12 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 3: what is to be done?

In my previous posts I discussed the role that various consociational mechanisms have played in allowing potentially hostile subcultures to live together under the same political system. In my last post I mentioned four broad characteristics conducive to this co-existence: (1) élite accommodation, (2) mutual veto or concurrent majority, (3) proportionality in representation,  and (4) segmental autonomy. Now it's time to unpack these further into eight categories, which are useful as we compare them to the majoritarian principles employed in most English-speaking democracies, including Canada and the United States. These eight characteristics, four of which we shall look at today are based on empirical observation, but they might also be said to constitute an agenda for allowing potentially antagonistic subcultures to live together in peace. It might not fit well on a placard, and it doesn't lend itself to easy sloganeering, but it may be time to move beyond that.

1. Executive power-sharing or grand coalitions. Typically governments are formed with a majority of seats in a parliamentary chamber, with the majority amounting to at least 50 percent plus one. In a Westminster parliamentary system, such as the United Kingdom's and Canada's, a single party is usually in a position to govern for the duration of the life of a parliament. Canada's current government is actually a Liberal minority government, with the other parties informally propping it up for fear of having to contest an early election before they are ready. But we never see multi-party coalition governments, which are rare even in the UK. However, most European countries have governments composed of deputies representing more than one party for reasons we shall get to in my next post. Yet even in such cases, only a certain number of parties will generally need to participate in such governments to put them over the majority threshold. Thus a centre-right alliance will likely keep the social democrats out of power for a time.

However, in a sharply divided polity, bare majority status is not sufficient to ensure stable government. In such cases parties will have to expend extra effort to form a grand coalition government, in which all the major parties participate in government. Between 1966 and 1969 the government of Kurt Georg Kiessinger brought together the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the two largest political parties in the Federal Republic of Germany. This occurred again between 2005 and 2009 under Chancellor Angela Merkel, and for the third and fourth times between 2013 and 2018, and from 2018 to the present. After 1945, while the victorious Allies of Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union were occupying the country, Austria's two major parties, the Catholic-oriented People's Party and the Social Democrats, formed a series of grand coalition governments that lasted until 1966. This occurred again between 1987 and 2000, and from 2007 to 2017. In Canada this would be the equivalent of the Liberals and Conservatives forming a government, or, in the United States, the Democrats and Republicans collaborating on a legislative agenda.*

Naturally grand coalitions are more difficult to assemble than bare-majority governments. Negotiations among party leaders take time, as each will inevitably wish to have as much of its agenda as possible incorporated into the government's policy programme. Such an effort requires a continued willingness to compromise on issues regarded as less central to the party's identity and principles. Because there are more players at the table, party members cannot assume that the entirety of their particular agenda will appeal to the others. Unlike in a Westminster system, where single-party majority governments can easily enact their legislative agendas through the exercise of party discipline, political parties necessarily must keep their expectations more modest. Co-operation with potential opponents is not easy, but where a culture of co-operation has been developed through long usage, it is not impossible. Where such co-operation does not have a long history, developing it carefully and patiently is in order.

2. Balanced executive-legislative relations, semi-separation of powers. Here, admittedly, the Americans have an advantage over our Westminster system, which, in Walter Bagehot's famous observation, is based on a fusion of powers, with the prime minister and cabinet dominating the parliamentary agenda most of the time. When coupled with a single-party majority government, our system may tend to run roughshod over minority interests. If the parliament is unicameral, or if the upper chamber is not an effective chamber, the power of a majority is enhanced to an even greater degree. Majority governments are less willing to endure with patience the need to negotiate with a multitude of interests to ensure that they are not being neglected or done an injustice. Where legislative and executive powers are separated, however, the need to find a proper balance of legitimate interests becomes more evident. I know plenty of American voters who will vote for, say, a Democratic presidential candidate and a Republican member of Congress because they do not want one party to have its way too easily. This ticket-splitting is something for which we Canadians may find cause to envy our southern neighbours.

In a semi-presidential system, such as that of France (and nominally of Russia), the cabinet or council of ministers will likely not also be members of parliament. The Constitution of the French Fifth Republic contains a rule of incompatibility (Article 23). In Canada anyone appointed to Cabinet must have a seat in Parliament; in France a cabinet appointee must resign her seat in the National Assembly if she has one. In this respect, the United States and France both share a feature characteristic of consociational arrangements.

3. Balanced bicameralism & minority representation. If a parliamentary body contains two chambers, both of which have effective power, this constitutes one more check on a single party getting its way too easily. When proposed legislation makes it through one chamber, there is no certainty that it will make it through the other. This forces a government to negotiate with differing interests in the two chambers. For example, the United States Senate represents the fifty states on an equal basis, with each state allocated two senators. This ensures that minority interests in, say, Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and the Dakotas, with their smaller populations, are not continually overruled by a majority in the House of Representatives. Canada's parliamentary upper chamber on paper has a "full set of legislative teeth," as Robert MacGregor Dawson memorably expressed it. Nevertheless, by unwritten convention it almost never fails to approve legislation passed by the House of Commons because, as an appointive body, it lacks democratic legitimacy. Ostensibly the Senate is supposed to represent the interests of the provinces in a country most of whose population resides in Ontario and Québec. Yet because the federal government effectively appoints Senators, and because the Senate, as a chamber of sober second thought, is practically limited to revising and cleaning up the language of legislation, the link between the provinces and Parliament's upper chamber is weak.

Germany's upper chamber, the Bundesrat, is composed of members of the individual German states or Länder, and has the authority to vet legislation affecting their interests. It is no mere rubber stamp body. In a federal system such a body plays an essential role in protecting geographical minority interests. In its absence, the threat of states or provinces withdrawing from a federation becomes more likely. This imbalance in Canada's parliamentary system goes some way in explaining why both Québec and western separatism surface occasionally in our political landscape. Decades ago westerners, led by Alberta, sought a so-called Triple E Senate: elected, effective, and equal. A Senate representing each province equally is almost certainly a nonstarter, yet Senate reform is one of the great pieces of unfinished business in the evolution of Canada's constitution.

4. Multi-party system. Most English-speaking democracies are effectively two-party systems, the assumption being that in a competitive political environment, two parties are sufficient to represent the various interests in the nation. Unfortunately, many voters do not easily find a political home within one of these parties, compelled by the electoral system (which we'll look at in our next instalment) to vote against the candidate or party they think more likely to harm to public interest. Most of the world's democracies are multi-party systems, with several parties sitting in parliament, often ranged from left to right relative to the speaker, a tradition dating from the French National Assembly in 1789. Among the possible parties were are likely to see in a parliamentary chamber are communist (or ex-communist), green (environmental), social democratic, labour, radical liberal, liberal centrist, christian democratic, conservative, agrarian, and a plethora of smaller parties. Of course, none of these is likely to command the support of a majority of voters, although there may be two fairly sizeable blocs which together dominate parliament.

Such parties may have a loyal following voting for them time and again. There may be little movement among the various support bases, which means that elections are unlikely to change drastically the complexion of a parliamentary chamber over the short term. What will change are the parties' respective agendas and the willingness of party leaders to co-operate in the context of coalition governments. Voters may indeed shift party allegiances from one election to another, but these will likely be at the margins of the support base. In a multi-party system we are likely to find parties based on shared principles rather than broad-based pragmatic or brokerage parties attempting to be all things to all people. Voters in a multi-party system are more likely to vote enthusiastically rather than reluctantly support the lesser of two evils, as is the case in most English-speaking countries. This goes a long way towards explaining the much higher voter turnout in European countries such as the Netherlands and Italy.

In a multi-party system a minority subculture will not risk being locked out of political power for long periods of time, because its representatives will almost always be seated in parliament, ready to participate in governing coalitions with other parties, depending on the terms offered. In the United States, the Democratic and Republican Parties must represent an array of sometimes mutually incompatible interests and appeal to as many Americans as possible. Nevertheless, the two parties, despite the extreme polarization of the past two decades or so, do not differ on the basic principles of liberalism, which they accept. Where they differ is on who is the proper custodian of those principles and in which stage in liberalism's development they locate themselves.

Why are the United States and Canada effectively two-party systems? Isn't there enough diversity of political convictions in the two countries to warrant several parties? Yes, there is, but there is an important reason why other parties are locked out of contention. We'll discuss this next time. Stay tuned.

* No party "forms a government" in the United States. Forming a government is a phenomenon foreign to American constitutional experience. Given the mandated separation of powers, one can speak at most of a Biden administration, and not a Biden government as such.

Next: Dampening the culture wars, 3: what is to be done? continued

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