Wednesday, 27 May 2015

David Runciman writes something goofy about US vs. British Politics

David Runciman wrote a brief essay in the LRB about the results of the British election. I want to focus on one peculiar passage. Runciman observes:

The two countries that have seen the greatest rise in inequality over the past couple of decades are Britain and the United States. Both have a first-past-the-post system designed to offer a clear choice between two main parties. Yet whichever of the two parties wins, the drift towards inequality has been inexorable.

This is, well, nuts or maybe just inexplicable coming from a political thinker of Runciman’s reputation. It tells us nothing about why inequality has accelerated or what might be done to mitigate it. Runciman conflates the British and US political systems because they both have “first past the post” voting—but he somehow neglects to then distinguish them because the US has a presidential model with separation of powers across three branches of government and a widely dispersed federalism, and the UK has a parliamentary model. Which means, of course, as nearly every knowledgable political writer has been screaming during the this time of divided US government, that the US system does not at all offer a “clear choice between two main parties.” In fact, as Juan Linz famously pointed out, in a presidential system two major parties or coalitions can both claim legitimacy by controlling a respective branch of government. (And thus the US can have, simultaneously, two warring “Prime Ministers”, eg, President Obama and Speaker Boehner.)

The American system offers a decidedly murky choice; Because the congressional party (whose election is spread over three cycles) does not merely oppose, but also obstructs the presidential party, the US way of democracy provides the electorate with no logical party accountability—presidential “failures” can be caused by minority legislative parties because the presidential party only appears to voters—and to Runciman, apparently—to be the governing party, but is not. The US system is really enormously different from the UK system. If Runciman had wished to argue that the Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, has, in recent decades, abdicated the making and execution of foreign policy to the president, he’d have a point. But he writes as if clear party control of the levers of American politics was built into the system.

And there’s no need for the whole history lesson here, but that’s exactly how it wasn’t designed in the first place. It was, in fact, designed by people who did not anticipate the development of coherent political parties at all and, in fact, loathed the very idea (even if many of them then proceeded to become rather shrewd party politicians in the next phase of their careers). The whole point, as imagined by men who, with certain important exceptions, were very much determined not to replicate the powers of a monarchy in their fledgling nation, was to create conditions that would force elites to compromise and to limit the power of the propertyless (let alone the slaves) to even enter into the discussion. Compromise between powerful interests, not the clarity of unitary authority, was supposed to occur not only between the branches of government, but also between the national government and those of the states (and between the North and the slaveholding sub-nation of the South). There is absolutely nothing structurally about the American system of government, either in its inception or in its current dissipated condition, that offers voters a “clear choice” regarding domestic politics. (Even the rare historical circumstances that have seemingly given one party or the other effective control, eg, FDR’s already balkanized Democrats for, at most four years in the mid 1930s, in fact allowed a cross-party coalition of reactionaries to make the New Deal for “whites only.”

Later in the essay, Runciman expresses shock that the purportedly smooth running American political structure has crashed into a ditch like the regional trains that its warring parties of equal legitimacy refuse to fund. He writes contemptuously, comparing the squalid Brits with the squalid Yanks, “It is blackmail and veto power, with small groups clamouring to get what they want from the people in charge. This is the current model of American politics, which for all its premium on clarity and executive power is also extremely messy, with all sorts of minor players holding the big boys to ransom.”

But writers and scholars like Norm Ornstein, Thomas Mann, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (and many many others) have written copiously about how and why divided government does not engender clarity in the current iteration of the American presidential system. Runciman seems wholly unaware of this literature.

Sorry to be so sour, but has Runciman ever read The Federalist? Or Madison, in particular? Or just a good history about the ratification of the American constitution To frame his essay with this spurious comparison made it impossible for me to take the rest of his argument seriously.

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