The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States raised serious doubts concerning the American electoral and party systems. Are there any significant flaws which permit the political ascension of candidates potentially dangerous for democracy?

Arend Lijphart, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of California in the United States and one of the most influential political scientists, describes the electoral and political parties systems in America, in an interview given for Europunkt to Vladimir Adrian Costea.


Citeşte versiunea în limba română aici.

Vladimir Adrian Costea: What are the characteristics of the electoral and political parties systems in America?

Arend Lijphart: The electoral and party systems in America differ very much from those in other Western democracies.

First, the highly unusual characteristic of the electoral system is that it is decentralized.  That is, the states and often also cities and counties within states can make their own election rules.

Second, although this means that these rules can differ from state to state and from city to city, the prevalent rule for legislative elections is plurality (meaning that the candidate with the largest number of votes wins even if this candidate does not win a majority of the votes) in single-member districts.

Third, the plurality rule usually tends to lead to two-party systems, and this has also happened in the US.

Fourth, these elections are usually preceded by primary elections, in which the parties’ candidates are chosen by the voters. Such primaries occur in a few other countries, too, but those are never as prevalent as in America.

Fifth, presidents are elected by means of the presidential electoral college.  Such electoral colleges were also used in Argentina and Finland, but those were abolished in the 1990s.  The American electoral college is now unique.

Has the two-party system been effective?

In the past, up until the 1980s, the two-party system worked effectively because both parties were relatively uncohesive and undisciplined.  As a result, they found it possible to make compromises with each other.  However, the parties have changed almost completely into disciplined blocs that totally oppose each other—frequently resulting in stalemate.

More generally, has the American political system been working well?

I think that most experts would agree that the American system has not worked well at all in recent decades. I have found in my comparative analysis of democracies, that parliamentary systems of government that use proportional representation show the best performance.  The US differs in both respects.  It has a presidential system and uses mainly plurality elections.  It is therefore not unexpected that its political performance has not been very good.

What about primaries?

Primary elections make the situation worse, because voter turnout in primary elections tends to be very low, which means that the more committed and extreme voters tends to have a high degree of influence.  This has led to greater extremism among elected legislators, especially in the Republican party.  For instance, Republican members of Congress often have safe districts, which means that they do not have to worry about getting elected; instead, their main worry is winning the primary that is dominated by highly conservative voters.

Can primary elections be replicated in other democracies?

Yes, they can and have been used in other countries, for instance, in the current French presidential election.  They can also be used in other countries that use single-member districts for legislative elections.  For the reason indicated above, I do not recommend primaries.  In parliamentary systems with proportional representation, it is very difficult to use primaries—which is another reason in favor of these systems.

Can the electoral college system that led to the election of Donald Trump be changed?

It has now happened twice since 2000 that the popular vote winner did not win the presidency.  This is obviously a major democratic flaw of the electoral college system and should certainly be changed.

It is very difficult to change because it is enshrined in the US constitution.  However, there is a clever plan that can circumvent the constitution.  It is called the National Popular Vote plan.  States that participate in this plan agree to give their electoral votes not to the winner of the vote in their states, but to the winner of the national popular vote.  If states with a majority in the electoral college participate in this plan, the candidate with the most votes nationally will win.  Many states, including California and New York, have signed up for this plan, but at this point there are not yet enough states to make the plan a reality.








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