15 April 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 10: the United States of America

Thus far we have examined several countries, most of which have attempted in large or small ways to bridge the chasms separating distinct communities within a single polity by formulating practical means of sharing power at the level of leadership. In the Netherlands the cleavages were religious and ideological. In Belgium they started out religious/ideological but shifted to linguistic after the Second World War. In Lebanon the cleavages were religious—or sectarian, as some prefer. In Canada the cleavage was primarily linguistic, with elements of religion and ideology thrown in. In Cyprus the cleavage was ethnic and religious, greatly exacerbated by nationalist ideology.

Now we turn to the United States, which, over the past two generations, has become increasingly divided along ideological and religious lines. In this respect, the United States, which once stood aloof from the trends affecting Europe, is coming to resemble France in the wake of the Revolution and ensuing Napoleonic debacle.

Throughout most of the 20th century political life in the United States was dominated by two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats trace their origin to the Jeffersonian Republicans who rose to prominence at the turn of the 19th century. The Republicans replaced the moribund Whigs, beginning life in the 1850s as an anti-slavery party and attaining the presidency in 1861 with Abraham Lincoln. Both parties appealed to different Christian communities but were committed above all to the principles of liberalism, as rooted in the ideas of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson's transparently derivative Declaration of Independence. 

While christian democratic parties were coming into existence in several European countries in response to the secularizing efforts of liberals and socialists, a similar organization entirely bypassed the United States, whose liberalism was more moderate than its continental European counterpart and could more easily co-exist with the overt religiosity of Americans. Many Americans assumed that their country's political system was already Christian in some sense without critically assessing the underlying contractarian political philosophy and the liberal redemptive narrative. There was thus thought to be no need for an explicitly christian democratic party in the US.

This began to change during the late 20th century, as the American polity was increasingly divided between supporters of the two political parties. Now the two parties were less the broad-based coalition-building organizations they had previously been and were now in the hands of the more strident elements within their ranks, exacerbated by efforts half a century ago to democratize further the candidate selection process. I have traced the history of the parties in this essay published at The Gospel Coalition: The American Political Parties: History, Problems, and Prospects. I will not repeat what I wrote there and will leave readers to look at it at their leisure. What I must emphasize, however, is that the developments of the past century in American society have left the country divided between Red and Blue America, named for the colours the major television networks use to designate Republican and Democratic states in presidential elections.

Source: 270towin.com

The division between Red and Blue America began to appear in the 2000 election and has generally held in every election contested since then. The above map is from the 2012 election between Barack Obama, who was standing for re-election, and Mitt Romney, Democrat and Republican candidates respectively. As you can see, the division is largely an urban-rural one, with major metropolitan areas generally voting Democrat and rural areas supporting the Republicans. As in so many things, Texas is the exception, containing such major cities as Houston, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Austin, yet voting Republican. Red America largely occupies the hinterlands, while Blue America is located on the seacoasts and the Great Lakes.

However, as I noted in discussing Canada, the electoral map makes the United States look more divided than it actually is, because from the outset that country has employed a single-member-plurality (SMP) electoral system for virtually all political offices, including the presidency. Because every electoral vote in every state goes to the candidate winning a plurality of the popular vote, it creates an illusion of unanimity within each state. If Americans had a different electoral system, the result would look more like this map, which was created for the 2016 election:

Source: Wikipedia

This map makes it obvious that votes for each of the two parties are more widely distributed throughout the country than the red and blue maps indicate. The various shades of purple indicate that Democratic and Republican voters live side by side and in the same communities. Nevertheless, their most ardent supporters have become increasingly antagonistic.

So let's see how the US stacks up when assessed by the eight characteristics of consociationalism we discussed earlier.

1. Executive power-sharing or grand coalitions. Because the US has a single chief executive office, executive power-sharing is nonexistent. Switzerland's seven-member Federal Council is a collective presidency whose chair rotates annually among its members. The major political parties are represented in the Federal Council, meaning that compromise must occur at this level and not only in the Federal Assembly. A single presidency underscores the character of elections as more about winners and losers than about just representation.

2. Balanced executive-legislative relations, semi-separation of powers. Here Americans score better. While a Westminster parliamentary system is characterized by Walter Bagehot's fusion of powers, the American founders deliberately enshrined a separation of powers in their constitutional document, believing they were copying the British constitution as it existed in the 18th century. This means that Congress can be dominated by a party other than the one occupying the White House, an impossibility in Canada or the United Kingdom.

3. Balanced bicameralism & minority representation. Yes to the former, somewhat to the latter. The House of Representatives and the Senate are roughly equal in power, except with respect to money bills, presidential nominations, and foreign policy. The Senate represents the constituent states as states, while the House represents by population. Two powerful parliamentary chambers mean that more voices are likely to be heard and that the legislative process will take more time than under Canada's Westminster system. This is undoubtedly a good thing in a country as diverse as the US. But it also means that bills are likely to be assembled based on a quid pro quo among individual members of Congress attempting to benefit their home districts, which would make public justice little more than a haphazard amalgamation of local interests.

4. Multi-party system. Definitely not! SMP favours a two-party system, as Maurice Duverger discovered seven decades ago. It is up to Republicans and Democrats to represent minorities as best they can, but if they fail to do so, that means the excluded demographic goes unrepresented.

5. Multidimensional character of party system. To some extent, yes. While the two major parties traditionally represented different economic demographics, this has largely broken down in recent decades. The demographic that once supported Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party in the 1930s and '40s, namely the white working class, largely shifted to Donald Trump's Republican Party in 2016 and 2020. And while economic issues remain important for obvious reasons, social and cultural issues, such as abortion, marriage, and religious freedom have assumed increasing significance in recent elections, mirroring somewhat the cultural divide in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

6. Proportional representation. Definitely not, once again. A proportionally elected House of Representatives would see more political parties receiving seats, thereby breaking the monopoly of the Democrats and Republicans. It might allow for more nuanced negotiations in Congress among members and a less polarized atmosphere. One cannot, of course, elect a president according to proportional representation, but if a president were less wedded to a single party, he or she might be well positioned to preside over coalition-building in Congress rather than to rest on his or her own support base. It might actually return the presidency to what it was intended to be by the country's 18th-century founders: an office less beholden to any specific interests and better able to assume the status of referee in the ongoing policy-making process. But this would require a change of attitude on the part of the American people as well as of the candidates vying for the presidency.

7. Territorial & nonterritorial federalism, decentralization. Americans have always been attached to their local governments, which they view as one of the genuine glories of the system. Although county and municipal governments lack entrenched status in the Constitution, they nevertheless have a secure place in what we might call America's unwritten constitution. Although Washington has centralized power at the expense of the several states over the past century, and while the states' rights banner was discredited by association with Jim Crow in the south, there is a deep culture of local government that Americans guard jealously. Here in Ontario our provincial government has consolidated local governments in two waves: the 1970s and the turn of the millennium. What was once Wentworth County became the regional municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth, and that simply became the new city of Hamilton in 2001. By contrast the Chicago metropolitan area is blanketed in hundreds of local governments ranging from villages and cities, to townships, public school districts, and sanitary districts, many of which, in feudal style, overlap. It would be politically impossible for Illinois to reorganize all of these into larger municipalities.

Americans can justly be credited with inventing the modern constitutional federation, in which every constituent polity relates equally to the federal centre. Such countries as Canada, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and Germany have followed the precedent, establishing their own federal systems. Indeed federalism is a proven method of permitting diversity within especially large countries.

8. Minority veto. This is indeed a feature of the American constitution. In fact, it is manifested in several ways. Formal amendment to the Constitution requires multiple qualified majorities, which gives the veto power to substantial minority interests objecting to the proposed change. However, minority veto is occasionally nullified by judicial fiat, which in effect makes an end run around a recalcitrant minority, and sometimes even majorities. This is, of course, dangerous if it happens too frequently, as it raises objections that unelected judges are legislating from the bench. Judicial overreach is one of the factors that has raised the temperature in American political life over the past three generations. Nevertheless, in other respects political life in the US is based on the principle of majority rule. With only two parties capable of winning office, and with their capture by the more militant elements within them, more Americans than ever feel unheard. This is fuelling a climate of distrust in America's political institutions.

I should mention another factor preventing America being an example of consociationalism, and that is its status as global superpower. America is an empire. By saying this, I do not mean to imply, as some do, that empires are all bad. During the 19th century the global reach of the British navy stemmed the tide of piracy on the high seas, and that was surely a good thing. Similarly, empires create domestic zones of peace, much as the Pax Romana provided a stable context for the apostles to spread the gospel in the first century of our era. Nevertheless, empires are not especially conducive to self-government and robust representative institutions. The Netherlands, Belgium, Lebanon, and Austria are all small countries somewhat at the periphery of global awareness, while the same can certainly not be said of the United States. This explains why many libertarians, in their quest to cut back what they see as government interference in their local communities, first want the US to curtail its responsibilities abroad. A nation trying to police the globe cannot afford to wait out a lengthy process of negotiation among potentially antagonistic interests at home.

Nevertheless, the United States could well see fit to adopt certain reforms that would move it towards a greater degree of power-sharing between opposed communities. The most important of these would be to adopt some form of proportional representation to at least the House of Representatives and perhaps, following Australia's example, the Senate as well. This single reform would almost certainly lead to a multiparty system, with the Democratic and Republican Parties' influence reduced accordingly. Reforming the executive branch might be more difficult, but if no party were to gain a majority in Congress, the president could begin to bring members of different parties into his or her cabinet, thus approximating the Swiss system. Once again this would necessitate an attitudinal change.

Above all, progressives and conservatives alike would need to stop vilifying their opponents. It may be time to retire such epithets as racist, homophobe, bigot, "basket of deplorables," "Deep State," liberal media, and so forth, or at least to be more careful in using them. No constitutional amendment or legal reform can accomplish this. Both sides must make an effort to restore trust in their country's political institutions and to evaluate the narratives underpinning their own and not just their opponents' political convictions and activities. Healing can only come with self-examination and self-criticism. It won't be easy, but the future of the US depends on it.

Next: Concluding remarks

Previous: Cyprus

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