We get centrist results the worst possible way
Democrats should take the deals on climate and the Electoral Count Act, then pivot to getting majorities in 2024. That's the stuff on the table and we are out of time.
A lot of the bad vibes in our system come from the mismatch between the President's actual institutional power, and the public and punditry's expectations of what a President can do. A President can talk a big game, has a big bully pulpit, but except to the extent that Congress delegates actual lawmaking power to the President, that power resides in Congress, notwithstanding public expectations.
This mismatch that creates the bad vibes could be resolved two ways: increase the President's actual lawmaking power to rule independently of Congress, by allowing or encouraging Congress to delegate more power to the President. Or seek to diminish the power and prestige of the Presidency, treat the President less like a king and more like an administrator in chief, and seek to build up the policymaking infrastructure and capabilities of Congress. The kind of policymaking staff and apparatus, and the budget that goes with it, that lives in the White House could instead be in the Speaker and Majority Leader's offices.
It seems clear which one is the better solution, if one cares more about long-term institutional health than winning the short-term policy battle of the day.
People like us, who are really interested and follow politics, despair over our government because of its inability to get things done most of the time. But the dirty secret of our system is that is pretty much what the American people want. They're deeply suspicious of active government (sadly, often with good reason) and most of the time want it to not do that much. And that's just what they get! In an unironic sense (the opposite of what he meant), H. L. Mencken was right when he defined democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
Basically, the population is fine when the government steps in to solve pressing crises, but is otherwise ineffectual. And that's pretty much what happens. We got superfast vaccine development (with some government help) and then a ton of fiscal assistance to magically help us through the economic crisis. And that was pretty good!
This doesn't make me happy -- we need to do more on climate change (and maybe we will) -- but it's pretty clear to me that that's not where the people are. Even as they grouse and complain, I think overall they're satisfied with the amount of government activism we have: immediate crisis yes, otherwise, not so much.
I find it frustrating how risk-averse and status quo-oriented a lot of people are toward our governing structure. Manchin and Sinema won't get rid of the filibuster even though they would have more control over outcomes. There's very little coverage of how it's unusually hard to get things passed in the US.
I wish we just had more general awareness of how the system could be better instead of endless quotes about how things would be worse if we tried anything new.
Eh, this is a bit of a shallow take on how parliamentary systems work. Matt doesn't mention coalitions collapsing, which uh..... happens nonstop in the more unstable countries. At the end of the day, institutional design is just a lot less important than culture. If you picked German institutions up and transported them to say Brazil overnight, Brazilian politics would (no offense) still find a way to make a mess of it. Lots of parliamentary countries with PR & consensus-style governing institutions are a hot mess and have a new government every year- sometimes less! Bulgaria has PR and has had I think 3 governments in 1 year so far.
The real thing that makes passing major legislation in the US difficult is that the country is actually pretty closely divided on a lot of stuff (53-47%, usually). Like if you think in Germany they're using that coalition to easily pass lots of sweeping, controversial legislation that 47% of the population pretty strongly opposes- no, they're not, that's a bad take. Consensus in German politics is a function of consensus in German society overall- as for America, well....
I agree with the Matthew Yglesias who last night tweeted:
Honestly, "both parties struggle to make large policy shifts in the face of a closely divided and change-averse electorate" is a very banal take but seems pretty accurate
This is a better take!
Small correction: you write that "In Germany, the head of the center-right FDP holds the title of Vice Chancellor." But Habeck is co-leader of the Green party not of the FDP.
Well, the other major difference you don't mention is that here in the US we don't actually have coherent political parties - they've become more like brands. Germany doesn't have open primaries that allow literally anyone to compete to be the party representative in office, for example. Parties outside the US act like institutions and control who represents them and what their platform is. When was the last time a party platform in the US had any relevance?
So, as institutions, our parties are fundamentally different than parties anywhere else on the globe. And I think the dysfunction of our parties is the most relevant factor for our political dysfunction today. After all, our institutions haven't changed. What's changed is that our parties have become both more "democratic" but also institutionally weak.
Manchin can tell the President and progressives to eff-off because the party both has no control and almost zero influence over him. They cannot really punish him, nor can they horse-trade in the way that most parties around the globe do, and as US parties used to do before democratic primaries and campaign finance "reforms."
So you really have to look at the current political incentives of our politicians vs politicians elsewhere. The incentives pretty much everywhere else point toward party loyalty and subsuming the individual politician's desires into the party platform.
Here in the US, our politicians are atomized and their incentives are aligned with three things:
- Pleasing primary voters. Those in purple seats also have to worry about the general electorate but most don't.
- Donors - Politicians don't rely on parties anymore for financial support - it's about small individual donors as well as the big players. Our current parties have no ability to protect incumbents, even from primary challenges.
In summary, our national institutions are not the core problem today, it's the weakness of our parties which act like brands and not coherent political entities.
Norm and I are thinking of starting the Aristocrats Party. No filibuster in hell folks
The “problem” with Joe Manchin isn’t him blocking the Biden agenda. He has proven friendlier to the Biden agenda than the median senator*. The problem is that the West Virginia delegation has 2% of senatorial voting power despite representing 0.6% of the population, that other low population states are even more over-represented, and that all these rotten boroughs place Manchin at the tipping point when he should be in opposition. Repeating the mantra “Manchin is a junior coalition partner” would not sooth the frustrations of malapportionment. Three quarters of the evils of our system could be fixed by abolishing the senate, even if we didn’t go full parliamentary.
*The median senator is likely the average of Manchin and Murkowski.
The academic game theory analog to this post is a paper by Groseclose and McCarty called "The Politics of Blame: Bargaining Before an Audience." The paper starts with the puzzle of why Congress would ever waste time passing legislation they know the president will veto. The answer in the formal model is that even if Congress knows the president's preferences, the public does not know them exactly, but can learn through whether or not the president signs or vetoes legislation. In one equilibrium if the president is sufficiently extreme relative to voters and sufficiently motivated by policy to still veto then Congress prefers to pass legislation that they know the president will veto in order to reveal to the public that the president is extreme relative to voters and make his less popular.
In the model, Congress makes a proposal to reveal the president's preferences to a single national audience. In the current situation, it seems like the president is making a proposal in order to reveal Congress' preferences, i.e. Manchin's preferences, before multiple audiences with different preferences and different levels of attention. In particular, it seems like the core issue for Biden to the extent that he is more moderate than progressives inside and outside of Congress is that he needs to convince a progressive activist audience that Manchin in fact won't support their own special preferred policy that they think they could get him to go for. This requires putting public pressure on Manchin which progressive politicians and groups are happy to do because they benefit from this with their supporters and Manchin is happy to be on the receiving end because he in turn benefits from his more conservative voters seeing him publicly block progressive legislation. Particularly to the extent that activists pay attention to legislative bargaining, but the general public only pays attention to legislation that actually passes it's in the interest of Biden to have Manchin very publicly block progressive proposals and then pass more moderate legislation so that Biden can blame Manchin with activists, but is not shown to the general public to have extreme views relative to their own preferences.
Bargaining in parliamentary coalitions might look less messy because it's less public, but because it's more private coalition government particularly under proportional representation means that it's less clear in the next election which party will be held responsible for economic performance. While it looks like a messy shit show, in a first past the post + presidential system the Democrats and particularly Biden knows that he will be held responsible for economic performance in the next presidential election. Biden can't control gas prices, but like other presidents he is strongly incentivized to avoid economically destructive policy that hurts economic growth.
I don't think this really makes the case that the way our system works is worse than parliamentary systems (to say nothing of "worst possible way"). As you describe, the outcomes seem similar to what you would expect from a centrist grand coalition -- legislation on areas where there is broad agreement (infrastructure, initial COVID relief) -- and little movement on more aggressive transformation either party might want. So the bad part is the "vibes".
But the "vibes" are really just a choice Joe Biden is making. He could decide to sit down with Manchin and Sinema (and/or Murkowski, Collins, etc), and see what they are willing to accept as the hinge votes, and then push for that as his platform. He seems to think it is more important to assuage his base that he is *trying* to accomplish much more but nothing he is doing publicly seems to be changing the outcome.
So I think he has miscalculated as it makes it look like 1) Democrats are infighting, 2) Biden himself has little control over the party, 3) Biden is representing the left interests vs the center, alienating independents/moderates, 4) he is achieving no incremental policy wins. But I don't think it's fair to pin that on institutional design - I think it's just bad White House decisionmaking.
(It's also true that as a rule the US does not want to install autonomous executives with a lot of authority into countries where we had to wage war to topple a dangerous strongman... this does not prove much in terms of how US government should be structured.)
If I could scrap America’s constitutional framework and start from scratch, I’d go with some kind of unicameral legislature elected proportionally.
But since a new Constitutional Convention doesn’t look imminent, and since Sinemanchin don’t seem likely to move on the filibuster, I think it might be time to just take the Electoral Count Act fix and move on. Maybe try to pass a watered down BBB this spring, and then figure out something fun with the other reconciliation bill we’ll get for 2022.
The other thing that was terrible about the institutional design of Afghanistan was the electoral system - they didn't choose a PR system, but Single Non-Transferable Vote. This worked kind of well in postwar Japan until the 90s, where the strength of the democratic system, the state, and the 1955 party system ensured an odd kind of political pluralism and competititon with factions in the LDP that chimed with economic growth and development and voter support for reform.
But it was a catastrophic choice for Afghanistan. SNTV is highly individual-centric and induces factionalism, as it means that multiple candidates from the same party can split the party's share of the vote. As the state, political system, and the parties were all so weak, unlike Japan SNTV led to chronic infighting and squabbling not just in Kabul but in national elections and across the wider political system. In a society as complex and divided as Afghanistan (and the US!) SNTV was a terrible idea, but they introduced it practically by accident - the perils of path dependency! See: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/196965
TIme to throw the "Worthless piece of fabric" (as Hamilton called the Constitution) and get a strong PR unicameral national government with a good bar for entry.
No more constantly pining away for rural white voters who are our overlords.
An even bigger institutional issue is that the President doesn't completely control who is in the Cabinet. You could see a scenario where a unified slate was agreed based on reserving some cabinet posts for dissident Republicans...but Biden can't guarantee their chooses would get through the Senate
I don't actually think having a greatly empowered centrist coalition would be an improvement.
I'm happy to have someone question this formulation, as I'm kinda making it up on the fly:
The parliamentary model works to consolidate control in a more homogenized centrist coalition empowered on a majoritarian basis.
The Madisonian model distributes power more like a donut. The power gets distributed out away from the center to various antagonistic wings through parties, branches, federalism, etc. It then constrains these wings, not through popular will, but by checks and balances and constitutional constraints. So while you still trend to a centrist balance, you end up with a much broader, more pluralistic set of interests that must be satisfied to legislate.
The value, and point of the Madisonian structure is specifically to constrain the scope of government in favor of a more broadly pluralistic society.