There was an item on National Public Radio this afternoon about California turning to the Netherlands for flood-control expertise. The basic premise was that, whereas the Netherlands has known how to deal with the problem of rising floodwaters throughout its history, California is just getting started in preparing for the rising sea levels stemming from global warming, which threaten the low lands of the state’s Delta region.
In discussing the challenges in California of reconciling conflicting interests and the myriad government agencies–state and federal–that have a stake in this policy, we hear Jeffrey Mount, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, say that:
You have this situation in California where we are a bunch of consensus wimps. And frankly this is one of those problems where there’ll be winners and losers, and we’re never going to come up with consensus in this.
Of course, there are few policies that do not produce winners and losers. In the Netherlands, on the other hand:
They’re actually cognizant that they’re on a trajectory of change. And they’re trying to adapt to that change. Rather than simply trying to make it work for today, they’re trying to make it work for tomorrow as well.
But the invocation of the Netherlands as a contrasting case to California’s over-reliance on “consensus” is an odd one to any of us who are familiar with the literature on comparative democracy. The Netherlands, after all, is one of the paradigmatic cases of “consociational” and “consensus” democracy, both concepts pioneered by my colleague, Arend Lijphart (who happens to be Dutch).
So, if the Dutch are really so much better at making tough choices on this (or any) issue that we wimpy Californians, the problem must not lie in consensus decision-making, per se, but somewhere else.
The Netherlands is, of course, a parliamentary democracy with one of the world’s most proportional electoral systems: 150 seats elected nationwide, with a 0.67% threshold to win a seat. Those are the institutional bases of its broad multiparty governments, and its consensus politics. It has numerous parties that span the ideological spectrum, and each of them is quite centralized and disciplined. Currently, the largest party in the Dutch parliament has only 27.3% of the seats. The government is a coalition of that party, another with 22% and a third that has 4% of the seats in parliament. Consensus government–all three parties are “veto players”–but they have a bare majority in a parliament that has minimal checks on its authority to make legislations. ((There is an upper house, elected indirectly, and with some authority, but its composition does not differ fundamentally in partisan terms from the lower house.))
California, on the other hand, a fairly prototypical presidential system. In fact, it really is a presidential system on steroids–not because its “president” (the Governor) is so powerful, but because, as is the nature of presidential democracy, power is fragmented and shared among several institutions. Given federalism, it is further fragmented and shared between state and federal governments. Legislators owe relatively little to party programs for their election, and much to their ability to cater to moneyed interests or organized blocs of voters in their narrow (and almost always noncompetitive) districts. Both California and the US federal structure do not merely require consensus, they offer a worst of both worlds: Multiple access points for organized interests with narrow demands, and super-majority decision-making through various two-thirds vote requirements and, in state government, the recourse to ballot initiatives by interest groups unhappy with what they are getting from the legislature and executive.
Don’t blame consensus per se–as if imposition by some chimerical benevolent central authority were the answer to all our tough problems. Rather, blame the specific institutions that fragment representation among multiple veto gates–that is, no single representative institution (like the Dutch party-centered parliament) being able to make hammer out policy compromises acceptable to the majority without being subject to vetoes by other, separate, institutions. Blame the absence of collective responsibility, the failure of the representation process to aggregate broad interests, the institutionalized short-sightedness of term-limited executives and legislators. Blame any number of features of our policy-making process, but not our “wimpy” seeking of consensus.
Yes, Californians could learn a lot from the Dutch. Not only about how to deal with flooding, but in how to build a policy-making process that makes consensus “for tomorrow as well.”
Tom Round has an excellent comment below; I agree with the essence of his well thought-out arguments.