American divided government vs. German grand coalitions

How similar is the common pattern of “divided government” in the USA (national or state level) to the past and probable near-future pattern of “grand coalition” governance in Germany?

Various bloggers this week have discussed this comparison, including Stephen Karlson, Betsy, and Chris Lawrence. It warms this comparative politics scholar’s heart to see this level of debate occuring across the blogosphere!

Before going further with the discussion, let’s make the definitions clear:

Divided government refers to the situation of an elected chief executive of one party and a majority in at least one legislative house from the other major party.

Grand coalition refers to a cabinet in a parliamentary system in which ministerial posts are shared by the two major parties.

In each situation, the two major parties that oppose each other in elections and on many or most policy positions are, in some sense, co-responsible for governance. However, it is very important not to conflate the two sitiations.

Under divided government in the USA, the chief executive (a separately elected president or governor) does not negotiate his or her cabinet with the leaders of the other party. On the other hand, in a grand coalition, the entire cabinet—including its head—is a product of negotiations between the leaders of the parties. Moreover, due to the parliamentary system, that cabinet and its head can be forced to resign at any time if the parties no longer want to work together. This distinction is closely related to Betsy’s point about two fundamentally opposing parties “running the executive branch together”; however, in discussing the implausibility of this situation in the United States, Betsy appears to overlook that fact that the German CDU and SPD are far more fundamentally opposed to one another than are Democrats and Republicans. This leads me to the second important distinction between the two situations.

Under divided government, legislation is not necessarily or even typically a product of inter-party agreement at the leadership level. It may be, but more often it is a product of narrower, ad hoc, majority coalitions in which both parties divide into “yea” and “nay” wings. This is possible precisely because on so many issues the two American parties are not fundamentally opposed to one another (as noted also by Chris). In the USA, centrists in one party will go along with centrists in the other, and/or individual legislators in one party will go along with policies advanced by the executive and his or her party in exchange for pork-barrel favors. Fundamentally, these kinds of legislative coalitions that cross-cut party lines do not occur in parliamentary systems.

0 thoughts on “American divided government vs. German grand coalitions

  1. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Half a year of Fruits and Votes: A remarkable series of elections

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