Friday, May 7, 2010

Democratic Indecision

Addressing mostly leftist Brits licking their wounds after yesterday’s election, Michael Tomasky observes that, as currently constituted, the American and British political systems are both seriously dysfunctional (my emphasis):

“From America, the view of your election results is one that combines resignation and guilt. The resignation comes because the muddled results compel me to say well, welcome to the club – the league of divided nations, where public opinion is split and where the electoral and legislative systems contrive to highlight those divisions rather than salve them. . . .

“So, here we are. Two great and powerful nations, two nations that more than any others can plausibly claim to have shown the rest of the world how democracy works (well, not in their countries when we had much to do with it, but that's a different story), and now we're both saddled with dysfunctional systems. They're dysfunctional in very different ways, of course. So maybe this is just a coincidence.

“But what if it's not? What if this is the point in time that history's muse has chosen to expose the uglier entrails of Enlightenment-era democracies? Taking this longer view, it may well be the case that the health of both of our democracies will depend over the next generation on each sclerotic system's ability to reform itself in ways that allow it to adapt to the swift new world that neither system was really designed to govern.
I wouldn’t take any of this seriously if I thought it was just an expression of partisan frustration. We'd all prefer a political system that makes it easier to promote our values and harder to promote our political opponents' values.  Genuinely worrisome political dysfunction must be visible and deplorable from all sides of the partisan barricades.

If Tomasky’s saying that’s true in the British and American cases he appears to have a point. You can’t blame Brits for wondering why they went to the trouble of having an election that didn’t generate a mandate to address widely acknowledged social and economic problems to anyone’s satisfaction. And all we Americans got for the last year we spent haggling over ObamaCare is the reasonable expectation that we’ll spend the next few years arguing about its repeal. The evidence of the dysfunction that Tomasky’s pointing to in each case is the regrettable lack of finality in important public decisions. The principle behind his analysis seems to be something like this: since democracy is a mechanism for rendering public decisions, an indecisive democracy must be dysfunctional. If that’s true (and it sounds like it might be), it should matter to everyone who's committed to promoting his political values democratically.

It's always dangerous to draw analogies between public and individual decision-making, but let’s see where it gets us in this connection. Indecisiveness is only a bad thing in an individual when he already has enough information to make a reasonable decision and the costs of deferring it outweigh whatever benefits there are to waiting for more and better information. When the costs of putting off the decision are less than the expected benefits of reaching a better decision in the future, indecisiveness is a form of prudence.

A democratic political system makes political decisions by aggregating voter preferences. To that end, it has to narrow down the public agenda to a manageable set of alternatives that can be explained to voters in sufficient detail to enable them to form stable preferences, and then put to a vote in a way that reliably reveals their relative popularity. Political parties are run by people who know how to put together an electoral majority. So it’s hardly surprising that each party’s doing its best occasionally results in neither side’s being successful; sometimes when both sides try to win they end up in a tie. When that happens, the parties have to step back and refashion their agendas before any party can decisively secure a governing coalition by putting them before the voters again.

In this respect the American and British cases present an interesting contrast. In America, Obama and the Democrats won the 2008 elections decisively enough to persuade them that they had a strong public mandate to pass ObamaCare. It turned out, much to their own surprise and that of pessimistic Republicans, that they were mistaken. That leaves it to Obama to figure how to reinterpret his mandate over the next three years. He can do a Clinton and start triangulating, or press ahead on his agenda without knowing until 2012 whether he has a governing coalition behind him. It’s going to take a while to figure out which approach he’s taking, and longer still to figure out whether that was the right approach to take.

In the British case, a month-long election system revealed that the parties hadn’t succeeded in putting a platform together that could attract a governing majority. Whoever forms the government can call a snap election before Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership can do the political equivalent of clearing their throats.  The polity can then get back to job of reaching a public decision about how to proceed.

If you’re a liberal who thinks that we’re facing social and economic challenges, like climate change, healthcare reform, etc. that have to be addressed now, you’ve got to think that the British system is a lot less dysfunctional than ours. If you’re a conservative who prefers the status quo to liberal reform, you probably think the opposite.  Political dysfunction is an apparition in the eye of partisan beholders.

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