Perhaps the best gift of summer is time. For me, that means time to do some light reading — and why not start with “Comparative Constitutional Engineering” by Giovanni Sartori, the acclaimed Italian political scientist? The catchy title, of course, is what really drew me in.
As I perused Sartori’s work – which often blew way over my head – I came across a striking statement: “The American system works, or has worked, in spite of its constitution, hardly thanks to its constitution… for Americans do have a constitutional machine made for gridlock.” This was written in 1994, well before it became commonplace to refer to Washington as a “broken government,” our society as politically polarized and policymaking as plagued by gridlock. So it might be worthwhile to listen to what Sartori has to say.
He illustrates the weakness of the American model by highlighting that, when it was exported to South America, it led to gridlock and weak governments constantly threatened by coups. Sartori posits that the U.S. two-party system can only work if American society is not ideologically polarized. This makes sense – American government is meant to function through compromise and bipartisanship, so policymaking becomes increasingly difficult the more ideologically separated the Democratic and Republican parties become. Recently, this effect has become obvious; consider the fact that it took a full year to pass health care reform.
What’s worse, in order for congressional Democrats and Republicans to work together, they must deviate from the preferences of their increasingly polarized bases. In other words, our two parties don’t represent us, and ironically, they can only legislate effectively if they continue to not represent the people that put them in office. Sure enough, congressional approval dipped below 25% in a recent Associated Press poll.
Our political system is failing us in its ability to generate responsible government – government that is both responsive to the preferences of the people as well as responsible in its policymaking. But we cannot expect our congressmen to magically appease an increasingly polarized electorate while simultaneously reaching across the aisle. It’s time for a change – it’s time for a multiparty system.
Now I know what you’re thinking: multi-party systems simply produce more gridlock and polarization. Just look at my home country of Italy, where a billion parties exist and nobody knows what’s going on. Indeed, switching from our “first past the post” system to a pure system of proportional representation may very well prove disastrous. But switching to a more moderate system, say, to the German electoral system or the French double-ballot system, may very well do the trick.
Both France and Germany have multiparty systems which also generate responsible government. In France, voters often vote twice; on the first ballot, there is no limit on the number of candidates to choose from. However, if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates then campaign in a runoff election. Over time, this system has kept the number of relevant parties to three or four while simultaneously allocating more choice to voters.
In Germany, voters also cast two ballots; the first for their district representative and the second to determine the share of party seats in the German Parliament. The outcome is completely proportional based on the second ballot, but the German system prevents the existence of too many parties by banning those receiving less than five percent of the vote from obtaining seats. Once again, the German system allows voters to choose among more than two relevant parties while still maintaining what is arguably Europe’s most responsible government.
In short, there exist alternatives to our political system. The American system has degenerated into a choice among extremes – among black and white – instead of being a choice amongst different shades of grey. Perhaps this is why movements like the Tea Party are sprouting up all over the place or why an increasing number of Americans no longer relate to either party. This is a country built upon the concepts of choice and freedom — and both are increasingly denied by our two-party system.
When Obama campaigned in 2008, he promised a new kind of politics to fix our broken government. Today, our government is as broken as it’s ever been. But it’s a mistake simply to blame Obama or to punish incumbents — it’s our two-party system, not our politicians, that has proven to be the real kiss of death.
Tommaso Pavone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.