historical thoughts

I’m randomly on Wikipedia, reading the entry on the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and it’s sparking some interesting thoughts.

I suspect Americans have a hard time grokking the UK system of government because to us, it looks kind of haphazard. The government of the United States was designed; if you sit down with the Constitution and read the first three or four Articles, you know more or less how we work. The UK Constitution isn’t even a document; it’s a collection of documents and conventions and general force of habit, accumulated over the centuries. You could graphically represent the difference by putting maps of Washington, D.C. and central London next to each other. One of these was planned; the other happened by accident.

So you can’t easily say who the first Prime Minister was, because nobody ever sat down and created the office. Walpole kind of was, in terms of the power he held, but people fought about the term for over a hundred years, and apparently no two lists of PMs are alike, because the criteria for inclusion vary. It’s interesting to me, though, that the office grew out of the Treasury. I suspect — and this is probably me re-inventing the wheel of some Marxist branch of historical study — that you can view the growth of modern democracy as a process wherein the root of political power shifted from control of armed force to the control of money. (And there’s probably an interesting comparison in there somewhere, between the West and Third World military dictatorships. I’m beginning to feel like I ought to have majored in history after all.)

It makes me realize, too — given the season we’re in right now, over here in the U.S. — how amazingly stable our government has been. I don’t hold with whatever dude it is who declared that history’s over, that we’ve arrived at the final, triumphant form of government; democracy on this scale is still the new kid on the political block, and might not have as much staying power as that guy thinks. There are dynasties that lasted longer than the United States of America. But when I compare the succession of U.S. presidents with that of monarchies or Prime Ministers, it’s kind of impressively . . . boring. In a good way. The biggest weirdnesses we have are: FDR with his four terms; Grover Cleveland with his non-consecutive terms; a small handful of male relatives who occupied the same office. A couple of assassinations and deaths in office, whereupon their successors picked up and kept going. And the Civil War, but even then, all that happened politically was that part of the country seceded and formed its own country. I don’t think we’ve ever had, say, two rival Presidents running around, both claiming their Cabinet and Congress are the real ones. Or anything to even approach the Wars of the Roses.

(Yes, most of my comparisons are to British history. For obvious reasons. But I’ve studied other countries, too.)

(Okay, my brain just offered up Emperor Norton. Who is entertaining, but not exactly mainstream American history.)

So, yeah. As contentious as our elections have been lately, and as freaked out as some people are by the possibility of a black man* leading our country, on the whole? We still have an awfully rational and stable thing going on over here.

I have other, unrelated political thoughts to post, but it occurs to me that if I put them here, one half of the post or the other will probably get all the attention in the comments, so I’ll save it for a separate entry later on.

*By which we signify a half-Kenyan black, half-Kansas white guy born in Hawaii and raised partly in Indonesia. Don’t you love how modern American society still boils everything down to one-word reductionist evaluations of skin shade?

0 Responses to “historical thoughts”

  1. querldox

    Offhand, I can think of a few cases where we were close to having a President and an Anti-President;

    1) 1800: Originally, electors voted for two candidates each, and the overall winner became President and the runner-up became Vice-President. However, political parties and tickets quickly moved into play, resulting in parties putting up two candidates, although it was known which was the “real” Presidential candidate and which was the Vice-. However, the electors voted for both candidates of a party, resulting in a tie between Jefferson and Burr. While it did take 36 ballots in the House to elect Jefferson, Burr is reported to have not tried to win the Presidency.

    2) 1876: While Tilden won the popular vote, he was one electoral vote shy, with 20 votes in four states being disputed. Basically, a deal was cut that made Hayes the President, but his administration stayed under a cloud because of it.

    3) 1960: There’s reasonable evidence that Nixon was robbed due to vote fraud led by LBJ in Texas and Mayor Daley in Illinois/Chicago. Supposedly Nixon declined to strongly challenge this since it’d damage the office of the Presidency for whoever won.

    4) 2000: As Al Gore puts it “I used to think that you either won or lost an election, but it turns out there’s this little known third possible result”. This one was so close that I personally consider it a statistical tie, but again Gore did not go rogue when his opponent was declared the winner. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if this had occurred in 2004 instead, when it’d become clearer just how awful a President Bush is.

    • Marie Brennan

      In which my ignorance of American history is revealed. <g>

      The 2000 example was the only one I knew of, and obviously Gore didn’t try to set up his own government. The earlier instances you cite, I was unaware of. Interesting!

      I really lament the way American history is taught in compulsory education. I’m only beginning to have any interest in it, and at that, I’d still rather read about other countries. (Partly because my interest in history tends to wane as you move forward in time, and American history is all of a comparatively recent vintage.)

      On a tangentially-related note, I find myself very curious — since the U.S. has generally been a two-party country — just how party changeovers happen. I find it hard to imagine the Republicans or Democrats falling apart and being replaced by . . . who? The Greens? The Libertarians? Somebody new? But it’s happened in the past, and it will happen in the future, I’m sure. Just like the U.S. will eventually splinter and/or be swallowed up by some other political entity. I just find it hard to imagine how that will come about.

      • querldox

        Oddly enough, I just read a post about party transitions over the course of the Republic a couple of weeks ago. Haven’t validated the info beyond what’s there, but it made sense to me. It’s here.

        • mindstalk

          Interesting link, and ideas about the Dems making a more coherent “big tent”. I hadn’t known Hagel basically endorsed Obama.

          That said, as he said there’s a lot of infrastructure involved; retrenchment seems more likely than total disintegration. The Democrats managed to go from the party of slavery and Jim Crow to the party of equality.

          • Marie Brennan

            Hagel is at the top of the growing list of “Vichy Republicans.” The more rabid parts of the party HATE him. (Me, I respect him for it. But I’m a Democrat.)

            And yes, some of them really are calling people Vichy Republicans. Which, like all comparisons to Hitler, shows that the people throwing that term around have absolutely no sense of perspective.

        • Marie Brennan

          Interesting! It’s definitely the neocon/paleocon/theocon/corporate-con fissures that make me wonder about the future of the Republican party. So long as you had the money of the corporate cons married to the ability of theocons to get the rank and file to the voting booth, they were a force to be reckoned with (and provided power for the neocons to carry out their agenda), but increasingly those two groups seem deeply unhappy with each other. And without that alliance, their power disintegrates: the theocons don’t have the money, and the corporate cons don’t have the numbers.

          My guess — thanks to those institutional forces your link nods to — is that we’re more likely to see some group (probably the theocons) hive off into a minority third party like the Greens, while some kind of rejuvenation morphs the remainder into a new and more viable form under the same name. In other words, more or less the creation of a new party, but still calling themselves Republicans. (Which is, as I understand it, kind of what happened to the Democratic Party between the Civil War days and now. Same name, substantially different agenda.)

          That article makes a good point that we effectively do our coalition-building before elections instead of after. That put into focus for me the otherwise baffling difference between our resolutely two-party system and, well, practically any other country.

          • mindstalk

            Well, other countries have few-party dominance too; we’re just the worst, probably because of criss-crossing domains, vs. just having one layer of districts or ridings which allows for regional variation (but each district likely having two parties.)

            Apart from Canada which seems to have a marked lack of the most elementary strategic voting, so the Conservatives could win a district with 36% of the vote.

          • Marie Brennan

            What do you mean by “criss-crossing domains”? State and federal elections? I don’t personally see that reinforcing the two-party system nearly so much as, say, the winner-take-all setup of the electoral college does. Makes it hard to be anything like a viable third-party candidate in a presidential election. If you don’t capture any electoral votes, you look like you’re playing a cute game, and your party doesn’t gain credibility.

          • mindstalk

            Winner-take-all is the basic driver of having a two-party system. But in the UK you could have districts where the two parties are Labor and Conservative, and others where they’re Labor and Liberal Democrat, and there’s nothing obviously driving further simplification. In the US we might have that at the House level… but then some state with three parties among its districts would be having statewide elections for Senate (and governor, and EC) which favors just two big parties at that level. That’s the main thing I was thinking of.

            Winner-take-all mayoral races for cities, too.

            And state legislative districts might overlap multiple Congressional districts, though I’m not sure what effect that’d have.

          • querldox

            The Electoral College has an effect, but there’s a lot of other things keeping a third party out of the Presidency.

            First off, they wouldn’t have any default group of Congresscritters in either house with loyalty to them or their platform. A third party President would both have a very difficult time getting their agenda through Congress and have to devote a *lot* more time to building individual alliances there.

            Most of the significant third parties in the last century have been built around a cult of personality (with a side order of causes); Teddy Roosevelt, George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, to a lesser degree the Dixiecrats. They don’t establish an actual party base to work with when the individual goes away.

            There’s also a lot of things now legislated into the system that work against third parties, such as requirements for getting on the ballot in the first place, money which goes to parties/candidates who are expected to be able to influence the system, etc. It’s also the case that, in general, both parties can’t stray too far from the center since there are only two of them. But that means they’ll generally appeal to more people than parties further from the center, weakening the chances of those parties. You’ve also got around 30-40% of the populace for each party that will just automatically vote for that party barring them putting up a Nazi symbol festooned inanimate object as the candidate (note that Bush still has a +20% approval rating).

            Personally, I think the best chance for a “new party” is to start at ground level with state and local candidates that gradually work their way up the ranks to take over one of the existing parties. This is pretty much what happened with the Republicans over the last 40 years, and they’re in prime shape to have it happen again.

          • Marie Brennan

            I only meant the electoral college to be one example of a factor acting against third parties; certainly there are a lot more.

            I kind of agree about how a new party might start; if you get one achieving power in a state legislature, they might be able to launch themselves on a larger scale, or else just take over power in an existing party.

          • mindstalk

            “20%”
            http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/01/repost-crazification-factor.html

            Another thing would be to specialize in targetting uncontested elections, where the D or R don’t have a candidate. Those are often safeish seats, but a 3rd party might be able to get traction.

            Or there’d be the extortion effect: “give us a bone or we’ll run as a spoiler”, for at least having influence. Doesn’t work if no one votes for you, though.

          • dr_whom

            This is the way the Working Families Party works in New York, in which it’s legal for multiple parties to nominate the same candidate. Basically, they endorse the Democratic candidate if the candidate has sufficiently labor-friendly policies; otherwise they may refrain from endorsing or nominate a spoiler candidate; and they use this to pressure Democrats into supporting their platform. A few years ago they endorsed a Republican for state senate who had worked particularly hard to raise the minimum wage. I think there are other minor parties in New York that work the same way.

  2. fhtagn

    From my point of view as a Scot, the American system of government appears utterly impenetrable and deliberately obfuscated. The British system, however, seems simple and a reasonably elegent and transparent solution. I suspect that it may be a matter of familiarity more than anything else.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m curious as to what you find unclear in American government.

      You’re definitely right that familiarity is the biggest factor of all, but from my perspective, we’ve got three clearly-delineated branches of government, each with its own set of responsibilities, and I know how the people who fill them are chosen. The British system seems to halfway mash the executive in with the legislative, with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet crammed in there somewhere, and then you’ve got the ceremonial remnants of royal authority muddying the whole thing up, and this “forming a government” notion, and votes of no confidence or resignations or whatever that mean you have to toss things out and start over, and you seem to have elections at semi-random times . . . .

      Which is not, of course, to say that the American system doesn’t have its muddy points. Even before Dick Cheney and his “fourth branch” bullshit, the contention between federal and state government has been a source of confusion for a couple hundred years now. Is that the stuff that confuses you, or something else?

      • fhtagn

        Well, firstly the three clearly defined branches aren’t to my mind. The idea is, but the exectutive and legislative branches immediately break up into a twisting mass of sub-bodies, all changing at different times. It makes it hard to see where any continuity could come from. Add in the further break between state and federal stuff and …

        Which is odd, because I’m quite happy with the clearly defined local responsibilities of councils in the UK, but those are far narrower in scope than those of any state.

        To my mind, having a Prime Minister and Cabinet who aren’t also Members of Parliament is the strange thing, since it makes them impersonal.

        • Marie Brennan

          The idea is, but the exectutive and legislative branches immediately break up into a twisting mass of sub-bodies, all changing at different times. It makes it hard to see where any continuity could come from.

          By sub-bodies, do you mean the House and Senate in the legislative and the departments in the executive? Or the committees further down the food chain? (I think the committees are more or less the same as in a Parliamentary system. Or at least that’s the assumption I operate on.)

          Continuity in the legislative branch comes in part from the fact that senators and representatives regularly serve multiple consecutive terms. The staggered terms of the Senate also contribute: unless somebody leaves office early, you never have both Senate seats for a given state open at once. Having things change at different times helps create the continuity you’re looking for. The Senate, like the Lords, are supposed to be the more conservative body, in the sense that change comes less rapidly to them. I have little idea, though, of what the Lords’ power is these days; the answer seems to be “not a whole lot.” Which means that your system is kind of but not really bicameral, and that confuses me.

          Open admission: if you ask me about the relative authority and roles of the House versus the Senate, that’s when I shrug and say, hell if I know. <g> They both have the power to draft and pass laws, and they need cooperation from the other body; that’s all I know.

          Continuity in the executive was deliberately broken up by the limitation of a president to two terms. There’s arguments over whether term limits are a good idea, though; if we have a president who’s still popular and supported after eight years, why shouldn’t people be allowed to elect him again? Which is why you often get the incumbent’s vice president running as his successor. But our system is designed to make sure nobody can consolidate too much permanent or even long-term power. Does it have its downside? Sure. No question about it. There’s a reason people kept electing FDR.

          To my mind, having a Prime Minister and Cabinet who aren’t also Members of Parliament is the strange thing, since it makes them impersonal.

          Whereas on this side of the ocean, the idea that you don’t elect the guy in charge of your country is the weird, impersonal thing. I can think of plenty of Democrats I’m happy to see in the House or Senate, but I wouldn’t want them elevated to the presidency. And while at times I envy the fact that you can chuck a party out of power as soon as you decide they suck — man, I wish we could do the same to Bush — that seems a lot more uncertain than knowing elections will come like regularly scheduled clockwork.

          • mindstalk

            Heh, I remember it being noted that more people voted for the mayor of London (Ken Livingstone at the time) than for Tony Blair.

            They don’t actually get to toss out a party that soon. A stable majority can cling on to power for five years; it’s when the parliamentary majority falls apart that the Crown may call for new elections. OTOH, I think the party should be able to change leaders mid-stream, though it doesn’t seem to happen much; I kept expecting Blair to go down, but no.

            Tax bills start in the House, which can impeach; Senate gets to try impeachments, and approves judges, treaties, and Cabinet or ambassadorial appointments.

            UK obviously was more bicameral, or even power-heavy at the Lords, but power’s shifted away from the blatantly undemocratic body.

            One tragic thing IMO about the US is that we have this untapped potential for political experiments. All the state constitutions are near clones of the federal one — bicameral legislature (despite lacking the tension between populace and states that led to the House and Senate) and governor (though of varying power) and all. Not one imitated the mother country.

          • Marie Brennan

            Not one imitated the mother country.

            Do you think anybody would want to be the un-American state that decided the congressional model wasn’t good enough for them?

            My understanding is that British political parties can change leaders: by a vote of no confidence (which doesn’t happen much anymore), or by the leader resigning when his position gets too rocky. I’m curious as to how a party can lose its majority not at an election, though — is it because MPs abandon ship? Or are there minor elections in between the general ones, that can slowly change the party map?

          • mindstalk

            I was thinking no-confidence votes, mostly; the party may have a majority but it’s not supporting you. Which seems like it should lead to a new PM but feels like it means new elections in practice. Maybe because the rejected PM can call elections. Or maybe I’m just wrong.

            But there’s also when the PM doesn’t have a majority from her own party, and leads a coalition of parties; then obviously one of the components might explicitly rebel, and if no other coalition can form, elections!
            By-elections of dead or resigned or convicted MPs could do it as well but I think that’s a minor cause.

          • dr_whom

            In general you’re right about the homogeneity of state constitutions; but Nebraska is the exception, with a nonpartisan unicameral legislature.

          • fhtagn

            Open admission: if you ask me about the relative authority and roles of the House versus the Senate, that’s when I shrug and say, hell if I know. They both have the power to draft and pass laws, and they need cooperation from the other body; that’s all I know.

            Pretty much. You’ve got a weird mixture of proportional and fixed representation, tied to what I believe is a first past the post voting system, with each branch of government having certain veto powers over each other branch. From the outside, it looks like it was carefully constructed to ensure that noone ever knew where the power was and thus allow cults of personality to force things through.

            I have little idea, though, of what the Lords’ power is these days; the answer seems to be “not a whole lot.” Which means that your system is kind of but not really bicameral, and that confuses me.

            Lords does two things – it’s the final court of appeal, and it has the power of veto over Parliament. The latter is, I think, my favourite bit of Lords and the bit that Tony’s cocked up most. Lords cannot propose laws, but is required to pass them. Previously, hereditary peers meant that whilst the members might have party affiliations, they were beholded (ideally) to noone save their own consciences. Now that new peers are appointed by the PM … a lot of suspicious things have been passed by Labour’s Lords. There are those who’d call it undemocratic, and they’d be missing the point. Lords acts as a stabilising influence, preventing a suddenly radical parliament (and at the moment, Labour’s Whip) from passing laws it believes to be unjust. It does slow the turning of the wheel of social progress, but it slows social regression even faster and, frankly, I’d prefer a slower march towards equality than the rapid descent to totalitarianism that so many notionally elected governments have allowed or encouraged. Our own, for instance. Lords’ most publicised recent action was to shoot down Labour’s insane and offensive proposed bill allowing for detention without charge for 42 days of anyone accused (no burden of proof necessary) of anything terrorism related. Members of Lords can be lobbied, but they’re much harder to force, thankfully.

            Whereas on this side of the ocean, the idea that you don’t elect the guy in charge of your country is the weird, impersonal thing.

            I think we do. We know who the leaders of the parties are, and if we’re members of said parties then we participate at one level or another in their selection. Mind you, our PM’s powers are, as I understand it, far more limited than your President’s, so I can understand that to a certain extent. I still don’t understand why it has to take so long and cost so much money with all the primaries and what-have-you. It’s a great system for ensuring a local representative has visited and knows all the towns he might represent; it’s clunky as hell for an empire spanning a continent with some change. Surely, now that TV, radio, newspapers with simultaneous release across the country and of course the internet are available, a slightly more efficient and fast system could be developed?

            And while at times I envy the fact that you can chuck a party out of power as soon as you decide they suck — man, I wish we could do the same to Bush — that seems a lot more uncertain than knowing elections will come like regularly scheduled clockwork.

            If only it were that easy. ::sighs:: Still, the fact that the ruling party, should one exist, can’t rest easy is a comforting thing. It just doesn’t keep people as honest as we’ll all like.

            N.B. This has been typed first thing in the morning, before coffee. It’s a bit rambling and incoherent.

          • Marie Brennan

            You’ve got a weird mixture of proportional and fixed representation

            The result of an argument between the people who wanted every state to be equal, and those who wanted power allocated according to population. I kind of like the balance, actually.

            From the outside, it looks like it was carefully constructed to ensure that noone ever knew where the power was and thus allow cults of personality to force things through.

            The way we usually phrase it is, it was carefully constructed for “checks and balances.” πŸ™‚ The idea is that each branch can keep the other branches from running away with all the power. I think it actually thwarts cults of personality, barring particularly favorable circumstances. (Such as one party controlling the presidency, the House, and the Senate, with strong party discipline enforcing votes that favor the president’s agenda.)

            The fact that the Lords are both the final court of appeal and a veto power is again, to me, confusing; that means they’re mixing what I think of as two or three separate functions. (Judicial and legislative, and maybe executive, too.) But the things I’ve been reading lead me to understand that their veto power is severely limited anyway, so we’re back to “how exactly do they fit into this system?”

            The thing about primaries is that they allow voters more control over parties. If we voted the Democrats into power, and then the party chose its leader, we would have Hillary Clinton in the White House. She came close, but in the end the public decided they preferred Obama’s policies, which the Democratic establishment was initially not so wild about. And it has a real benefit in terms of preparing candidates, too; I’m told Obama is a much better debater now, thanks to his trial by fire during the primaries. (I also consider it a benefit that the Republican primary this cycle was akin to tossing five rabid weasels in a sack together, of which McCain was not so much the victor as the last weasel standing. Though I understand that from another point of view this may be a downside to the process.) But I do admit there are flaws to our primary system that we really ought to work out if we can, starting with the “me first!” idiocy we had this year.

            I suspect that the very scale you refer to is an argument in favor of primaries. Without them, the D.C. establishment would exercise an even greater influence on the direction of a party, with bad results for the folks who are physically or culturally on the other side of the country.

            Question: what exactly does it mean when they say so-and-so couldn’t form a government?

          • fhtagn

            I suspect that the very scale you refer to is an argument in favor of primaries. Without them, the D.C. establishment would exercise an even greater influence on the direction of a party, with bad results for the folks who are physically or culturally on the other side of the country.

            I would argue that that’s a failing of a two party system more than anything else, in that it requires that a vastly disparate set of ideals and views of where the country should go need to be shoe-horned into two parties who, from this side of the pond, don’t look too different because they have to be so many things to so many people. Hence the troubles in the Republicans between the capitalists and the theocrats.

            Question: what exactly does it mean when they say so-and-so couldn’t form a government?

            That no one group of people who agreed to share power could form and there was no majority within Parliament to support the Cabinet and Prime Minister – the PM can only be PM if enough people support him within Parliament to allow him to form a Cabinet.

          • Marie Brennan

            Okay, but how do they prevent him from forming a Cabinet? He chooses the Cabinet ministers, yes? Which officially are appointed by the sovereign, if I remember my earlier reading correctly, but I don’t know where the Commons comes into the process.

            I won’t argue the failings of a two-party system, but I don’t think my point would be much different if we had three or four parties. To get a president into office requires the influence of a national party, or at least one that commands enough support across the nation to beat the others to the finish line. You can’t win from D.C. alone. I suppose if we had (say) four political parties, New England or the Deep South or whoever might be able to scrape together 30% of the vote and beat out the other three splitting the remaining 70%, but that doesn’t look like much of an improvement to me, since coalition government (at least of the sort formed after the elections) doesn’t exist here. So we have national parties, and the presidential primaries give people a say in who gets put up for that office.

            Do your parties have nominations? It occurs to me the primary argument could be tossed out if five Republican candidates could all run for the same office in the general election, instead of the party putting its backing behind a single candidate. But man, that sounds like it would be chaos.

            It boggles me, though, that people say our two major parties don’t look too different. On the level of individual candidates, I may agree, and admittedly the political winds have led to a certain amount of rhetorical see-sawing on particular points, especially wrt economics. But when you get past the rhetoric (we need to educate our children! and protect American workers! and end corruption in government!) and start looking at the intended policies, I find it hard to see much similarity between the two. It might be better to say there isn’t a single dominant philosophy in either party, that shapes all their positions on the various issues; that, I could agree with.

          • fhtagn

            Okay, but how do they prevent him from forming a Cabinet? He chooses the Cabinet ministers, yes? Which officially are appointed by the sovereign, if I remember my earlier reading correctly, but I don’t know where the Commons comes into the process.

            He has to choose them from the Commons. If there aren’t enough people in Commons that he can trust to work with him, he can’t form a working government.

            As for your comment about the Deep South … that’s the inevitable consequences of having so many cultures lumped under one government and then having that government being a democracy. It’s great if you’re part of the majority and the majority is also fairly tolerant. Otherwise …

            Do your parties have nominations? It occurs to me the primary argument could be tossed out if five Republican candidates could all run for the same office in the general election, instead of the party putting its backing behind a single candidate. But man, that sounds like it would be chaos.

            Not in the way you guys do. The PM-to-be is the leader of the dominant party (or head of the coalition of parties; I don’t think there’s an reason we could have an indepentent PM chosen as a neutral and unifying force in a suitabley hung parliament) and the members of the party, both rank and file and high ranking, select the leader. The main body of the party, MPs and the like, normally divide supporting one or more candidates who’re then voted upon by everyone. Once a leader is selected, the party is then expected to support them until a reason for them to be replaced appears.

            It boggles me, though, that people say our two major parties don’t look too different.

            It looks like a choice between far-right and centre-right, neither too hot on civil liberties, and both pretty imperialist in their foreign policy. The main difference is that the Democrats seem to have fewer nutjobs who believe that God whispers to them, telling them what to do or that the world was formed in 4004BC. A gross simplificiation, I know, but most people I know here regard the Republican/Democrat divide as one between the lesser of two evils.

          • Marie Brennan

            He has to choose them from the Commons. If there aren’t enough people in Commons that he can trust to work with him, he can’t form a working government.

            I have a hard time envisioning how someone with enough influence to be at the head of a party that’s won the majority could end up in this situation, but okay.

            Re: primaries — I was thinking more of downticket races than the PM. Does Labour nominate a candidate for a seat, and the Conservatives nominate theirs, and so on? Or are those races free-for-alls, with each candidate advertising their party without being directly backed by it?

            I guess, regarding our own parties, that I tend to be viewing the Democrats from a point of view planted further to the left (though not so left as to impress Europe, I suppose), so I see a party that’s more than center-right. But due to the aforementioned tendency toward building coalitions before the elections, the party has to draw in enough centrist types to have some influence, and that muddies the picture. The problem lately, though, hasn’t been ideology so much as spine. Democrats keep voting for things I consider to be stupid and/or morally wrong, simply because they let themselves be pushed into it. But we’re fixing that, slowly but (I hope) surely.

          • mindstalk

            If there’s a head of a party that has a majority, he’s probably the PM and forming a Cabinet. Inability to form a government would generally be when no party does have a majority, and no stable majority coalition of parties will form.

          • fhtagn

            Re: primaries — I was thinking more of downticket races than the PM. Does Labour nominate a candidate for a seat, and the Conservatives nominate theirs, and so on? Or are those races free-for-alls, with each candidate advertising their party without being directly backed by it?

            Each party puts forward a candidate, and there’s decision as to which candidate to put forward is a matter for internal arrangement. That said, parties don’t always put forward a candidate, and in a seat where they’re particularly weak, they’ll often put forward a no-hoper. For instance, in the recent kerfuffle when David Davis resigned his position to force a by-election over the 42-day detention malarkey, neither Labour nor the LibDems ran against him, and he was reelected. Additionally, anyone can run for MP, provided they can prove a certain minimal support and stand the deposit. We’ve not had many independent MPs lately, but they do happen. I don’t know how many votes the Monster Raving Looney Party get each election, but we have had worryingly large numbers of people vote for the BNP before now. This page shows that a fair few parties are represented.

            I have a hard time envisioning how someone with enough influence to be at the head of a party that’s won the majority could end up in this situation, but okay.

            Independents used to be more common, the British parties are just as divided internally as any others, and if you end up in a coalition and can’t satisfy your backers, you’re screwed. Add in the fact that anything the PM wants passed has to go through Commons and without a decent majority, you’re even more screwed. Ted Heath is a good example of that.

          • Marie Brennan

            So do voters in a constituency have any influence over which candidate a party puts forward? If it’s “a matter for internal arrangement,” it doesn’t sound like it. I mean, I expect that an individual could take part in that process by joining the party and going to events or whatever it takes to build up the influence to affect that choice, but it sounds less open to me. (Simpler, faster, and cheaper, but less open.)

          • fhtagn

            Yes, in that internal in this case refers to members of the party and not elected officials of the party. It generally seems to come out as a choice filtered by whose local and who has come up through the lower ranks as councillors and other local officials and gained popularity and respect that way. I should add the caveat there that I’m not actually a member of any party, so don’t know the actual inner workings, just what I’ve been told by friends who are. I think that for the Tories, for instance, candidates are put forward or put themselves forward, the central party filters that down to a shortlist and then returns that to the constituency party for them to decide vote on.

          • Marie Brennan

            Okay, I follow. I don’t know enough about closed and open primaries over here, and primary elections versus caucuses, to judge how they compare.

          • fhtagn

            Having just checked a few things with a friend who is, in fact, moderately politically active, Labour do things more or less the same way. And, more annoyingly, I got a few things wrong.

            Lords can’t veto a bill, they can only delay it for a time and bounce it back to Commons. Also, apparently (and this is weird, since I clearly knew it because of all the figures I’ve seen come and go, it’s an odd blindspot) Cabinet is not solely limited to MPs but may also include Lords as well.

          • tybalt_quin

            Just to add a point quickly – for an undemocratic body, the House of Lords has served to vote down unpopular legislation (most recently the proposed 42 day detention of suspected terrorists without trial), thereby forcing the ruling party to drop legislation.

  3. d_c_m

    I suspect Americans have a hard time grokking the UK system of government because to us
    You used “grokking”.

    I love you. πŸ™‚

  4. querldox

    One other example just occurred to me.

    1824: The united Democratic-Republican single party was breaking down, and four serious candidates ran for President. Andrew Jackson won both a plurality of the popular vote (albeit with four states not having a popular vote) and the electoral vote, but without a majority the election again went to the House. With the possible help of House Speaker Henry Clay, who was also one of the four candidates, John Quincy Adams was elected. Clay was then made Secretary of State, something that, to say the least, didn’t sit well with Jackson. Still, he bided his time until the next election when he won.

    This may have had the most potential to have resulted in a national crisis due to Jackson’s military standing, unique among the other disputed elections. He probably could’ve raised his own army, had he wanted to.

  5. dsgood

    The US Federal Government was planned, but it hasn’t run strictly according to the specifications.

    Things which I suspect helped make the US more stable: 1) Comparative prosperity. 2) Having borders with only two countries.

    • Marie Brennan

      The US Federal Government was planned, but it hasn’t run strictly according to the specifications.

      Oh, no question about it. But at least the basic principles are not the ad hoc accumulation of centuries of incremental change. I never understood the UK political system until I started working my way up to it through history, starting with the Tudor period.

      You are also right that our particular circumstances contribute to our stability.

    • querldox

      Technically, the US has had borders with a lot more than two countries. It’s just that, y’know, we conquered all the Indian nations and they’re not around any more.

  6. mindstalk

    Yeah, we’ve been stable. OTOH, most countries I know of that took us as a model haven’t been. AFAIK, all those Latin American countries imitated the Constitution on independence, and almost all fell into strongman governments, with Costa Rica as the exception. Africa might provide more data but I don’t know the history. One could ask whether the problem is presidential systems or Latin American culture, but still. By contrasts, parliamentary systems seem to have done well, modulo Weimar Germany and probably some African cases. of course, there we’re talking Europe and India and British colonies, and younger than the American states. But still… there’s a common idea that it’s safer to separate the high-mana role of a monarch or elected head of state from the power of the head of government, such that even though a strong PM can be like an elected dictator, they lack the legitimacy to pull a real coup or permanent aggregation of power.

    I wonder how many dynasties of power lasted longer, especially peacefully, than the US. Egypt had 30+ dynasties over 3000 years. Chinese dynasties sometimes last longer, though that can obscure succession fights. Some European families have been around for a while but I’m not sure about peaceful transfer of power. Japan has a looong record but then they haven’t had real power for most of 1000 years. On the flip side, we had a Civil War, so our peaceful record is marred. Still managed to have elections in 1864, though! *That’s* impressive.

    Catholic Church probably rules, for being an institution with some power lasting a long time, and even that has Avignon and such.

    Francis Fukuyama is the The End of History guy.

    But I think there’s a familiarity and filtering effect. UK isn’t that hard to outline: there are districts that elect members to a Parliament and a majority vote in Parliament can do whatever it fucking wants. There’s a queen and House of Lords but they just slow things down these days. The equivalent of our Speaker of the House — leader of a somewhat stable majority — is PM and forms the government and can do whatever she wants until mandatory elections after five years or the majority dissolves, forcing elections.

    The scary thing for an American is that the “after five years” bit is just another Act of Parliament, so theoretically changeable.

    On the flip side, our Constitution won’t tell you how our Electoral College really works, or about Senate filibusters, so you’re missing key practical details, and then there’s tons of stuff done that is unconstitutional by a strict reading. Like the Air Force, let alone the war on drugs. (We passed an amendment to ban alcohol, but not the other stuff?) The fact that the Supreme Court can strike down unconstitutional laws isn’t spelled out but was made up by John Marshall and accepted as making sense. The fact that almost anything goes (like drug bans) under the commerce clause is, well, bloody odd.

    And even the stuff which works and is clear may not make *sense* absent knowledge of our history, or even with it. California and Wyoming having the same Senate vote despite 100x the population? Electoral college weighting? DC not getting in Congress, despite “no taxation without representation”, but getting to vote for President? Pretty funny democracy we’ve got here. And then there’s what happens if no one gets a majority in the EC: goes to the House… with voting by state delegation, not by Representative. This is like old D&D. “Roll d20! d00! d6!” “What about this case?” “d4!” “…why?” “I felt like it!”

    So we’ve got a lot of weirdness and custom — “case law” — ourselves, while the British system could be simplified as “democratically elected Parliament is supreme”, while it’d take longer to describe the normal function of our system.

    • Marie Brennan

      Fukuyama, yes. I frankly think he’s full of it.

      You caught me on my rhetorical flourish: Egypt and China were the examples I was thinking of, but saying their dynasties lasted longer than the U.S. is almost certainly an exaggeration. Still, various forms of royal and imperial monarchy have proven their staying power to a much greater extent than representative democracy has. Saying we’re the be-all and end-all of governmental systems smacks of the Anglo-American nineteenth-century certitude that they were the pinnacle of civilization. And you can guess what I think of that.

      and a majority vote in Parliament can do whatever it fucking wants.

      Which might be what sounds so weird to me. <g>

      It’s things like the monarch and the Lords that make it look confusing, I think: remnants of an older setup, incresaingly powerless but still around to muddy the structural waters. What exactly is their role? And you can say the Prime Minister is like the Speaker of the House of Representatives, but the Commons also has a Speaker, who is not the Prime Minister, and acts in some ways like the U.S. Vice President as President of the Senate (which is more like the Lords), but the PM used to be the Leader of the House of Commons — I might do better if the two systems were totally different from each other, so I stopped trying to make comparisons.

      Both systems, of course, get messy once you go past the top-level description, and a fair deal of the U.S. government is kind of the ad hoc development of Supreme Court decisions and the like. But I do think it’s a little easier to nutshell the top-level relationship of the U.S. executive, legislative, and judicial branches — because those were designed and spelled out all at once — than the U.K. monarchy, Parliament, and judiciary, which have shifted so radically over time.

      Then again, I’m American, so I would find it easier. πŸ™‚

      The variable success of British-style parliamentary government versus American-style presidential republics is a whole field of historical/poli-sci study in itself. I expect the answer lies in a whole host of factors, ranging from the U.S.’s isolated geographical situation (mentioned elsewhere in these comments) to the stabilizing effect of British colonial government. And I’m not remotely qualified to comment on such things, especially since Latin America and Africa are probably the continents I’m the most ignorant of, politically speaking.

      • mindstalk

        Do you know of any books/papers/websites on that variable success? I know there’s study on post-colonial outcomes (“French vs. British, who sucked less?”), which is related to that, but don’t know where to look in either case.

      • querldox

        Actually, a lot of the confusion vis a vis the US system comes from how the US has changed over the decades, with bonus points for, in roughly this order of importance, the Civil War, the Income Tax amendment, FDR’s term (combining the New Deal and WWII), and LBJ’s Great Society. Yep, it does happen to map chronologically as well.

        Namely, the very name of the country indicates how it was originally pictured and set up; “The United States”. In post-Revolutionary times, up through the Civil War, individual states were much more important and significant. It wasn’t particularly unusual for someone to, say, think of themself as a Virginian first and an American second. That explains the weird composition of the Senate (and even why there are two legislative bodies), the Electoral College, and even who was nominated for President and Vice-President at various times.

        But, particularly due to the events mentioned above, as well as increased mobility in general, states these days are pretty much just subdivisions of the federal government.

        • mindstalk

          “these United States” into “the United States”. Supposedly.

        • Marie Brennan

          Do you think that’s reshaped the national government that radically, though? I admit it’s had its effect, but from where I’m standing, learning about the process by which the House of Commons went from a body summoned by the sovereign on the random occasions when the Crown needed a bit more money to being the controlling force of the state, they don’t seem to be changes of quite the same magnitude. I’ll see your list of events and raise you an English Civil War, the Revolutionary Settlement, the Triennial Bill, the creation of the position of Prime Minister, and a bunch of other things I don’t know British history well enough to put into the list. The Commons used to be the sovereign’s mostly-obedient puppet; now, thanks to a couple hundred years of systematically stripping away the power of the Crown and the House of Lords, they barely even pay lip service to the notion of the Queen being in charge of anything.

          It may be that, another century or two from now, state governments will have been reduced to the same extent that the British monarchy has, and we’ll have a much more strongly federal society. But I don’t feel the shift has been that radical, not yet. Things like the weird composition of the Senate and the existence of two legislative bodies were built into the system from the start.

          • mindstalk

            Well, we’ve already had big practical changes to our federalism — arguably less federal, e.g. more central, depending on how you want to look at it. Nothing much legally, apart from direct election of Senators (vs. state legislatures deciding) but the acceptance of direct federal taxation and conditional distribution of money has vastly centralized policies. Not to mention, again, the Court’s liberal interpretation of the commerce clause, so that growing pot in your own home for your own use is a violation of federal law. Try justifying that in the enumerated powers!

  7. mindstalk

    More thoughts on the systems compared:

    I already mentioned the dangerous ‘mana’ in our system, but yeah, I think the presidential elections thing makes things personal to an unhealthy degree. “But we need to be able to scrutinize someone who’ll have so much power for 4 years.” “Maybe we shouldn’t give someone so much power for 4 guaranteed years, then.” Vs. a parliament with PR where you seem to vote for a party and its policies to a much higher degree, though I’m sure awareness of the party leaders plays a role. Of course, with multiple partiies and stronger party discipline, you can actually talk about a party having policies…

    And, taking potshots at American assumptions: we tend to talk proudly about “checks and balances” as a good thing. But who and what is being checked and balanced? The populace vs. state governments thing made sense at the time, even if it’s obsolete now, but that gives us the House and Senate. Why *does* the President, who needn’t even have a majority of the popular vote, have veto power over a bill that’s managed to pass the House and Senate, and why is such veto power a good thing?

    Of course, if we look at what the Founders said, and the the Roman model they looked to, much of what is being checked is democracy. Give “the people” a voice (not that 1787 suffrage was universal even among white males), but check and encumber it with wealth and power. Which a radical might say is giving the people the illusion of power, but making it as difficult as possible to use it. We have a blend of monarch, aristocracy, and democracy, but why is that good, vs. democracy? Well, the Founders didn’t trust democracy, that’s why. Which is odd if you look at it straight on.

    But Athens had a good run until the Macedonians conquered it, while it’s Rome that fell into civil war and dictatorship…

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