One must be careful when invoking comparative politics. If politics is indeed local, nothing could be a greater challenge than making sweeping generalities between different countries without understanding the full context. Having said this, I have followed the recent UK General Election campaign with much attention and interest over the course of the past few weeks. Those who follow politics to any degree often look for emerging trends which might promise some early clue to predict the future. Much of what enraged and inspired Britons to turn out in relatively large numbers (provided they were able to vote at all), are the very same issues driving an anti-incumbent maelstrom, the results of which on our shores we will not fully understand until early November.
The aforementioned 2010 General Election in the UK might serve as something close to harbinger of things to come. Here, as there, a still smoldering economic crisis and demoralizing amount of government debt formed the backdrop, threatening to overshadow every other issue. David Cameron’s Conservative Party picked up several seats from Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, but still failed to reach the requisite number of Members of Parliament needed to secure a majority. This is telling in all sorts of ways. Those who voted Tory seem to have done more out of disgust with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour more than any admiration for the Conservatives. Third parties, including the centrist to center-left Liberal Democrats, failed to make substantial gains and fared worse at the ballot box than most had expected. A Hung Parliament, also known as a coalition or minority government seems to be the outcome.
Unlike here in the United States, a Parliamentary majority and right to rule is not reached a simple majority. Achieving power without the need to form coalitions with other parties means having reached a certain threshold of representation, in this case 326 seats. In this regard, I’m reminded a bit of the delegate situation in the Democratic Presidential Primary in 2008. There, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were fighting to reach a certain number of both pledged and super delegates that would add up to 2,118. Had neither candidate gotten to that magic number by the end of the primary season, then both campaigns would have had no choice than to cut a deal with each other, one probably more along the lines of a nightmare than a meeting of the minds. To make another comparison, the nearly disastrous health care debate made us painfully aware that it takes 60 Senators of one Party or persuasion to prevent a filibuster by a minority party. At one time, it required 67 Senators to cut off debate and begin a vote.
Returning to our elections a little less than six months away, the best comparison to yesterday’s General I can make is this–imagine if our legislative branch was unicameral, not bicameral. Visualize if there were no separate House and Senate, just one combined body that set policy and passed laws. To an extent, this is oversimplifying a little since the UK does have a House of Lords as well as a House of Commons, but the Lords has served a largely advisory role since 1949 and has no real power. Imagine if, in a few months, we would be voting first and foremost that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi could keep their jobs as Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House. We are doing this already to some extent, of course, but in this analogy, contemplate if either of them were President. A referendum on Democratic Party leadership, based on current trends and polls would be much more of a Republican advantage.
Yet, just like in the UK, many will soon cast their ballots in November based not on any strong preference for the GOP, but rather out of strong disgust for the Democratic Party. We have never produced a strong third party alternative more than a few brief times in our history, and the Tea Party candidates running with this explicit purpose might take note that even in a system which favors multiple parties, the largest two usually draw most representation and votes anyway. I’ve long been a supporter of a Parliamentary method, but I have to concede, having observed this past election that two rival parties usually end up sucking up almost all of the oxygen in the room.
Though the UK turnout this time around was 65%, much lower than initially expected, it is quite routine for General Elections to draw 70%-80%. This statistic is often cited by activists of other countries as well as for those who seek to keep voters motivated and eager to vote. Still, form dictates participation, and a usually five-year build up to a single important election is often more successful in getting out the vote than a series of smaller, regional primaries and caucuses that slowly build up to a major election. The 2008 Presidential Election drew only 57% turnout after all the ballots were tabulated, even when voter interest and motivation was at unusually high levels. The last time turnout reached 80% in the United States was in 1876 and the last time it exceeded 70% was in 1900. By contrast, in Mid-Congressional cycles, turnout in U.S. elections has hovered somewhere around 37%. The last time an off-cycle election reached close to 50% was in 1966. Our individualism and simultaneous desire to cling to regional identity first, rather than group solidarity shows plainly in just how we have structured our electoral system.
Imagine also if we didn’t have an intricate, protracted system of primaries in every state. UK General Elections last approximately one full month before ballot boxes are open for business, whereas our Presidential elections seem to begin a good two years beforehand, if not sooner. Assuming our way of governance resembled that of the United Kingdom, we would vote, roughly every four to five years, to determine who both our elected leaders would be and what Party would claim majority status. Parliament is prevented by law from sitting more than five years without a vote being called. This is much more in line with the election of Senators, who serve six year terms, then the short two-year terms of House Representatives, but we also take care to stagger federal elections and terms so that the entire Senate does not run for office at the same time. The greatest difference, of course, is that the Prime Minister is not elected directly like our President, and rarely is the PM a member of a party not in primary control of the legislative branch.
Hung Parliaments are very rare, but they do happen from time to time. The behind-the-scenes wrangling now going on might well foreshadow what would happen if, God forbid, the Republicans were able to win back the House. I thought once that the Senate might be vulnerable for GOP takeover, but I have backed off on that fear. Still, even a reduced majority in the House which now seems all but inevitable is going to require concessions and deal-cutting between the White House and the GOP. When health care reform and cap-and-trade passed by the narrowest of margins, even with healthy majorities, this further underscores that, regardless of how the vote turns out, President Obama and the agenda of the Democratic Party will be forced to incorporate Conservative ideas and strategies to get crucial legislation passed. We’re still in crystal ball status right now, but if ever there was a powerful incentive to keep strong Democratic majorities, one would think musing upon what a watered down and compromised agenda would be enough.
We can learn from the recent UK vote in all sorts of ways. Here is what the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins wrote this morning about the immediate fallout from the election.
The British electorate has spoken but has choked on its words. Labour’s glad confident morning of 1997 has clearly ended in defeat under Gordon Brown. David Cameron has rescued his Tory party from 18 years of decay but not convincingly, and not enough to give him a secure parliamentary majority.
The third party that promised so much, the Liberal Democrats, has failed to make a breakthrough, and yet it must decide which party to support in office – and with a poor mandate for so important a decision. The first-past-the-post electoral system has met its Waterloo. Britain has not been given emphatic government just when that was most required. It has been given the parliamentary mess most feared by opponents of electoral reform – or the negotiating base most desired by its advocates. British politics now departs the hustings and enters the old smoke-filled rooms of Westminster.
Our own smoke-filled room beckons ever closer. Though Democrats seem to have divided themselves to no good end, they likely will be forced to increasingly share power with Republicans, regardless of how the ultimate tally reads. American voters will go to the polls believing either that divided power fosters greater gain for all, or whether single-party rule is the best strategy. It also speaks to our belief in the existing checks and balances incorporated into law or whether an additional layer needs to be in place to ensure proper government. My immediate fear is of gridlock rather than an incentive to work together for the common good. Unlike the UK, we can’t simply dissolve Congress if shared governance fails to gel. What we vote for in November will we be stuck with for two full years at minimum.