Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

U.S. politics does not suffer from partisanship

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It has become part of the conventional wisdom to say that American politics is too polarized or too partisan these days. After the recent government shutdown, there were many commentators blaming it on the fact that the Republicans have moved too far to the right. Almost every week you hear calls to return to the center, to embrace moderation as the solution to the current dysfunction in the federal government.

But, as much as I oppose the Tea Party, I must point out that its extremist views are not the problem here. In fact, American politics is not really polarized at all when you compare it to other democratic countries. The gulf between Obama and the Tea Party may seem enormous, but it’s actually quite small compared to your average left-right divide in places like Europe.

The website, a useful database of election results and the composition of parliaments in Europe, reveals just how diverse the political landscape is over there, and how many seats are held by parties with radical views.

For example, communist parties currently have seats in the parliaments of Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Greece, Cyprus, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Meanwhile, in the parliaments of Spain, Britain, Italy and Belgium, there are parties that want certain regions of its countries to break away and declare independence. Could you imagine a communist party, or, say, a “Californian Independence Party” or a “Party for a Free Texas” in the U.S. Congress? That is what real partisan politics looks like.

Radical left and right parties in Europe often get a significant share of the vote, and sometimes cause the large mainstream parties to huddle together as allies against them. For example, Germany recently had a general election in September, and the conservatives came in first, but the three left-wing parties, put together, won a majority of the seats. However, the center-left Social Democrats, who won 26.3 percent of the votes, refuse to be in the same government as the radical Left Party (a descendant from East Germany’s old ruling communist party) who won 8.8 percent of votes. Therefore, the resulting government will most likely be a “grand coalition” between the Social Democrats and conservatives.

In Austria, which also had elections in September, the mainstream center-right and center-left parties barely got over 50 percent of the vote put together. Against them stood the right-wing Freedom Party with 21 percent of votes, and the Greens with 12 percent.

Some countries have a very large number of parties with elected representatives, covering a wide variety of political views. In the Netherlands, there are 11 separate parties in parliament. The top two parties are the classical liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the social democratic Labor Party (PvdA). The other parties include the Socialist Party (originally founded as a Maoist group by left-wing radicals in the 1960s), the Freedom Party (a far-right party that wants to ban the Quran and stop all immigration from non-European countries) and many others.

Many countries in Europe have at least one conservative party, one classical liberal, one social democratic and one environmentalist and/or socialist.

So if other countries have such a great variety of elected parties who disagree with each other much more strongly than the most bitterly partisan Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., why is it that the U.S. government is so gridlocked while those other countries’ governments are not?

The BBC’s Mark Mardell argues that the dysfunction in U.S. politics does not come from elected representatives holding any kind of radical views, but from the way the system was designed. The American political system was designed to function on compromise. With features like midterm elections, six-year terms for senators and staggered elections for the Senate, a powerful presidency and so on, the system is almost rigged to ensure that no single party holds all the levers of power. It is rigged to produce divided government – to make it so that the House, Senate and presidency will be held by different parties. And the system is also designed so that nothing much can get done unless all three of those institutions agree on it. So, either they compromise or nothing gets done.

By contrast, most democracies in Europe and elsewhere do not normally have divided governments. A party is either in power or in opposition. All major elections happen at the same time and there are no midterm elections, which ensures that one party can’t win control of one branch of government while another party is still in the middle of running a different branch. The office of president, when it exists, is typically ceremonial. The multitude of different parties ensures that you are never forced to compromise with one given party in particular – if party X won’t play ball, maybe party Y will. No single party can keep the government hostage.

In short, the problem with U.S. politics is not that the Republicans and Democrats refuse to work together, but that the system was designed so that it breaks down when they refuse to work together. The American system requires compromise in order to function, whereas most other countries’ systems are designed to allow the different sides to hate each other with a burning passion without causing gridlock.

We should stop lamenting the fact that our politicians refuse to play nice with each other, and instead ask ourselves how we can change the system so that it will work even when politicians refuse to play nice with each other. We could start by introducing some form of proportional representation in order to get more than two parties elected and thus prevent any one party from holding the government hostage.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at  [email protected].


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  • N

    N.Nov 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Maybe another question is why our dominant political forces work to produce the image of gridlock?

  • B

    Borat SaddiyevNov 15, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Multi-party rule has been a disaster in every country except perhaps Germany. Our nation has devolved into a Tower of Babel where there are so many conflicting voices, agendas and constituencies that the two party system is in essence a not-so-disguised multi-party system. We are currently hamstrung by the politics of class, generational issues, race and national self-loathing. The last of these issues is quite problematic as it coincides with the ascendancy of Chinese, Russian, Brazilian and Middle Eastern nationalism. Of course, there are many ills in our society not the least of which is fiscal irresponsibility which will prove ruinous within the next 20 years.

  • G

    Genghis KhanNov 14, 2013 at 8:03 am

    The problem with compromise is this:

    I stand at 100% on a given issue, my opponent on the Left stands at 0%. We negotiate, and compromise on 50%. Split the difference and all. Fair, right? Sure.

    But wait a few years. All of a sudden that 50% position is now defined as the new 100%; the media, wholly-owned propagandists for the Left anyway, paint that 50% as the new ‘extreme’ position, and I am urged once again to meet in the middle.

    Why is the Tea Party so adamant and intransigent? We understand the Left’s game now. And we refuse to negotiate with the progressive cancer metastasizing in this country.

  • O

    ObserverNov 14, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Yeah, ok, I get what you’re saying, but then at the very end your one-sentence solution is to… maybe tweak the American political system a little bit? Really? Come on. You’re right that all the gridlock is caused by the system, but let’s face reality: Tweaking the system is impossible.

    Tweaking the system requires politicians from one or both of the two main parties to vote for reforms specifically designed to reduce the power of their own party. Yeah… not gonna happen. The American political system is by far the most rigid and unchanging in any Western democracy. It will never bend. It will, however, eventually break.

    Sooner or later, some dumb politicians playing their brinksmanship games will actually push us over the brink. THEN, and only then, will the system change – and when I say “change” I mean “collapse”.