Saturday, September 24, 2016

Parliamentary Parties In A Presidential System and the Failure of the Principle of Subsidiarity

1.0 Introduction

Some have argued that the Republican Party, in the United States of American, has been acting, since Newt Gringrich's speakership of the house, more like a parliamentary party1. And that this creates tensions in a presidential system2, like the USA. I think I have located another tension that, so far as I know, had not been previously identified when I started this post, months ago3.

People line up in local elections often for local reasons, to pursue local interests. In mass publics, even the political leaders in town, district, city, county, and municipal systems cannot be expected be knowledgeable about national issues and political ideology. In big-tent parties, the aggregate of such local movements need not form coherent ideologies. But when at least one national party is dominated by ideological beliefs, local politics might tend to be seen through an ideological lens. Not only might local political bickering become more bitter and rancorous, local politicians might become less responsive to specific characteristics of their areas. Federalism will work worse. Delegating decisions to the lowest authority possible among municipalities, states, and nations does not necessarily lead to more democratically responsive decisions, in some sense.

2.0 Local Politics

County-level splits in big-tent political parties do not result in ideological shifts. Suppose there are both right and left wings in two dominant political parties in a country, and these ideological spectra overlap. One party might be more dominant in one region than another. How urban and rural populations; ethnic groups; landholders, financiers, industrialists, professionals, small business owners, and workers line up might vary among regions. Once, say, in the 1950s, the Democrats were the party in the USA of southern whites and urban ethnic immigrants from southeastern Europe. And Republicans were simultaneously the party of African-Americans and big business4. Supporting a party at a local level, switching sides, and so on need not reflect strong ideological view in such circumstances. It could be a matter of simply seeking more resources for an interest group.

Once upon a time in Chicago, the Democratic party was extremely dominant, and the party was run like many another big city machine. Harold Washington was a successful reform candidate who became major. The old-time machine politicians had to go somewhere, and they became Republicans. Whatever local tensions were involved in it, this kind of local party split and reforming of one party need not align with any national movement.

The county I live in has two urban centers. As I understand it, the Democrats are traditionally dominant in the larger city, and the Republicans are dominant in mine. We have had in both cities, in my memory, mayors that were either independent - in the sense, that they ran on neither party line - or bipartisan, in that he ran on both.

So there are two examples of alignments in local politics that might be said to be more about interest groups, and less about ideological movements. Politics in the USA has been becoming more ideological and falling along a one-dimensional continuum (Hare & Poole, 2013). And I think that has affected local politics.


Rogers (2016) does show that state legislative elections are dominated by national politics. But he does not show any break in such trends with national politics becoming more partisan. But I have stumbled upon Abramowitz and Webster (2015), which support my thesis. I do not know of any literature investigating national effects on local elections, as I postulate.

  1. For this post, I am more interested in the first paragraph in the following quotation. The second paragraph is probably the most widely quoted passage from this book, partly because of Ornstein's standing among right-leaning think tanks and partly because of an accompanying Washington Post editorial:
  2. "...we identify two overriding sources of dysfunction. The first is the serious mismatch between the political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Parliamentary-style parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution. Sixty years ago, Austin Ranney, an eminent political scientist, wrote a prophetic dissent to a famous report by an American Political Science Association committee entitled 'Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.' The report, by prominent political scientists frustrated with the role of conservative Southern Democrats in blocking civil rights and other social policy, issued a clarion call for more ideologically coherent, internally unified, and adversarial parties in the fashion of a Westminister-style parliamentary democracy like Britain or Canada. Ranney powerfully argued that such parties would be a disaster within the American constitutional system, given our separation of powers, separately elected institutions, and constraints on majority rule that favor cross-party coalitions and compromise. Time has proven Ranney dead right - we now have the kinds of parties the report desired, and it is disastrous.

    The second is the fact that, however awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier - ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country's most pressing challenges." -- Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein (2012).

  3. From an agenda-setting paper on the differences between presidential and parliamentary systems:
  4. "...the president's strong claim to democratic, even plebiscitarian, legitimacy [stands out]... Following ...Walter Bagehot, ... a presidential system endows the incumbent with both the 'ceremonial' functions of a head of state and the 'effective' functions of a chief executive, thus creating an aura, a self-image, and a set of popular expectations which are all quite different from those associated with a prime minister, no matter how popular he may be.

    But what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy... [W]hen a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the... president...[,] who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? ... One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts 'normal' and thus defused them... [T]he uniquely diffuse character of American political parties - which ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties - has something to do with it... [T]he development of modern political parties, particular in socially and ideologically polarized countries, generally exacerbates, rather than moderates, conflicts between the legislative and the executive." -- Juan Linz (1990): pp. 53-54.'

  5. But see Steven Rogers' study, highlighted by a Jeff Stein article at Vox.
  6. These are tendencies. It is part of my point that such tendencies might be violated, at some time in some specific locality.
Selected References
  • Alan Abrsmowitz and Steven Webster (2015). All politics is national: The rise of negative partisanship and nationalization of U.S. House and Senate elections in the 21st century.
  • Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole (2013). The Polarization of Contemporary American Politics.
  • Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins (2015). Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats: The Asymmetry of American Politics, Perspectives on Politics, V. 13, No. 1 (Mar.): pp. 119-139.
  • Juan J. Linz (1990). The Perils of Presidentialism, Journal of Democracy, V. 1, No. 1 (Winter): pp. 51-69.
  • Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (2012). It's Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, Basic Books.
  • Steven Rogers (2016). National Forces in State Legislative Elections, AAPSS (Sep.): pp. 207-225.

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