably the best place to link to Yglesias on The Real German Resistance to Hitler: The Social Democrats and Hendrik Hertzberg on the history of the German Social Democratic Party.

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