October 06, 2002
Government of the elite, by elite and for the elite

There was a discussion about the relative level of democracy between the US and Europe over at Bjørn Stærk's Blog. I can't seem to get the permalinks to work, but scroll down to the September 27th entry to see. [UPDATE: It's fixed now] I am not too concerned about he question how democratic Norway is compared to the US. Both countries have a democratic system in place, and indeed virtually all of Europe has functioning democracies. They may not always function well, but democracies they are.

Although it is dangerous to generalize, I am going to do it anyway to make my point without getting bogged down in too many details. There are a few big differences in the way the European democracies are structured compared to the American system. Three differences stand out:

1) Separation of the branches of government
2) The electoral system
3) The role of political parties

Most European countries have a parliamentary system. Elections are held for a parliament, and whoever can put together more than half of the votes there gets to form the government. The executive branch is closely intertwined with the legislative. In American terms, it's as if Congress would elect the President, rather than the Electoral College. Only France has a powerful directly elected president, but even there the government comes from the parliamentary majority. The cabinet reports the to Prime Minister, who forms a counterweight to the president. It is the cabinet which is the executive branch, and not the presidential staff. With a hostile National Assembly, a French President will be able to do much less than an American President faced with a Congress controlled by another party. With the executive being so closely tied to the legislative, the amount of parliamentary oversight is also less. By definition, the ruling party or coalition will be in charge of both. Similar arrangements exist in most European countries.

The ties binding politicians to political parties in Europe are also stronger than in the US. Voting can and does go along party lines, especially in controversial votes, but there are always plenty of members of Congress who'll cross the aisle on a particular issue. In many European parliaments a vote against the party whip is very rare. Party discipline is strictly enforced, to an extent that the whips in Congress can only dream of. The reason that it can be enforced goes to the heart of the biggest difference between European and US systems: politicians in Europe are loyal first and foremost to their party, and not to their voters. This also leads to much more ideologically unified parties in Europe. The variability in positions in either the Democratic or Republican parties is much larger than in any European party. A southern Democrat will have more in common with a southern Republican than with a Democrat from the Northeast.

With the first-past-the-post system in the US, the electorate votes for a specific person, not a party. In the proportional representation systems of Europe, the vote goes to a party, which then decides which politicians get to serve in parliament. This is a crucial difference. To advance your carreer as a European politician, you have to make sure that you are popular within your party's structure. In America, you have to make sure you're popular with your voters. This ties together the points 2 and 3 above: European political parties can enforce discipline within their own ranks much more thoroughly, because they can punish dissent by ending troublemakers' carreers. But by moving the incentive for politicians away from pleasing the voters to pleasing the party hierarchy, there is a disconnect between the people they are supposed to represent and the politicians themselves. Since politicians are elected on a party list system, there is also little to bind voters to politicians. The concept of "my Senator" or "my Congressman" simply does not exist in a system of proportional respresentation. It works in both directions: politicians care much less about what people think, and people can't punish politicians effectively if they break their promises.

This is an essential feedback loop in American democracy, and the electoral system that leads to the party structure in Europe lacks this. Feedback is essential to keep a system working properly. The European system, with the power concentrated in party hierarchies leads inevitably to elite rule (which is not to say that the American system is perfect, but it suffers far less from this particular syndrome). The political elites in Europe can in many cases ignore the wishes of the electorate, as long as they agree amongst themselves. A good example was the creation of the euro, where large majorities in many countries were opposed to it, yet ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in parliament was hardly an issue, and passed with huge majorities. This big a divergence between popular opinion and its reflection in parliament could not exist in the US.

An argument often heard against the first-past-the-post system is that it is unfair. Parties or candidates might accumulate a significant proportion of the vote, but end up being underrepresented or even unrepresented in parliament. In Britain, which uses this system, the party that can garner about 42 to 45% of the vote usually ends up with a working majority in Parliament. Is this fair? It's unfair to the extent that it does not represent the proportion of the votes cast for political parties. It is fair in the sense that the candidate in each constituency with the most votes gets to represent it in Parliament. But the purpose of democracy is not to find a perfect reflection of party votes in parliament. The goal is to find a way to govern the country that represents popular opinion, results in workable governments and also maintains internal regional stability. This last point is exemplified by the Senate in the US. Wyoming with 500,000 inhabitants gets two Senators, just like California with 32,000,000.

In the end, I don't think it's possible to say a priori which system of democracy is best. It can only be judged by the results its produces, and in that sense the American systems works better. Although this will sounds hilarious to American readers, the chasm between politicans and voters in Europe is much larger. That's why the European political class has been able to move ahead with its European Union project, although not that many European voters want it. And that's also what's wrong with the European Union. If politicians are out of touch within their own countries, this goes doubly so for European politicians. They are the political class of the political class, with hardly any corrective feedback mechanism from the voters. That's also why the EU is in danger of failing eventually. At some point, the stress between voters and politicians becomes too big, and a discontinuity occurs, such as the emergence of the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, which then shakes up the party landscape and realigns political priorities. For a while, to some extent.

Proportional representation can also lead to stagnation. In Germany, most changes of government occurred because a small party, like the FDP, changed its coalition preference from the CDU to the SPD or vice versa. Getting a change of government as a result of an election is fairly rare. Even in the case Holland, where the LPF stormed onto the stage, the new government still has one of the parties from the previous government as a coalition partner. So the voters do have some influence, but it's usually marginal in that they can shift the political center of gravity a bit to the left or a bit to the right. But the hope for a clean break with the previous government seldom exists.

There is a wider institutional crisis developing in Europe, and especially in the European Union. The Democracy Puzzle is one part of it, because without more democratic legitimacy the EU is going fail. And although more remote, there is also a danger to the democratic legitimacy of the individual member states if the gap between the rulers and ruled remains as wide as it is.

Posted by qsi at October 06, 2002 06:52 PM
Read More on Democracy , European Union

There are benefits with the european system:
It is not as vulnerable to pork barrel politics, as the candidates are more dependant on the party doing well in general more than their ability to grab money for huge misguided projects.

Posted by: håkon on October 8, 2002 09:33 PM


I agree with your excellent post. I have two comments to add, one minor, and one major.

minor point: As your post makes clear, democracy is not a boolean variable. A system can be more or less democratic. It's my viewpoint, which your posting supports, that the US is MORE democratic than most european democracies. Having said that, I'm hardly satisfied with the american system, as it still allocates too much power to the government.

major point:

>> The goal [of democracy] is to find a way to govern the country that represents popular opinion, results in workable governments and also maintains internal regional stability.

But the bigger question is "What is the purpose of government?" The American founding fathers asserted that the only proper purpose of government was to secure the individual rights of man. This is highest moral purpose of government. In the ideal then, the legislature could only pass legislation that better protects human rights, and could never violate them. Democracy is only a piece of the solution. In the original american ideal, democracy is only properly used to decide those things that don't involve the violation of rights. The owner of a business hires a manager to run his business, not to take on the authority of the owner. In the American mindset, elections are a means to select people for jobs, in service. Europeans seem to be out-sourcing governmental power to sub-contractors (parties). Worse, used to royalty, they happily elect a substitute nobility (authority of owners).

America has DEMOcracy Europe has demoCRACY :)

Posted by: Gunnar on October 8, 2002 10:46 PM

> In the end, I don't think it's possible to say a priori which system of democracy is best

I made my judgement not a priori, but based on actual experience with both. America is more democratic, and it's democracy is healthier than the European varieties, since the remnants of a once great structure of checks and balances still exists. But if America looks good, it's only in comparison with the dysfunctional. America should be compared to what it once was, and what it could be.

Btw, your web site code seems to have a limit on the amount of postable text. It arbitrarily cut text from inside my post, and lost it. Quite annoying, eh?

Posted by: Gunnar on October 8, 2002 10:49 PM


Do you mean to imply that there are no huge misguided projects in Europe?

Posted by: Fred Boness on October 11, 2002 07:58 AM

Yes, we do have our fair share of them, our system allows politicians to push their useless pet projects in the same way as yours. But the individual representatives political survival is not dependant on his ability to bring home pork.

Think about a honest politician that promise to fight pork (and actually does). Why on eart would any sane group of people elect him? Everybody else would continue to cash in on the constant stream of pork while the honest politicians constituency would get nothing.

Now with a european (as in european nation that works better than Italy) system there exist a possibility to cut of everybodys supply of "pork" instead of just your own. I am not saying it is likely to happen, but at least the system allows it.

Posted by: Håkon on October 11, 2002 10:33 PM
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