Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Parliamentary government

In certain circles it is popular to talk about a parliamentary system as a corrective to the polarizing, winner-take-all system we have here. As we hear the complaint in some places, the two-paprty system silences or ignores minority viewpoints, and causes a conformity that favors middle-of-the-road, status quo politicians and shuns real change.

There are reasons to question whether a parliamentary system would solve these problems, or simply create bigger ones.

The New York Times Magazine carried an article a couple of weeks ago about Israel's system for determining Jewish identity. This is important primarily because, since Israel lacks civil marriage, the only way to get married is through a Jewish ceremony, and that, in turn, requires the parties to demonstrate their Jewishness. The article talks about how this has gotten harder and harder for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Jewish identification system has fallen under the sway of a more and more rigidly ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment. So rigid that one official is quoted in the article referring to a Conservative rabbi in America as a goy.

What does this have to do with a parliamentary system?

One thing the parliamentary fans say is definitely true. A parliamentary system, rather than silencing or ignoring minority views, includes them in the structure of government, and bestows upon them real power. In Israel, since neither of the two leading parties can command a majority, the only way either one of them can form a government is by allying itself with other, smaller parties. Over the years the strength of these ultra-Orthodox parties has grown, so that by this point they hold 18 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, and the government has obtained the favor of the ultra-Orthodox by appointing them to the rabbinical court, that has the power over marriage and divorce, and that, consequently, is charged with determining who is a Jew. And who they determine is not a Jew is a pretty long list, including lots of converts, lots of people who have trouble proving their identity through synagogue records of matrilineal descent, and lots of people from America, who often aren't considered Jewish enough.

If they want to do this, it's their country, I'll probably never even visit, so they can go ahead and do it.

On the other hand, picture a similar situation here, in which Jerry Falwell, James Hagee, and a handful of their buddies were so politically powerful that they could veto any marriage if they didn't approve of the couple, and they held this power in Democratic and Republican administrations because they hold the balance of power. So if you were Catholic, or Mormon, or Unitarian, or Jewis, or, god forbid, atheist, they could just deny you the ability to marry and there would be nothing you could do about it.

At that point you could say that we've opened up the government to a minority view, and they no longer feel marginalized, and maybe they even vote at a higher rate than we do because they feel that their votes count. I'd look at the same situation and say that the parliamentary system has given a small minority almost dictatorial powers. and I wouldn't like it.

So maybe this parliamentary thing isn't all its adherents say it is.


Anonymous RadicalWhig said...

This is an interesting post. There are a few points that need to be made, however.

1. Parliamentary government is defined by the responsibility of the executive to the legislature: it can exist with or without proportional representation. In the UK, where parliamentary government is combined with a US-style electoral system, it produces single party majority governments which are every bit as bad as the US system, but without the checks and balances. In countries combining parliamentary government with proportional representation, a more consensual (Netherlands, Sweden) or more fragmented (Italy, Israel) form of government can result, depending on whether the parties can get along in a civilised manner or not.

2. Israel is not a typical parliamentary regime in several respects - it was founded as a "Jewish" State and does not have a written Constitution guaranteeing individual or minority rights. In most European parliamentary democracies (and presumably in the USA, if it were to adopt the parliamentary form), a written Constitution and bill of rights would prevent Israeli-style manipulation.

3. How well parliamentary government works (in terms of representing opinions, holding the executive to account, pursuing effective policies, preserving rights) depends on many constitutional and political factors. It failed spectacularly in Weimar Germany (1919-33) but has succeeded in the Federal Republic of Germany (1949-present). Of course the conditions were different, but also the constitutional factors: the post-war German constitution included such novelties as fixed term Parliaments, an indirectly elected and rather weak President, and the "constructive" vote of no-confidence - all intended to consolidate and strengthen the parliamentary system.

For further reading on parliamentary and presidential government from a comparative perspective consider: "Parliamentary Versus Presidential Government" (Arendt Lijphart, Ed.).

For a powerful argument for parliamentary government in the USA, see "The end of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans" by William Everdell.

April 19, 2008 10:42 AM  

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