Are there only bad alternatives to gridlock? Really?

The Monkey Cage blog, which describes itself as a forum where “we talk about political science research and use it to make some sense of the circus that is politics”, has a post today that is written as if the entire field of comparative political institutions were a non-entity. It is all the more troubling in that its author is a very eminent political science professor, Morris P. Fiorina, of Stanford, much of whose work I admire and have found influential.

Running under the headline, “Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse.”, the post suggests that reform proposals* aimed at reducing some of the obstacles to the executive’s enactment of policies would risk transforming the USA into a version of the UK that he learned “in my undergraduate courses decades ago”, with nationalizations by a government of one party followed by de-nationalizations by a government of the other party.

It is not as if Fiorina is unaware of multiparty politics in parliamentary systems, as he mentions the presence of more “a bit more than two parties” in some other countries. Yet, from reading the post, you’d come away thinking Germany had a “two party system” and that the most recent election in that country was as unusual as that of Britain in requiring coalition negotiations. You would also come away with no idea that Germany has one of the world’s most extensive systems of judicial review. Or that Cameron or other UK PMs might have occasional challenges dealing with his own backbenchers. He says:

In parliamentary democracies, parliamentary majorities toe the line set by the executive, and there are no powerful independent judiciaries.

This is a cartoon version of parliamentary government. One could look at any of the standard works on comparative democracy, such as Powell (1982), Lijphart (1984, 1999), and numerous others to see that political science knowledge on this topic is–and has been for a while–rather more nuanced than Fiorina presents it to be. (Or–shameless plug alert–one could read the forthcoming A Different Democracy.)

Even while eventually acknowledging that “the old thinking may well be dated”, Fiorina still offers more of it by speaking of parliamentary coalition governments in clearly negative terms: “In their recent elections the winning parties in Britain and Germany failed to win a majority of seats and were forced into protracted negotiations and uncomfortable compromises before forming governments”, followed by the standard implication that minor parties are given too much power by such deals.

For the record, the coalition bargaining that resulted in the current governments of Britain and the Germany were not especially “protracted” by any reasonable standard, and except in specific conditions (such as extreme fragmentation) small parties have to compromise at least as much as big ones to enter coalitions when there is no “winning” party. Moreover, a clear advantage of typical coalitions consisting of two or a few parties is that they publish and mutually commit to a package of agreements on policy. Sure, they have ongoing disagreements to resolve, but nothing like the continuous non-resolution of disputes that has come to characterize US politics. This pattern of inter-party consensus in most parliamentary governments is neither gridlock nor unleashing the executive; there are alternatives, and the alternatives are how most of the advanced industrial countries govern themselves.

Frankly, the post is beneath the standards of a blog that aims to bring the state-of-the-art of political science to a broad readership.

* Fiorina mentions, in passing, but does not engage with several reforms, each with a link: “Restrict campaign finance. Make House and Senate terms the same length, and elect representatives and senators at the same time as the president. Empower the presidency.”

4 thoughts on “Are there only bad alternatives to gridlock? Really?

  1. “The preponderance of political science thinking about responsible party government reflects the experience of 20th century Britain, a far more homogeneous society than the United States, where political conflict took place largely across a simple economic redistribution divide. Such conditions provided a maximal opportunity for elections to produce clear majorities. ”

    What the… Apparently, even though he mentioned that majorities are ‘manufactured’ by FPTP, the electoral system plays no role here.

    This article sounds like it was written by someone whose complete knowledge of comparative politics comes from taking the AP Comparative Politics course, which includes not even one case study of a country with PR.

  2. Right. The quoted statement is true only if “preponderance of political science thinking about responsible party government” refers to the APSA report on the topic. Which was published in 1951.

  3. Pretty shocking. Mo Fiorina is a very smart guy who has actually written on British Politics (unless Cain and Ferejohn wrote those bits). The bit about the UK being homogeneous is pretty perplexing as well.

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