The Failure of Parliamentary Democracy

Writing about the political turmoil/deadlock in Belgium, Megan McArdle observes:

In the long run, in the modern world it seems hard to have a state without a nation.

America is a state without a nation. Ideology, and not innate identity, unites Americans.

The fatal flaw in Belgium and many other countries in the world is a parliamentary system which assigns power directly to parties instead of individuals. In diverse societies, parliamentary parties inevitably evolve around group identities. People cannot move beyond their identity loyalties without losing political power. Soon all political battles become conflicts between identity groups, and the natural fissures in all human societies are exacerbated to the point of failure.

America would have never survived if we had adopted a such a system. Numerous parties would have evolved, each attached to a specific ethnic or religious group. We survived because the Constitution grants power to individual office holders, not groups. (Winner-takes-all also helps drive the formation of broad coalitions.)

Parliamentary governments only work for nation (unitary ethnic) states like England, France and most of the rest of Western Europe. For the majority of countries in the world who are significantly multi-ethnic, they are a disaster waiting to happen. Those countries need to look to the example of diverse America for their political model instead of to the freakishly uniform countries of Western Europe.

9 thoughts on “The Failure of Parliamentary Democracy”

  1. The need for compromise in appealing to a broad constituency underlies much that the founders thought. No matter what Europe thought would work in government, if they forgot human nature the outcome was likely to be essentially flawed.

  2. Shannon, I think that you are lumping several unrelated issues. There are different kinds of parliamentary system. The British parliamentary system, like our own system, does a good job of minimizing factionalism. The Israeli system, to cite an egregious counter-example, is also parliamentary but because it was designed poorly it encourages factionalism. You have to look at the constitutional details. It’s not helpful to generalize at the level of grand concepts such as parliamentarianism, any more than it’s helpful to draw parallels between the US and Russian political systems on grounds that both systems are nominally democratic.

  3. I’d argue that you can have a nation without ethnicity, and that America has a very strong one. A nation means national pride and a sense of collective enterprise, not necessarily shared chromosomes.

  4. Jonathan,

    I agree that I am painting with a broad brush but I still think it a valid argument that the system is inherently flawed for use in a diverse society.

    The defining aspect of the parliamentary system is that the executive is selected by the legislature and serves at that bodies pleasure. No individual can become the chief executive without the broad support of many other office holders. This creates powerful incentives for factionalism within the legislature itself because it rewards the most cohesive and disciplined group.

    The most cohesive groups arise naturally out of innate identities. Parties based around innate identities out compete those not so based in a parliamentary system because they have that organizational advantage.

    The linking of executive power directly to alliances in the legislature automatically creates and maintains a fractional system.

  5. Megan McArdle,

    Remember that the word “nation” originally meant “ethnic group”. Properly, the term “nation state” refers only to countries composed overwhelmingly of one ethnic group. Due to the predominance of the European experience in modern political thought, the words “nation” and “country” have become synonymous but really they are not. One can have a nation without a country and a country without a nation.

    America (and to a lesser extent Australia and Canada) is unique in having a collective identity that does not depend on innate identities. We have this identity in large part because the founders structure the constitution in an attempt to suppress the formation of factions. With less of need to cleave to a group in order to maintain power, individuals are more free to create broader ad hoc coalitions as needed. This allows Americans to safely “move away from home” without fear that no one is watching their back.

    I agree that democracies require a collective identity in order to function but I think that the parliamentary system prevents the formation of that identity in diverse societies by hardwiring innate differences into the political structure. That is the opposite effect as the American system.

  6. The characteristics you attribute to parliamentary systems are primarily characteristics of systems that use proportional representation by list, particularly ones that use nationwide lists. Parliamentary systems that use single-member, geographically-based first-past-the-post voting systems (i.e., plurality of the vote wins the seat) tend to have large, broad-based national coalition parties, like the US does. And of course we have a single-purpose parliamentary body – the Electoral College – that choses our executive. I have wondered whether it might not be useful to give it the power to take a vote of confidence and dismiss the President by, say, a two-thirds vote.

  7. Jim Bennett,

    Parliamentary systems that use single-member, geographically-based first-past-the-post voting systems (i.e., plurality of the vote wins the seat) tend to have large, broad-based national coalition parties, like the US does.

    I don’t think so. I can’t think of any place that is (1) multi-ethnic, multi-religious etc and (2) does not have ethnic parties. All the parliamentary states I can think of that have broad based parties are in homogenous societies.

  8. The problem in Belgium, however, is language. Not ethnicity.

    Language barriers are even harder to bridge for nationalistic purposes then ethnicity, especially in developed countries (where ethnicity is less important). If you have no common language press, no common labor market, no common written/spoken culture and live in largely separated areas then the situation is completely different from an immigrant country like the United States, which still has a dominant language and culture (WASP and all that).

    I think it’s naive to think that a majority system would substantially alleviate the problems in a country like Belgium. Even with a majority system using districts the French-speaking countrymen would still vote for French candidates. In the end 40% of parliament would be French-speaking and 60% Dutch-speaking. On top of that none of this would in any way alleviate the problems mentioned earlier, such as separate economic realities in Flanders and Wallonia and lack of cultural exchange between the two regions.

    And then we have the problem of electing a president. Who would a Dutch-speaking citizen vote for you think? That French-speaking guy who’s Dutch is mediocre, who doesn’t read the same newspaper he does, who doesn’t live in the same region as he does, who doesn’t even watch the same TV series and who’s not very well known because he’s been mostly on French-speaking TV? I think again that is naive to think that many voters can transcend this language barrier. And guess what that means? It means that a Flemish presidential candidate is more likely to get elected! And guess who’s going to feel disenfranchised about that? And that’s exactly why the French-speaking minority would never accept a presidential (majority) system, it doesn’t give them the same safe-guards that a PR parliamentarian system gives them in which they have to be part of a coalition government.

  9. Shannon:

    It’s worth comparing Canada and Belgium in answer to your question. They even both have French minorities. Although Canada has plenty of problems with national cohesion, unlike Belgium, its major party (the Liberals) is non-ethnic, in the sense that they are a significant party in both Engkish-speaking and French-speaking Canada. The Conservatives have also done reasonably well in Quebec through most of their history until recently – les bleus were an established part of the political scene — and they even made a modest comeback in the last federal election. Both are the sort of broad coaliton parties I was describing above.

    And in reference to KAding’s comment above, about the Dutch not voting for the “That French-speaking guy who’s Dutch is mediocre,” if you substitute “English” for “Dutch”, that”s a pretty good description of former Prime Minister Chretien, who was elected as the leader of the majority-anglophone Liberals several times.

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