In Defense of the Two-Party System.

Like many of my friends on the left, I've been frustrated by anti-democratic Senate rules that, in combination with the mystique of the modern U.S. presidency, create a situation where the executive branch is frequently blamed for Congress' unwillingness to take action on the major public policy of the issues of the day. I've wondered what our country would be like if we had a proper parliamentary system, and last week found myself in a boozy argument with a visiting Slovakian journalist, each insisting the other's governmental structures delivered more effective public policy outcomes.

Clay Risen, though, has recently returned from Germany, where his observation of recent elections cured him of any lingering sympathy for the parliamentary system. The problem with these multi-party systems is that they don't provide incentives for parties to reconcile their ideologies with the issues of the day:

Clinton’s welfare reforms of the 1990s also produced enormous disagreement on the left. But because there was nowhere for dissenting factions to go, they had to fight it out internally–and, over time, these centripetal forces created a new consensus, which formed the basis for Barack Obama’s ride into the White House and the backbone of support for his progressive agenda. The German left, on the other hand, simply picked up its toys and went to play elsewhere, thanks to the centrifugal forces of the parliamentary system. The result is a rump center-left, an eco-centric postmaterialist left, and a self-righteous neo-Marxist far-left, none of which had anything constructive to say during the recent economic crisis, a time when, typically, left-wing, pro-government parties are needed most.

... The problem is that the big decisions in contemporary politics–climate change, global terrorism, international financial reform–demand a policymaking coherence and stability that only broad-based, pragmatic parties like America’s can provide. Not surprisingly, big changes, particularly on climate, are increasingly passed up the ladder to the EU, where less transparent, less democratic bodies can make the tough decisions that national parliaments can’t.

The whole piece is worth your time. Readers will be happy to know that ending the filibuster is still definitely a good idea, regardless of whatever people in Europe may think of it.

-- Tim Fernholz

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