October 10, 2003

Le naussee du processus democratique

Posted by Curt at 03:47 PM in Politics | TrackBack

One final point about voting. The idea that Clay explores below, that the act of voting is simply an expression of preference, accords fairly well with the contention of the late Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter that elective democracy is essentially an economic market, in which candidates compete, like economic producers, for consumers, the voters. If this is so, the two-party system would seem to serve this model very badly, as it makes the political marketplace essentially monopolistic. The problem, in my opinion, is that electoral politics seem to be an area of natural monopoly, in which two or three parties will steadily come to dominate the political spectrum absent regulation, possibly because most voters are unable to truly decide among more than two or three candidates. This is upheld by the fact that in most functional democracies, certainly all the major European nations, even where the two-party system is less formally established than in the U.S., two or three parties more or less compete with each other, forming coalitions with smaller parties to outflank each other. Really only two basic differences I think separate European politics from American politics. One is that most major interest groups support their own parties, which are not formally absorbed by the major parties in the way that they are in the U.S. If American politics operated in this way the various interest groups that have been absorbed by the major parties in recent decades, the evangelists, say, or the civil-rights groups, would not actually vote for Republican or Democratic candidates but would vote for their own parochial parties and then gain power when the coalition with which they are associated gains a majority or at least a plurality. This would seem to be largely a procedural difference, as the end result is very often the same as in the U.S., i.e. paralyzing centrist coalitions. However, because the coalitions are more openly divided, with the smaller parties comprising them representing more fixed, unchanging constituencies and interests, the effect somewhat paradoxically seems to be somewhat greater flexibility. This is to say that under the European model the so-called paleoconservatives, for example, would not be irrevocably yoked to a lot of other interest groups with which they little in common, such as evangelists, ex-Trotskyite neoconservatives, etc. Of course they would have to make common cause with some of these groups in order to gain power, but if they ever had a parting of the minds they could disband the partnership and seek out another interest group with which they held more in common. The second main difference between the two systems, though it is only an empirical difference rather than a theoretical one, is that elections in Europe generally get a far higher voter turnout than in the U.S. I think this explains the robustness of the smaller parties, because the voter population is less dominated by the resolute partisans of the major parties. I suspect that the percentage of the American population in the Republican or Democratic parties in the U.S. is not that much higher than the percentage devoted to the Conservatives and Tories in Britain, say, or to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany, but with a low voter turnout the partisans exercise a disproportionate influence over the results. I am certainly not extolling the merits of European politics, because, as I said, I think the result, due to the inherent nature of unregulated political parties, is largely the same as in the U.S., but I think that the greater viability of small parties there at least points toward a certain ideal. I am not exactly advocating sending in the trust-busters to break up the Republicans and Democrats, but if one really dislikes the vacuity and issue-lessness of big-party politics, I think at the least one ought to be aware that, just as is the case with public utilities, the so-called market solution will not end the monopoly. In fact, the failure of European states, which negates in actuality the substantive differences in their political systems from the U.S.'s, is that they actually do not go far enough towards ensuring viable third parties because, by not formally limiting the power of the major parties, they allow the rent-seeking of those parties to proceed apace, so that in the end they wind up with paralyzing centrist coalitions, albeit less stable ones, just as in the U.S.

One other thing that prohibits European democracy from realizing the kind of third-party political rejuvenation seemingly possible there is that there exists a heavy dose of statism in the European capitals that I think is unmatched even in Washington. The reason for this is suggested to me by the editorials in the international papers weighing in on the election of Schwarzenegger (side question-why the hell do Russians care who California's governor is?--then again California does have the fifth-largest economy in the world) which, with a few exceptions, universally sneered at the crudity and uncouthness of Californians electing a movie star over a "professional governor." Aside from the obvious questions (was JFK's appeal really so different?) it seems to me that one of the basic problems that our government will and has consistently run into in trying to export democracy overseas is that most people in the world do not seem to view politics and governance as a task for the common people (not that Schwarzenegger is one of the common people, but his supporters are--what experience is more populist, more communal, than the movies?). Of course, I have my doubts about our own commitment to self-governance, but the fact is that in Russia "professional politician" sounds more like the description of a social class than an insult, which is how it would be read in this country. This seems to me to be symptomatic of the tendency in many cultures to regard politics as a distinct profession and calling, something, like any other profession, best left to those most immersed in it and skilled in manipulating its workings. In America we glorify the outsider in politics; elsewhere entrusting politics to someone with no background in politics would probably be seen as similar to entrusting surgery to someone with no background in medicine. To grossly over-simplify the matter by polarizing the stereotypes, in much of the world politics is closer to being the birthright of the brahmins than the job for Mr. Smith to revitalize once he finally gets to Washington. I know that some will regard this as a vaguely racist claim not matter how one qualifies it, but the fact of the matter is that the system of government practiced in the U.S. is largely a cultural phenomenon, and no Iraqi constitution will erase in a second, on a piece of paper, thousands of years of divergent cultural development.

p.s. I hope somebody, either Clay or someone that reads this blog, will mount a defense of paralyzing centrist coalitions, as that seems to be often the situation easiest to live under but most difficult to defend intellectually, so I hope somebody will be able to explain to me my own disappointing and inexplicable comfort with living in such a situation.