Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Democracy is Getting Harder

Richard Pildes in the NY Times:

The European democracies are experiencing the unraveling of the traditionally dominant center-left and center-right major parties and coalitions that have governed since World War II. Support for these parties has splintered into new parties of the right and left, along with others with less-easily defined ideological elements. From 2015 to 2017, over 30 new political parties entered European parliaments. Across European democracies, the percentage of people who identify strongly with a political party or are members of one has declined precipitously.

The effects on the ability to govern have been dramatic. In Germany, the stable anchor of Europe since the 1950s, the two major parties regularly used to receive over 90 percent of the vote combined; in this fall’s elections, that plummeted to less than 50 percent. Support has hemorrhaged to green, anti-immigrant, free-market and other parties. After its 2017 elections, with support fragmented among many parties, it took Germany six months to cobble together a governing coalition, the longest time in the country’s history. The Netherlands, after its 2017 elections, needed a record 225 days to form a government.

The coalitional governments assembled amid this cacophony of parties are also more fragile. Spain, for example, was forced to hold four national elections between 2015 and 2019 to find a stable governing coalition. Spain had effectively been a two-party democracy until 2015, but mass protest movements spawned a proliferation of new parties that made forging stable governments difficult. In Sweden, the prime minister lost a vote of no confidence this summer — a first in the country’s modern political history. Digital pop-up parties, including anti-party parties, arise out of nowhere and radically disrupt politics, as the Brexit Party did in Britain and the Five Star Movement did in Italy.

All of this is driven by dissatisfaction; by a sense that older parties are corrupt, stodgy, and not delivering on their promises. Immigration is an intensely polarizing issue; the urgency many Europeans feel about climate change is another factor. But I have the sense that people just find contemporary life intensely frustrating and are looking for someone to do something about it. Since nobody has any clue how the misery might be eased, or what is causing it, things are only going to get worse.


David said...

As I'm sure I've said before, it seems to me the dissatisfaction is not really with the establishment parties, or anything else like that, but with one's fellow citizens. Citizens really, truly disagree with one another, and block one another's desires. We don't like having to live with people who do that.

G. Verloren said...

To my mind, more political parties is a symptom of greater democracy.

Two party systems might be stable, but they're not very democratic. Odds are unless you fall smack dab in the middle of either party's ideological stance, you're someone who is settling for a compromise - sentiments like "This party doesn't really represent me properly, but it's the closest to my views", or "This party virtually doesn't represent me at all, but it's the lesser of the two evils."

The growth of "single issue" parties (green, anti-immigrant, etc) seems like pretty clear evidence of the failure of traditional parties to address issues of critical importance to people. People who were before forced to compromise are now feeling like they have more options that better suit what they actually want - and that's pretty clearly a greater degree of democracy in action, no?

People always claim they want more democracy, but then they're shocked when they see the actual consequences of greater democracy. More parties and thus more options politically is absolutely more democratic - but it quite naturally comes at a cost of efficiency in forming governments (and also at the cost of representing people you'd rather not see empowered, like racists, Fascists, etc.)


It's like ordering pizza. If you only have two options for toppings, either pepperoni or just plain cheese, it doesn't take very long to figure out what to order for a group people.

But increase the number of options to also include sausage, mushrooms, red peppers, and anchovies, and suddenly the amount of time it takes to put together a group order skyrockets. You end up having to figure out a complicated solution where you start subdividing pizzas to have certain toppings on one half and different toppings on the other. This pizza needs pepperoni on both sides, but NOT mushrooms on one half and NOT anchovies on the other. This other pizza needs to be just cheese on one half, and just veggies on the other. This third pizza needs to be a copy of the first one, but with sausage instead of pepperoni, for the people who don't like pepperoni. Etc, etc.

Democracy means actually giving people what they want. If you truly want to live in a more democratic world, that means you're going to end up having to work a lot harder to give people what they really want, rather than just having them choose between two compromise options that don't really reflect their desires. That's true both in ordering pizza and in forming governments.

Shadow said...

The U.S. is a big country, both in population and physical size. Add to that class differences and the number of different religions, ethnicities, races, and geographies, and the idea that we have only two parties representing all this diversity is kind of a joke. We pretend two parties represent all these people, I suspect this is one reason why the plurality of voters register as unaffiliated. Absolutely ridiculous to think a democrat from NYC and a democrat from the mountains -- hills, really -- of West Virginia have anything in common.

Having said that, this new problem is the same as the old problem -- people are suspicious of people who don't look like them and think like them.

Shadow said...

And I would add one thing that is different: Over the years we have developed a ruthless rhetoric regarding race and religiion that takes no prisoners.

David said...


Given that, as you say, a lot of our social divisions spring from within the people, how would having more than two parties make things better? It seems to me that the two-party system counteracts the tendency toward social division by forcing voters to choose alliances with others who have different beliefs or otherwise might not fit with them in a many-party system.

Giving everyone the opportunity to vote for exactly their tiny preferences may be more democratic, but I'm skeptical that it will promote better government. Historically, many-party systems have not done so well. Consider most of interwar Europe, or Italy at just about any time since unification.

If we want to make government run better, I suggest a better solution is bringing back earmarks. I suspect Manchin could be brought back on side pretty quickly with some nice projects for West Virginia.

Shadow said...


I'm unconvinced a two-party system counteracts the tendency towards social division for two reasons: (1) the plurality of registered voters are unaffiliated, which to me indicates a great dissatisfaction with the current two-party system -- people are abandoning it -- and (2) because the root causes of political division are not political parties but social and cultural differences. And now that every mouth has an audience -- communication technology -- keeping a lid on it is itself a growing problem.

In congress, with two parties, each one battles the other for supremacy. What keeps things from happening is the belief that you always have as good a chance of being in the majority as does you opponent -- it's either you or them -- plus the fear that if you give an inch, your opponent will own you, and you will never regain the majority. The one advantage a multi-party system has is, when both parties realize how hard it will be to achieve a one-party majority, they will abandon the idea of one-party supremacy in favor of sharing power with a smaller party by compromising. There are no guarantees this will happen, and it is possible we could end up with the equivalent of continuous no-confidence votes, but given the existing deadlock and vitriolic, take no prisoner, attitude I've seen for almost two decades now, I'm ready to take a chance. Perhaps our way has outlived its usefulness, and we need to try something else.

I thought there was a movement to bring back the earmark? That would help, but the other big problem is who controls the money. The two parties no longer control the cashflow to candidates because of the great success of independent, rich donors, and of the candidates themselves collecting small donations from many, many people. That's a huge problem for parties, and I don't see us going back to the way it was when the parties controlled the money.

David said...


I agree that our divisions spring from social and cultural differences and not simply the existence of parties. I was suggesting that the two party system forces at least some voters to compromise those divisions on their own, rather than their party leaders doing it for them. In any case, it seems to me a proliferation of highly ideological or sectarian smaller parties would exacerbate social and cultural division rather than mute it.

I can't think of any historical example where multi-party politics has encouraged real compromise. Perhaps one could find some of that in systems with endemic corruption. In Israel, multi-party politics has certainly not led to greater unity. Much of what smooths the way there is a sort of sectarian version of earmarks, as when hyper-religious parties are able to control such things as the definition of who is a Jew, protect subsidies for religious schools and for ultra-orthodox adult males to practice full-time Torah study, etc., because it's almost impossible to form a coalition without them (and relatively easy to form one if you assure them these things).

Ultimately I suspect multiple parties wouldn't solve any of our problems and might leave things roughly the same. We already compromise our divisions in practice quite a bit. We've basically agreed as a country that red states can structure things like voting, abortion rights, and gun ownership exactly the way they like, but they won't directly interfere with blue states who want to deal with those issues in the ways liberals like, and vice versa (ideologues can blow off steam by, for example, contributing to organizations that promote lawsuits in states whose policies they don't like, but the practical effect of that seems to be less and less). One still sees some effort at national domestic policy, as in the Biden admin's effort to block Medicaid work requirements in Florida. These may be rear-guard actions. For the foreseeable future, I think power on divisive issues is going to continue to accrue to individual states. That's going to be our version of a multiparty system.

In practice, we're about as likely to make the constitutional changes required to establish a national multi-party system as we are to abandon the electoral college--which is to say, not very likely at all.

David said...

I would add that I don't think that the prospect of taking over congress from the other party is what prevents compromise in Congress. The same system did not prevent compromises and interparty voting in LBJ's time. I think Congresspeople don't compromise because their constituents, especially primary voters and sometimes special interests, don't want them to. The parties have, as is often said, become more ideological. The reason for that is that active voters have become more ideological. Multiple parties are not going to bring in a lot of meek-minded infrequent voters who just want everyone to get along; and even if that happened, their parties would be weak and probably melt away after a few years.