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January 12, 2008

Mitt Romney—Republican frontrunner
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:11 PM * 113 comments

Check out the delegate totals so far:


Iowa’s delegates won’t be decided until June 14th. (If they had been awarded proportionally on the night, Huckabee would have picked up another 14, Romney another 10, McCain and Thompson 5 each, Paul would have gotten 4, and Rudy with 1, (and one guy lost in the rounding errors to be assigned where you want) leaving Romney still ahead at 22-15.)

There’s a push on right now in certain circles to convince Democratic voters to pick up Republican ballots in the Michigan primary and vote for Romney. November could well see Clinton v. Romney (a Clinton victory by 6.3%) or Obama v. Romney (an Obama victory by 16%).

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Comments on Mitt Romney--Republican frontrunner:
#1 ::: Sean O'Hara ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2008, 09:50 PM:

Because we all know that polls about hypothetical matchups taken in January are accurate reflections of actual matchups in November.

I wouldn't predict a Democratic victory until we see what Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity can do to the nominee.

#2 ::: LizT ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2008, 10:00 PM:

My 65 year old, straight-laced mother, giggling:
"Your father and I already decided to go vote for Ron Paul to mess them up!"

Being a suburban Detroiter, this is a Very Frustrating primary. I would have never thought of voting on the Republican ballot on my own, but now my husband and I are considering it. The thought does give me an icky feeling, though. I'm still trying to determine if it's an ethical ick or 'I don't want to touch their yucky ballot' ick.

#3 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2008, 10:17 PM:

Given that the Republican Party has been mailing me stuff as though I were registered, I'm starting to think I shouldn't disillusion them. Sure, why not register as a Republican? Vote in their primary? And answer their polls in the mail? Maybe I might do some good.

("Dear pollster: I am hoping that my answers here adequately convey how very much appalled I am at the direction our party has taken over the last eight years...")

Besides, Boulder County is always short a few registered Republicans when it comes time to staffing the polls. That's probably why I'm getting mail from the Republican Party already - I registered as Independent in 2006 to help them get, on paper anyway, a more varied mix of party registrants running the polls. So as an Independent, I must look like fair game.

#4 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2008, 11:17 PM:

Am I the only person in the US of A who is really, really annoyed with the entire election process and wants it to just BE OVER WITH a couple of months ago? The horse-race aspect of it drives me absolutely nuts, and while I realize that gaming the system is probably necessary, I don't have to like it.


#5 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2008, 11:31 PM:

Given the time this was posted, it really should be about Giuliani.

#6 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2008, 11:31 PM:

LizT @ #2: Being in North Texas (Dick Armey's old district--yuch), if I don't vote in the Repub primary, I don't get to vote at all for most of the local offices. We're automatically re-registered every year, but Texans' party affiliation is only noted on their voter registration cards if they vote in a primary. I'm proud to say our local Democratic Party has fielded nine candidates for local offices, but there are no contested races in the primary. Since I'm "already ruint" (Texanism) for voting Repuglican, and am willing to support any of the current Democratic candidates for President, it's certainly tempting to try to do my part to stir up a little extra trouble for those bastards.

As long as you keep the reasons for your primary vote firmly in mind, it only squicks for a little while. Promise.

#7 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2008, 11:35 PM:

BTW, Jim or whomever, I've seen these numbers before, but still don't understand where Mitten gets his extra delegates, since Iowa numbers aren't in the mix yet. Wyoming's only good for 3-5, right?

#8 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 12:17 AM:

I thought that the idea of democracy - as opposed to demagoguery - was that the people direct the policies of the State by their election of those who form the government. No one person elected to office, unless that office is "dictator", can alone direct the State, so it follows that the voters should be voting for the policies of an entire party, published in a single form that the party unites behind, and elaborates under pressure in the election campaign, leaving only nuance, emphasis and detailed interpretation as possible differences between them, plus responses to new issues that may arise.

So why on earth do you have this ridiculous business where the candidates of one political party spend months publicly scarifying each other, magnifying and embittering their differences at the very time when the party should be pulling together?

In many cases the process will exhaust the candidates and make it impossible for them to work together in the coming election, or, if elected, in government. If the election is won, they would be the leading lights of the party of government - if they were not, they shouldn't have been run in the primaries. So at the very least it puts the future chief executive who wishes to use the foremost talents of his party in an impossible position, trying to answer the obvious question, "You said your opponent in the primary was a poor candidate for election on thus-and-so grounds. Why are you now offering this person a senior post in the government?"

A better way to eliminate strong and useful cabinet colleagues I cannot imagine, which is to guarantee mediocrity and the placement of place-holders, wheel horses and yes-men.

And the process necessarily results in the voters gaming the system, as has been advocated here. You want a more liberal set of policies, so you register in the conservative primary and vote for the most revolting of the troglodytes, in the hope that you'll get to vote against him in the actual election.

You Americans are strange.

#9 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 12:30 AM:

Dave, say rather that our system is strange. You might get more agreement that way.

I'm feeling annoyed about caucuses rather than primaries. It seems to me that caucuses held on specific dates at specific hours prevent voters who can't get to their caucus location at the required place and time from expressing their opinions. Primaries are all-day affairs.

I bring this up because the Nevada Teachers' Union is suing the Democratic Party in federal court because the Party set up caucuses in casinos so employees who work there could take part, but the teachers, admin staff and maintenance people who work in schools didn't get the same advantage.

I'm not sure I agree with suing, but I do think caucuses can be unfairly run.

#10 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 01:06 AM:

Primary elections are apparently an innovation from the Progressive Era (early 20th century) when they were regarded as a means of making the process of candidate selection more democratic and transparent.

But the deeper cause of the strangeness is that we still think of our elections as being for individual people rather than for parties. I think that goes all the way back to the structure of the Constitution, which doesn't explicitly involve parties and was written with the idea that the US might not have political parties at all--even though parties actually developed almost immediately afterward, and in hindsight you could certainly see the seeds of them among the people who wrote the Constitution.

A major theme in modern US political rhetoric is that partisanship is bad. Even when you're obviously being partisan, you pay lip service to this ideal by accusing the other party of partisanship. I could be off base here, but I can't imagine people in a multiparty parliamentary system saying such a thing--of course you're supposed to be partisan; parties are the expression of what you stand for, and parties are what people vote for.

Part of the difference is that a strong presidential system with winner-take-all elections tends toward having two big, broad parties, so that there's a relatively weak link between party and ideology. (It's actually much stronger now than it was for most of my lifetime, because the transfer of the old Southern wing of the Democrats to the Republican Party is essentially complete. But each party is still a very broad coalition of sometimes competing interests.) That in turn makes partisanship seem a little silly, less like stating what you stand for and more like supporting a football team. The movements that would be whole political parties somewhere else instead tend to gravitate around presidential candidates, and express themselves in primary elections, where they become personalized.

It may be that there's a distaste for partisanship built into our political culture at a deep level and that this is in fact responsible for some of the worst features of our system.

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 01:41 AM:

#7 LMB MacAlister:

Iowa's delegates aren't assigned yet.

Mitt got 8 delegates out of Wyoming and 4 out of New Hampshire, for a total of 12.

(BTW for all the Stunning Upset of Hillary over Obama in New Hampshire, they each got 9 delegates (and Edwards got the other 4).

#12 ::: Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 01:52 AM:

Matt #10: A distaste for partisanship? Nah. That's one of those notions that everyone pays lip service to, and virtually nobody acts on.

Americans certainly seem to believe that they are supposed to dislike partisanship. But when you look at actual behavior, it becomes clear that the essence of American politics is very much about Us and Them. It's been that way for a long time, and is maybe getting worse, but definitely showing not the slightest sign of getting any better.

What's odd about this is how many people still nod in automatic agreement, and feel quite moral about it, when 'avoiding partisanship' is used as a weapon by the opposing party to club them into surrender. You'd think they'd learn...

#13 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 02:06 AM:

Jim @ #11: Thanks. I'm (still) surprised that Wyoming gets 8 delegates. Almost no one lives there. Maybe Nyarlathotep Cheney lobbied for representation for the sagebrush while he was there.

#14 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 03:12 AM:

Matt McIrvin #10: Our Constitution likewise makes no mention of political parties (nor, actually, of the office of Prime Minister). But are you telling me that Americans, in general, think that political parties shouldn't have clearly defined policies that are generally characteristic of them and different from each other's, policies that are known in advance, and that bind them in office? That this is 'partisanship', and that partisanship is bad? Do you really think that policy in a democracy should arise from the clash of individual views in government, unrestrained by party, which is to say, the need for predictability or even coherence?

God bless my soul. Better yet, may He bless your Union and your nation. Quite clearly He has, so far. I hate to think what would happen if He withdraws what is very plainly His very special favour to you.

#15 ::: Michael R. Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 03:32 AM:

Dave, 'partisanship' in current USA culture, is usually taken to mean 'My party, right or wrong'.

So, "I have chosen to support the party that reflects my duly considered values, you are engaged in partisan demagoguery, and he is an extremist kook."

Because each major party is so broad, they don't have policies so much as slogans (and epithets for the other side), and each major party is like a mini-parliamentary system of it's own (complete with small factions having disproportionate influence).

So "My party has a big tent, your party is beholden to special interests".

The ills you enumerate are consequence, not cause.

#16 ::: Madeline F ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 04:21 AM:

#14 Dave Luckett: "policies ... that bind them in office?"

In the spirit of things, I have to say, that's really creepy. There can't possibly be enough political parties to for there to be one that supports everything I want and denies everything I don't want. Any possible candidate is going to be wrong for me in some way. And yet, you seem to say in the parliamentary system there is no chance for me to influence that candidate when it comes time for a congressional vote, because he is bound to act in lock step with his party platform?

This kind of thing seems to work to some degree for the Commonwealth Countries/Britain/Europe, but you're having to deny a great deal of American definition, predictability, coherence, and history to imply that it's the only sane way. Tell me, how does your system in which the candidate's loyalty is only to the moffs of his party keep your cabinets free of "yes-men"?

#17 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 06:02 AM:

Parliamentary representatives are pretty much bound to vote in lockstep with their political party's platform, though they can try to change their colleagues' minds. The representatives know that platform in detail when they stand for election, and so does the electorate. If new policy is voted in the party room, the opportunity to dissent comes there. In the last analysis, if legislation offends the representative's conscience, they can "cross the floor" to vote against their own party. That's rare, though, and it would cause pretty much automatic expulsion from the party.

What keeps them from being yes-men? The fact that they represent a specific electorate, and it is the voters who elect, not the party. But more, it is that the party has - and must have - a coherent set of policies that it has been elected on. To elect that party to government is to select those policies over other policies, and the electorate knows that. Therefore, those are the policies that should be implemented. Representatives are entitled to their own opinions, but are not entitled to vote against the policies they were elected on.

Better that than to hope that those individuals who have been elected, each with his or her own set of opinions and policy preferences, can manage to reach some sort of compromise between them on the day. There might well be gridlock, or the result be self-contradictory or incoherent. Above all, without a party system and party solidarity, the voters never get to vote directly for or against known policy at all. They vote for a candidate with known attitudes, but also in the knowledge that those attitudes will be changed - they don't know by how much or in what direction - by the interaction of the representative and his peers. There is no knowing what bargains might be made, or policy result.

You find the idea of a party system, party solidarity and discipline creepy. I can't say I do, and I don't believe the alternative leads to good government or is more democratic.

#18 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 07:22 AM:

It's more that the parties don't have clearly defined, binding policies, and that, consequently, American voters tend to hold parties in contempt.

The reason they can't have policies that bind to that degree is that there are only two major parties. And the reason there are only two major parties is that our politics revolves heavily around the presidency, in a system in which a significant third party at one end of the left-right spectrum will just hand the presidential election to the party at the other end. (It's not just that our elections are first-past-the-post; Canada has those too.)

#19 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 07:53 AM:

Dave Luckett @ 17

I'm not convinced there's that much difference between the systems in practice. Consider Britain, which elected what they thought would be a mildly left-wing capitalist-socialist government in the form of the Labour Party. Turned out the stated policies and the public form were not what the leaders of the party actually intended, and they got George Bush' mini-Me instead. My impression from the Brits I've talked to about it is that they were surprised and very upset at the policies they found they'd voted in.

#20 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 09:21 AM:

One interesting thing is that much of the most destructive bits of US politics in the last twelve years or so has been driven by the Republicans getting pretty serious party discipline going.

I don't think the diffuse nature of US political parties is mainly due to having a two-party system (driven by the way we count votes), but rather by the huge regional variations in beliefs. Democrats in North Carolina and Missouri are very different in their positions than Democrats in Maryland or New York or California. For examples of this phenomenon, just look at the Republican presidential candidates. Guiliani and Romney could never have been elected on very socially conservative platforms. Similarly, Bill Clinton was the kind of Democrat who could win election in Arkansas, which meant he was much less liberal on a bunch of issues than a Democrat who could win in California.

Enforcing real party discipline probably means turning more states into pure Democratic or Republican strongholds. If Democrats running in Missouri have to look like Democrats running in New York, no Democrats will win any elections in Missouri.

It's pretty common to have states that, in national elections, are entirely dominated by the Republicans, but which often have Democratic governors, as well as the reverse situation. I suspect part of this is that the policies enacted by a Democratic governor are under his control, not based on a vote of all the Democrats in Congress. That means he can adapt his policies to local beliefs and conditions, rather than sticking to the party positions.

#21 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 10:07 AM:

I want "None of the Above."

Thena #4
You're not alone.

The campaign vitriol from the candidates themselves tends to be the same sort of vitriol that the World Wrestling entertainers spout, most of it being show posturing for the masses, when in reality they're working together/will be workting together/expect to work together.

The scary ones are the True Believers who use FUD and intimidation and threats and rewards to impose the sort of junta that has been "running" the United since the fascist demagagues took over...

#22 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 10:38 AM:

Hey, Dave Luckett! It's fine to ask questions about how the American political system works. In fact, all kinds of interesting conversations can be sparked by intelligent inquiries from people who didn't grow up inside the system.

It's a lot less fine when you respond to the individuals who answer you as if they're defending the stuff they're describing. Which you've now done on several occasions in this thread, and I'd like you to knock it off.

Yes, the English language's failure to have separate words for "you [singular]", "you [plural]", and "you [as an approximate class]" creates opportunities for ambiguity. This means we need to write with this in mind, and (unless we're trying to piss people off) eliminate those ambiguities. This means you [singular], Dave.

#23 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 10:43 AM:

Thena (4): You are not alone. One thing I find attractive about parliamentary systems is that their election season is only six weeks* long. That sounds about right to me.

*somebody correct me if I have the length wrong

#24 ::: John Stevens ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 11:38 AM:

Mary at #23

That kind of depends how you define the election season!

One of the quirks of the British system is that there is no fixed interval between elections. There is a maximum gap of 5 years, but apart from that it's up to the government (!) to decide when they'd like to call an election.

This of course leads to lots of speculation - opposition parties may start pre-election advertising campaigns in the expectation that an election will be called soon; the party in power have inside knowledge and can run advertising in advance.

Also, since the Prime Minister is simply the leader of the party which wins, rather than being directly elected, there's potential for campaigning within a party as well. For example, after Tony Blair's recent resignation/retirement, his successor was chosen by the party in an unopposed election, but there was a signficant amount of national political discussion/campaigning. Shortly afterwards there followed an election "scare" - Gordon Brown thought about calling a snap election to confirm his position, but then changed his mind in the light of several political disasters.

Unsurprisingly, there are always arguments in favour of fixed intervals between elections; equally unsurprisingly those politicians who advocate this while in opposition change thier minds once in power.

Consequently, whilst the official election season is short, in practice it can seem unending!


#25 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 11:41 AM:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden #22: Yes, the English language's failure to have separate words for "you [singular]", "you [plural]", and "you [as an approximate class]" creates opportunities for ambiguity.

How about "you", "youse guys", and "y'all"?

Hmmm, probably still not enough distinctiveness between y'all and youse guys to work. In any case, I've always thought of "y'all" as admirably efficient. Ah, well....

#26 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 12:15 PM:

John Stevens (24): Thanks. I meant the amount of time between an election being announced (called?) and the election itself. Is six weeks right for that?

And it's 'Mary Aileen', not 'Mary'. :)

#27 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 12:32 PM:

Dave Luckett et al:

There are several basic forms of democratic government that get subsumed under the categories presidential and parliamentary. People in the US and the Commonwealth tend to forget about the others, concentrating on the differences between the Westminster and US models.

Those are:

US: Presidential-Congressional structure, separation of powers, weak political parties, multiple centres of power.

Westmister: Parliamentary-Cabinet structure, single-member constituency elections, government dependent on legislative majority, medium-strong party structure, adaptable to unitary (e.g., Jamaica, Barbados), federal (e.g., Australia*, Canada, India), or quasi-federal (e.g., UK) systems.

Proportional Representation parliamentary: Parliamentary-Cabinet structure, government dependent on legislative majority (but may be outside legislature) which is normally a coalition of parties, multiple-member constituency elections, strong party structure, adaptable to unitary (e.g., Netherlands, Sweden), federal (e.g., Switzerland), quasi-federal (e.g., Spain, Italy).

Single Transferable Vote parliamentary: Parliamentary-Cabinet structure, government dependent on legislative majority which may be a coalition of parties, multiple-member constituency elections, medium-strong party structure, used only in unitary states (Ireland, Malta).

Mixed-Member systems: May be parliamentary-cabinet (e.g., Germany, New Zealand), or semi-presidential (e.g., Russia), medium-strong to strong party systems, double vote (constituency, national list), used in both federal (Germany, Russia) and unitary (New Zealand) states.

Semi-presidential: Government is both directly elected president and cabinet accountable to the legislature. Electoral method varies. Parties generally strong. Adaptable to unitary (France, Sri Lanka, Colombia) and federal (Russia, South Africa) systems.

* Australia uses two different preference voting systems: the Alternative Vote for the House, and the Single Transferable Vote for the Senate.

#28 ::: John Stevens ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 12:35 PM:

Mary Aileen at #26

It's actually less than that in the UK. The election is held 17 working days after the Prime Minister asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament.

However, by convention government departments are banned from raising new/controversial initiatives in public for the 6 weeks before the election (which requires a certain degree of clairvoyance).

#29 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 12:44 PM:

One interesting thing is that much of the most destructive bits of US politics in the last twelve years or so has been driven by the Republicans getting pretty serious party discipline going.

Yes, but that's in the absence of party discipline on anyone else's part, or a system designed to work well with strong, disciplined parties.

#30 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 12:59 PM:

I apologise for and withdraw disparaging words used to describe the American system of primary elections and the status of the political parties in the US. That was at least discourteous, and probably offensive to some. I meant no offence, and certainly no personal offence.

However, I remain of the opinions I expressed.

Since I don't understand what Mr Neilsen-Hayden means by "respond(ing) to the individuals who answer you as if they're defending the stuff they're describing", I can't be sure that I won't do it again, and in any case, apart from the specific words I mentioned above, I don't believe the rebuke is justified. He has let far worse pass without comment, as I know very well.

He seems to be offended by my opinions or mode of expressing them. This is not the first time he has been moved to instruct me, and it is not the first time I thought him unjustified. I am unwilling to accept his strictures, so I think I had best ensure that he is not troubled again.

#31 ::: Richard Brandt ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 01:05 PM:

Matt McIrvin @ 10: A major theme in modern US political rhetoric is that partisanship is bad.

Whereas bipartisanship is good. And you're a Washington outsider, so you're someone who will be able to reach out to the other party.

(Even if your Dad was President, and the bills you brag about signing as governor passed the legislature over your threat of a veto. We can see how that posture of bipartisanship got put into practice.)

#32 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 01:26 PM:

Electoral systems:

There are two large families of electoral systems: majoritarian-pluralist, and proportional (there is a third category, semi-proportional, but it's now down to one member that I can think of, Lebanon).

Majoritarian pluralist:

Majoritarian systems:

(1) Run-off voting. Majorities are required for individual candidates to be elected. If no candidate wins a majority, a second election is held with the two top vote-getters as candidates. Used in France for presidential elections, in the state of Georgia (the one I'm in) for all public offices.

(2) Alternative Vote. Voters list candidates by preference. If no candidate wins enough first preferences to be elected, the first preference votes for the candidate with the fewest votes are discarded, and that candidates second preference votes are reassigned. The process continues until one candidate has a majority of votes (first, second, third &c. preferences). Used to elect the Australian House.

Plurality system:

First-past-the-post. Whoever gets the most votes in a given constituency wins. In Britain this is called a relative majority, in the US a plurality.

Proportional systems:

List Proportional Representation: Parties present lists of candidates, voters pick the party they prefer. Candidates are elected from each list (from the top down) in proportion to the share of the vote each list receives. This is always in multi-member constituencies, of sizes (district or constituency magnitude) varying from country to country or even within countries. The largest constituency magnitudes are the Netherlands and Israel in which the constituency and the country are identical (150 seats in the Netherlands, 120 in Israel).

Single Transferable Vote: This is a preference system in which the voter lists candidates by preference in multi-member constituencies.

Once votes are counted they are divided by a formula (V/S+1, where V= number of votes, S= number of seats) to produce the quota. Candidates who receive enough first preference votes to achieve the quota are elected. If not all candidates achieve a quota, a procedure similar to that of the Alternative Vote is followed until all quotas have been filled.

This system allows voters to split their preferences between parties, and thus gives the voter the greatest power of all electoral systems (since the voter can choose among candidates of all competing parties in setting his/her preferences).

#33 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 01:54 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 23: One thing I find attractive about parliamentary systems is that their election season is only six weeks* long.

Not in Norway, it isn't. Elections to Stortinget are every four years in September (last one in 2005). Election season is way, way too long.

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 01:58 PM:

Dave Luckett @30:

I apologise for and withdraw disparaging words used to describe the American system of primary elections and the status of the political parties in the US. That was at least discourteous, and probably offensive to some. I meant no offence, and certainly no personal offence.

This paragraph shows that you've completely missed Patrick's point.

I know not the mind of Patrick of the Usually Unhyphenated Surname, but I suspect it was things like You Americans are strange. (comment 8, which was otherwise not about Americans but about part of the American electoral system) and the rather tiresomely snarky God bless my soul. Better yet, may He bless your Union and your nation. Quite clearly He has, so far. I hate to think what would happen if He withdraws what is very plainly His very special favour to you (comment 14).

Feel free to criticise the American system of primary elections and the status of the political parties in the US. Maybe lay off the sarcasm about Americans themselves, and the implication that we're all foaming at the mouth exceptionalists?

#35 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 02:09 PM:

Dave: If new policy is voted in the party room, the opportunity to dissent comes there.

Am I missing something, or is there no opportunity in there for the electorate to affect party policy? In this country it is generally considered an advance in democracy that party policy is not (totally) decided in closed rooms and is not binding on people running under the party banner; the former is not even republican, and the latter assumes a homogeneity the U.S. lacks. (cf albatross@2. Example: that Romney is a worse weathervane than Talleyrand is despicable; that there is great latitude in what defines a party position is a necessity in this country.)

The process also relates to the U.S. not being a parliamentary democracy; leaders are chosen more directly and on their own positions, which they are expected to work for as a matter of principle rather than obedience to a party line.

Note that we've already disagreed about the relative merits of ]presidential[ and parliamentary democracies; I don't expect either of us to convince the other. I don't even need my own words to mock the parliamentary system when W. S. Gilbert did it better:
When in that House M. P.'s divide,
If they've a brain and cerebellum, too,
They've got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell 'em to.
It is true that carving up the potential nominee of your own party may be a bad thing; this is why most candidates are careful about it in public (and why some commit the sabotage in private, cf. McCain in SC in 2000 -- although that could be less calculation and more a messianic conviction that \this/ step will guarantee the prize without side effects). But differentiation is appropriate and IMO preferable to the behind-the-scenes choice you suggest; if the party can change its position and require everyone to go along on pain of expulsion, can the members be truly said to represent their constituents at all?

#36 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 02:14 PM:

Patrick @ 22... the English language's failure to have separate words for "you [singular]", "you [plural]", and "you [as an approximate class]" creates opportunities for ambiguity.

I was going to say how nice it is that French has tu for the singular and vous for the plural. Alas, vous can also be singular, in a polite context.

#37 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 02:37 PM:

Let's see . . . how to ask this, without falling face-forward into the morass of Y'all's System Is Just Plain Weird . . .

Does it in fact mean the same, on the emotional and philosophical level as well as on the political rules-of-the-game level, to be the member of parliament from Wherever as it does to be the representative in congress of Wherever?

What I'm thinking of here is the kind of situation in which the party of which the person in question is a member, and which rules of party discipline require him/her to support, is hell-bent on doing something which will be ruinous to the people and the place whose interests he has been elected to represent. Under a system with strong party discipline, upon which horn of the dilemma is he/she expected to let him/herself become impaled?

(I know that in the USA, a politician who failed, in like circumstances, to "take care of the folks back home", would have a tough time of it in the next election. But I don't know how other electorates would regard the problem.)

#38 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 02:54 PM:

What's missing from this discussion, and from the one on the New Hampshire recount, is just how particular and specific the US electoral system can be.

I may vote for precinct committee person, Public Utility District commissioners*, school board*, port district*, county commissioners, coroner, Superior Court judges*, and Sheriff, members of the state house of representatives and senate, Representative to the US Congress for the Washington 9th District, Washington State Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction* and Justices of the State Supreme Court*. Then there's bond issues for funding PUDs, Library and Cemetary Districts, School operations, School capital improvements, Transit operations and capital improvements, local parks, statewide transportation, parks, and conservation bonds, state initiatives on a plethora of subjects too diverse to go into, and referenda from the legislature+.

(This list is not intended to be exclusive, as I'm sure I've forgotten something. Like Fire Districts! I forgot Fire Districts! Weed Control Districts! Water and Drainage Commissions! Higher Education Bonds!)

In my state, parties have been long considered extraneous to and perhaps parasitic on the process of governing; in some cities, including Seattle, the governing bodies are all nonpartison. "Party discipline" is often referred to as an example of ethical corruption. So I fear Dave Luckett has just scratched the surface of ways in which he doesn't get American Democracy as she is danced.

*Nonpartison under statute
+All excluded from explicit party involvement

#39 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 03:35 PM:

John Stevens (28): Ah. That must be where I got the six weeks from. Thanks again.

Roy (33): Okay. So what I find attractive is not parliamentary systems as such, but non-fixed election dates. I had been under the (obviously mistaken) impression that they went together.

#40 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 04:08 PM:

Dave - let me be even clearer than Patrick then, since I do believe you've failed to understand his point and indeed taken it in reverse.

You, as an Australian, are discussing the American political system with Americans; hence it is in general quite reasonable to say of it "your system" or (for examples from your words) "You Americans are strange" or "You find the idea of a party system, party solidarity and discipline creepy." However, if you say something like that last when replying to an individual, who may in fact not find the idea of a party system &c. creepy, it sounds as though you are attacking the individual's endorsement of views they may not in fact possess or be defending. Even the comment "You Americans are strange" attributes to all Americans a love of a system that many of us are not blindly enchanted with.

I read Patrick as saying that you are welcome, indeed I'd say encouraged, to criticize features of the American political system. However, to avoid flame wars and angst, it would be better if you could do so by reference to the system and the American body politic generally, rather than wording it in a way that makes it sound as though you take specific individuals posting here to be hearty enthusiasts of the American party system, electoral college, et al.

If you make it clear which views you think a particular individual holds and what views you think the American people in general hold, it will be easier to agree or disagree with your assessment. You're a writer; it's really the same issue as avoiding dialog with "he said", "he said", "he said", until the reader can not tell who has said what and what views are being expressed by what character.

Hope this helps; I enjoy your comments here and would hate to see you withdraw from the fray.

#41 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 04:22 PM:

Has anybody pointed out one big difference between the American system and those modeled after Britain's? The latter is a top-down system, while the former is a bottom-up one - or is supposed to be anyway.

#42 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 04:35 PM:

I also think the nature of how the secondary roles are handed out matters. In the US the cabinet posts are not available to legislators (to take them they have to leave their seats).

That means, among other things, the political career of most who take a cabinet post (or other position, say, Head of the FCC, EPA, etc.) is; if not ended, given a great hurdle.

The power places in the House/Senate are for longevity, and handed out to the party which has the majority. Crossing the line is a really rare thing (in part because it can kill re-election; because of the issues of jerry-mandering, and the amount of money the national party may elect to toss into a local race. That's why Jeffers switch was so important, and newsworthy. That he did it, IMO, badly, doesn't change that it was a singular event, and might not have been doable, had the Republicans he was leaving possessed a more solid majority).

With only two parties (which matter, even the larger tertiary parties, a la Libertarians, can't get elected to national office, cf. Ron Paul, who is making his second run for president, having failed to get elected in 1980, on the Libertarian ticket, and then ran for the House as a Republican), there's not a lot of room for saying, "this is what the party does, like it, or join the other guys," because the other guys aren't just a little different, they are a lot different.

What, as well, is the option for the Party, when someone refuses to toe the line? Kick them out, and shift the balance of power which decides who gets the plum jobs?

The Dems best chance to enforce Party discipline was in the 2004 election, and they didn't. They ought to have told Der Leibermouse, that he wasn't getting their support. As soon as the primary was over, the Party ought to have been swinging for the fences for Lamont. Show the voters in Conneticut the Party was behind them.

The second best thing they could have done would have been to tell the voters, "We'll accept Lieberman caucusing with us, should he be your pick, but he comes in as a freshman, you will lose the weight he had. Lamont we will work with, to see he gets committee memberships which he is interested in, and you would like, because Lamont is a Democrat, but Lieberman is refusing to accept that you didn't want him, and we can't reward him for it."

But they didn't. Does that mean the voters should all go and join the Greens? No. Because, flabby as the Dems may be in supporting them, the Greens don't have anyone in office who can do anything; and the Republicans are the people they don't want (or they would have voted for them).

I don't have a list of parties to pick and choose among, seeing who best fits my desires. So I go with the candidate, and threaten her with not being returned if she strays to far from my wishes. If she does, I try to find a primary challenger who does agree with me, and then explain to the person I want to turn out, why the challenge was raised.

The systems are different. They grew out of different beginnings, and serve different polities.

#43 ::: John Stevens ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 04:35 PM:

Debra at #37

That is indeed a dilemma, which resolves itself in a number of ways.

If the Member of Parliament (MP) believes that a measure is damaging to their constituency in particular, they may vote against the party, and will probably get away with it (in terms of remaining in good standing with the national party). It is still an accepted principle of British politics that an MP is expected to act as a representative of all the inhabitants of their constituency, not simply those who voted for them.

The greater dilemma arises when the MP opposes their party on a matter of national, rather than local significance. What happens next depends on a number of issues:

1 Is the issue a "manifesto" commitment - ie: an explicitly stated intention in the party's electoral material? If not, and the legislation is a response to events rather than planned, then it easier for an MP to rebel and survive.

2 If it is a manifesto commitment, did the MP explicitly support/reject this policy? Note that there is a tradition in British politics of consistent "rebels" - MPs who make clear to their electors that they oppose many of the key policies and principles of the party they are a member of. These MPs survive because they have the support of the local party members (who are responsible for nominating a local candidate for election).

3 Does the MP have aspirations of higher office. Persistent rebels are usually those who aren't aiming for a role in government (in the UK system cabinet and junior ministers are drawn from the legislature) or alternatively those who have previously held a higher office but have been sacked/resigned. MPs in this position have nothing to lose.

4 How important does the party think the issue is? Some are seen as more central than others.

I think (and I'm sure others will correct me) that a key difference between the British and US systems is that Britain elects party members (who may sometimes act as individuals) whereas the US elects individuals (who may sometimes act as party members). Voters in general see it that way, even to the extent of voting in local elections basd on national party politics.

200 years ago the British system was much closer to the US system. Personally I suspect that the trend towards party-based politics in Britain is related to the way in which the executive is drawn from the legislature, requiring a greater commitment to common specific goals - but Fragano may well have betted ideas,

#44 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 05:25 PM:

John Stevens #43: Well, more or less. The fact that the government is, effectively, a committee of the legislature means that individual MPs have two kinds of incentives to stick with the party line:

(1) policy implementation (voting with the party leadership means you're more likely to get policies you want);

(2) office (if you revolt against the leadership, your chances of becoming a minister go down).

#45 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 05:41 PM:

Terry in #42
"The Dems best chance to enforce Party discipline was in the 2004 election, and they didn't. They ought to have told Der Leibermouse, that he wasn't getting their support."

Ahhh... 2006?

#46 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 05:46 PM:

Pfusand: Yes, I wasn't thinking, 2006. Somehow the fact that this is 2008 isn't registering.

#47 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 06:36 PM:

The electorate gets to influence party policy if it joins the party. The electorate shouldn't get to define party policy; the party should define party policy. That doesn't always mean behind closed doors, but I don't see why non-party-members should have a right to be involved, although party members should be involved.

That's why I find open primaries a bit odd. The party doesn't even get to pick its own candidate?

Or the electorate can influence policy by voting against parties/candidates with policies they don't like, and for those with policies they do like. See Scotland, and the electoral fortunes of the Tories and the SNP. It doesn't matter that most Scots don't like Tory politics, because there aren't very many Tories in Scottish politics any more. Same with the Liberals. And it doesn't matter that Labour hasn't become nationalist, because the nationalists have their own party with seats in the Scottish Parliament.

Of course, under the American system, you'd still have two parties called the `Conservative and Unionist Party' and the `Liberal Party' squaring off, given the cemented nature of the two parties. So I can see why the electorate needs to be able to change party policy, because they don't have a hope in hell of changing party. The Conservatives and Unionists would have roughly labour politics by now (or the Liberals would) while the other would have roughly scottish nationalist politics.

Seems like merely setting it up so that parties could come and go would be much more elegant, but the US hasn't blown up because of inelegant politics yet.

#48 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 07:28 PM:

The electorate gets to influence party policy if it joins the party. The electorate shouldn't get to define party policy; the party should define party policy

And this is where my own irrational-squick factor clicks in -- the idea (as wrongheaded an interpretation as it may in fact be) that I as a voter should only have a say in politics beyond picking a name off a menu if I'm willing to join a particular club and agree to abide by its rules whether I agree with all of them or not.

Why, yes . . . I am one of New Hampshire's notorious "undeclared" primary voters.

#49 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 08:11 PM:

Debra Doyle@48, that's my sticking point, too; the idea that parties rather than voters are the essential unit of the body politic gives me goosebumps.

#50 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 08:55 PM:

I grew up in a proportional democracy thingie (you pick a party when voting and then on election night see how many seats in parliament each one gets, proportionally allocated. Then in the following week you see the different parties negotiate to try to form a majority government. Single party governments pretty much don't happen because none of the parties is big enough for a majority on their own. This can actually make small parties dis proportionally influential because they can hold the few extra seats needed to form the majority.)

I find the American system deeply bizarre and I don't grok it at all. It's interesting and rather scary to watch because in a global context, American politics matter quite a lot.

To me it seems as if there's very little effective choice in the system. I.e you're being asked to choose between Coke and Pepsi and there's not an even semi-effective way of getting Fanta, what then milk or water.

..and yes I have a tendency to break out in weird analogies when trying to explain how I feel about things.

#51 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 09:08 PM:

The idea that the right to free association in politics is something to be sacrificed so lightly upon gives me the goosebumps.

If my mates and I decide we'll nominate our candidate/decide our policies by dicing, that's our concern. You don't (shouldn't) have to vote for us, and we don't (shouldn't) have to let you tell us how to run our party.

Of course, in the US, you do have to vote for the Democrats or Republicans, so it makes sense that the rules are different. I just think that it would make more sense to allow free competition between parties, rather than meddling within parties to enforce it.

It's like the difference between the Football League and the NFL franchise based systems. In order that a franchise based system with no relegation remain competitive, you have to meddle with the clubs -- you impose salary caps, or you have a draft pick mechanism, or whatever. With a relegation system, you can just sit back and let the clubs order themselves, provided that the league is the right size and the sport has enough depth.

If you don't have relegation, you have to get involved with clubs to maintain competitiveness because once a team collapses, you're stuck with it. With relegation, competitiveness will appear automatically, as clubs sort themselves and find their level. And this makes relegation based systems much more responsive, as they are (essentially) a free market style solution, as opposed to the central planned franchise operations.

So I think that, by a dodgy sports analogy to put Sica to shame, we can argue that systems with `promotion' and `relegation' amongst parties will tend to be more responsive to pressures from the electorate, even if individual parties are less responsive.

#52 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 09:44 PM:

The US system is partly a -reaction- to the British one, which the original 13 colonies declared independence from/war upon.

#53 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 09:53 PM:


Just so everyone is clear, and not implying that you aren't, in the US you do not have to vote for either the Democrat or Republican. It's just that the dynamics of the political system are such that other candidates very rarely get in, at least to the national elections. So in that sense it's true that if you don't vote for a Dem or Repub, in most elections you're implicitly voting to have someone other than your candidate of choice.

To consider just the presidential elections, 3rd party candidates drew enough votes that they may have "thrown" the elected candidate in 1992 (Perot) and 2000 (Nader, of course) and came very close in 1980 (Anderson) and in 2004 (misc other parties.) Third-party or independent candidates have won Congressional seats in the last century. However, no 3rd party candidate has won the presidential race since Teddy Roosevelt.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that some part of this is an epiphenomenon of the US party-line "spoils system" for awarding the critical congressional committee seats. Then again, that doesn't explain it with regard to the Presidency, so I'm confused again.

#54 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 10:01 PM:

Oh dear, there is just so much I would want to talk about in relation to the better & worse aspects of so many of the multiple aspects of the different systems of Australia, the UK and the USA – I don't know & understand much about the multiple-member systems, and thank Fragano for his explication. But two points:

Australia, like the US (& in some aspects, theoretically, I believe the UK) is a federated system. There is some divergence between the Federal and State levels, and some has developed between States. Tasmania, for instance, has multiple-member electorates (the Hare-Clark system). Queensland abolished its Upper House (paving the way for some long-reigning populist near-dictators of Premiers (NB: our Governors are vice-regal representatives; Premiers are like mini-PMs, leaders of the governing party. Several have resigned mid-term in the last couple of years, so States had/have "unelected" leaders.)

Most, if not all, of the States & Territories now have fixed terms with known election dates, and their good & bad points. Commonwealth elections are still at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, within a certain 3 years plus-a-bit term from the previous one. In theory, an election campaign is between 4 and 6 weeks.

It did feel that all 2007 was a federal 'electoral season', tho', and it was very wearing. An election was necessary by January 2008. John Howard (Liberal/Coalition), the PM, had been in power since early 1996 (4 terms) and was above official retirement age, leading to much speculation about him retiring, who would take over, blah, blah, since the previous election in 2004. The opposition (Labor) elected a brand new leader and (female!) deputy in late 2006, who started off with a bit of enthusiasm, and both them and the party were thoroughly attacked and undermined by all the official and unofficial Coalition/Liberal supporters from then on. It pretty much felt like that was the start of the campaign.

Despite this, the 'official' party campaign launches, where supposedly each leader outlines his/her party's policies, saying why the other side shouldn't rule* and why his/her side should, have been moving further and further towards the end of the 'season'. It's said that it's because until then the parties can use public funds for many things, but need to use their own money between then and election day. [*Minor parties argue why they should have enough seats to influence government.]

Links to the State and Territory Electoral Commissions (strongly non-partisan) where you can find, if you wish, all sorts of details & history: Australian Electoral Commission; New South Wales; Queensland; South Australia; Tasmania; Victoria; Western Australia; ACT; Northern Territory. Also the Electoral Council of Australia (a joint body of all the Electoral Commissioners).

Hardly anyone — well, less than 10% — belongs to a political party in Australia. I don't, and wouldn't, mostly because of Debra's point: "to join a particular club and agree to abide by its rules whether I agree with all of them or not", because even tho' I might be more able to influence policies as a member, more and more we are seeing that it's a small powerful clique who can set the party policies, and only those willing to give up almost all of the rest of their lives (job, family, interests) can join them. Unless you already have money and power from (usually) corporate sources, whence you can influence party/government policy from outside. I personally use preferential voting to try and inflluence the major parties, along with the usual letters to editors, phoning talkback, etc. Illness is cutting this back, tho.

Finally, just to mention that I don't think political parties are mentioned in our Federal Constitution (1901) either. The office of Prime Minister isn't. Indeed, the whole of the 'third tier', local government, is not mentioned at all, despite its importance to the country and most people's experience of life.

Sorry this got so long. This is only a couple of small issues; how huge would it get if I wrote about all the parts I'm concerned with or interested in?

Paula, #52 The current UK system has considerable differences to the one in the 1700s. Many British people struggled, not without bloodshed, over many years to improve it. Sometimes they took a lead from innovations in the Dominions.

#55 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 10:17 PM:

Keir, Sica: once you've chosen crank party X as most reflecting your views, what odds do you have that they'll have a particle of influence? Unless they're near the plurality party (or unless the plurality party is desperate to assemble a majority -- see Israeli Labor and some of the deals they've made with people I consider religious fruitcakes), it seems to me that you've made your pure choice with about as much effect as a {Nader,Buchanan}-in-2000 voter. I know it's not a perfect analogy, but I don't see the proportional system offering substantial advantages. \No/ representational system is perfect, or even near ideal; each has wins and losses. IMO, the defects of the U.S. system are magnified because one party has figured out just how much its owners can win if the party commits enough fouls.

#56 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 10:22 PM:

Debra Doyle, thank you. That clarifies how I feel, and the same 'squick' factor. But no one in the wider world cares about Missouri until the final elections because we don't do a primary.

#57 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 11:15 PM:

A friend of mine proposed a bet this afternoon. He bet a quarter that once the dust has cleared, the final candidates will be Clinton/Obama and McCain/Huckabee.

We agreed that Giuliani is toast.

Any thoughts?

#58 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2008, 11:28 PM:

Well, in New Zealand, the `crank'* parties have actually had quite a big impact on governance. The Greens have wrung various policy concessions out of Labour, while remaining out of government. NZ First got Winston Peters made Foreign Minister (and Racing -- one that's a bit more his measure), which is utterly bizarre, but really quite impressive. I think United Future got the Families Commission. And that's solely in terms of getting the Labour Government to do things; if you look at Member's Bills, the Greens got s59** repealed and got the minimum youth wage raised.

I'm sure if you go to their websites, the parties will tell you in great detail all the wonderful things that they managed to wring out of Labour, and just how wonderful they are. Whether or not you should believe those stories? I'm not sure.

But, certainly, voting for the minor parties is a more effective way of expressing your concern than voting for Nader.

And, of course, Clifton's right you don't actually have to vote for a Democrat or a Republican. Bernie Sanders is neither, and he's a Senator. But practically speaking, there's not much of a choice, and there's very little ability to build up a meaningful third party.

Even the UK's FPP system leads to more third parties than the US does -- the SNP, and, of course, the Labour Party itself.

So in the US, your choice of party is very constrained, especially in very liberal or conservative areas, so choice has to forced within parties, instead of the way God intended, with choice between parties.

* the Libertarianz are a better analogy to US Naderite crank parties than the Greens or the Maori Party are.

** this section of the Crimes Act legalised certain forms of assault on children.

#59 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 12:38 AM:

Clifton @53: Just so everyone is clear, and not implying that you aren't, in the US you do not have to vote for either the Democrat or Republican

And of course, like so many other things in the American system, the details there differ on a state-by-state basis, and in some states you frequently do really only have those two choices.

Ballot Access News is an interesting, if frequently infuriating, source of information on the de jure methods the D and R parties use to maintain their de facto duopoly.

#60 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 04:28 AM:

John Stevens@24:

the Prime Minister is simply the leader of the party which wins, rather than being directly elected
I thought that was how it worked! I was confused by the last series of Doctor Who, in which people seemed to be voting for the PM directly (we see campaign posters for the newly-elected PM, and one character says "I was going to vote for him"). Is this just an unexplained discrepancy between the Doctor's world and ours, like the "President-Elect" thing, or is there something I'm missing?

#61 ::: John Stevens ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 04:40 AM:

Paula at #52

Warning: potential gross oversimplifications follow.

I recall being taught at school that the newly independent colonies modelled their constitution on the British model (but didn't quite get it right).

Consequently the three branches - judiciary, executive, legislative - were set up as far more clearly distinct than in the British system.

This "misunderstanding" makes good sense when you/youse all consider that 200 years ago, the British executive was drawn from the (unelected) peerage, and the crown appeared to have genuine executive power. "Parties" were more like factions, with the monarch working with leading peers to manage elections to the commons. Since then the (elected) House of Commons has become clearly dominant over the peerage, which is certainly an improvement on the democratic front, but has the consequence of blurring the distinction between legislature and executive.

#62 ::: John Stevens ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 04:47 AM:

David at #59

You're absolutely correct.

But Dr Who isn't wrong! The party leader is usually seen (and is supposed to be) the party's strongest electoral asset*; local candidates will often have more pictures of the leader in their election material than of themselves. Consequently voters often describe themselves as choosing the Prime Minister - and given the British party system that's a fairly accurate description of what happens in practice.

*the exception being recent elections, where New Labour** candidates often chose not to include images of Tony Blair

**"New Labour" is the official name of the governing party. As Bruce at #19 said, many people were surprised at just how different "New Labour" proved to be.

#63 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 07:54 AM:

A question to all you people here:

Do you think that the two-party system is going to continue "forever", or will it evolve (devolve?) into something different?

#64 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 08:26 AM:

I've written to Dave Luckett. And Abi's #34 and Clifton's #40 are as clear as I could be on the subject. I'll just say here that Dave's idea (in #30) that I'm "offended by his opinions" is completely wrong. I agree with his opinions, for pity's sake. That wasn't the issue.

#65 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 08:26 AM:

The two-party system is entrenched in American politics, with privileges and power in Congress attached to the majority party. While the political leanings may shift over time, I don't see the US getting rid of it - it's too comfortable.

#66 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 08:33 AM:

A. R. Yngve: I think the dominance of a "big two" parties in American politics is an emergent property of our constitutional arrangements, and unless we significantly change those arrangements, that dominance is likely to continue.

Which means that, by and large, I don't see much point in third-party activity. I see plenty of reasons to choose means of political activism other than electoral politics altogether -- but if you're going to do electoral politics, and you're serious about getting anything done, the two parties are where the real decisions are sorted.

#67 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 10:08 AM:

Debra #48: How different is that, really, from what we have? Surveys show that black voters in the US are much more socially conservative than white voters, but thanks to the Southern Strategy and related crap, not many blacks vote for socially conservative Republicans. The Catholic church and at least some meaningful number of US Catholics oppose abortion, the death penalty, the use of torture[1], and the war in Iraq. Good luck finding someone to vote for with those positions.

As far as I can tell, national elections are all about getting a one-bit choice between two almost-equally-undesirable candidates. IMO, this is why Ron Paul is getting so much traction, despite being, frankly, a bit of a nut. At least there's someone on the national political stage talking about stuff I care about. Yes, he's apparently either a racist or fellow traveller/useful idiot of same. Yes he appears to be somewhat befuddled at debates and appearances. Yes, his website makes it clear that he has a pretty odd picture of reality. But damn, it's exciting to hear someone actually say in public that the war on drugs is a big mistake, or that an endless war on terror, police state measures at home, intervention in every country on the globe by measures ranging from sending money to blowing stuff up and invading them, and the building of a large American empire isn't really a great idea. It's almost intoxicating to imagine someone in the white house who didn't think he ought to have pretty much unlimited power, or of the size and power and intrusiveness of the federal government actually shrinking.

I don't suppose I will ever see more than a one-bit choice. I guess I should be thankful for the current Republicans, for making it a choice between unappealing and criminally insane, rather than the usual choice between smarmy and smarmy.

[1] That one didn't work out so well for us, historically. Though maybe we should be demanding citations for prior art in the current administration's use of water torture.

#68 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 11:12 AM:

John @ 60:
This "misunderstanding" makes good sense when you/youse all consider that 200 years ago, the British executive was drawn from the (unelected) peerage, and the crown appeared to have genuine executive power. "Parties" were more like factions, with the monarch working with leading peers to manage elections to the commons.

I'm going to be finicky here. The statement above is probably more accurate regarding Britain three hundred rather than two hundred years ago. (Think, e.g. of the Harley ministry under Queen Anne.) The eighteenth century saw the emergence of the authority of the Treasury Bench in the Commons with Walpole's term as the first "prime minister" (a term originally used as mockery/criticism). By 1800 or so and into the Twentieth Century, Prime Ministers and members of cabinet could and did come from the House of Peers: Wellington and Salisbury being obvious examples on the Prime Ministerial side. IIRC, The last Lord seriously considered for the Prime Ministership was Halifax, during the war, and his peerage was one of the reasons he didn't end up getting the position.

The wearing away of the Crown's active executive involvement, on the other hand, took hold only really strongly under Victoria, although it had been proceeding slowly for some time before that.

#69 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 11:14 AM:

John Stevens #60: Samuel Huntington points out that the American system is, indeed, derived from an older English model (he calls it the 'Tudor model') in which the roles of King and Parliament were quite distinct. Because the roles of governor and assembly in the American colonies were also distinct, the system adopted by the independent United States maintained the separation between executive and legislature even though both were now elected bodies. In Britain, the declining power of the Crown in the face of the assertion of the House of Commons, coupled with the need (from William III on) to ensure that the Crown had the support of a majority in the Commons, meant that power moved from King to Commons (and then, eventually from Commons to Cabinet).

#70 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 12:23 PM:

In the UK parliamentary system, it's the Prime Minister who asks the monarch to dissolve parliament so that general elections are then called.

Why would a Prime Minister ever, ever, voluntarily relinquish power at all? If a party has a majority and controls the election process, why risk that majority at all, ever? To prevent a violent uprising by the people?

It's almost like a leader shooting himself in the foot and saying, "you have my permission to start a coup".

#71 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 12:34 PM:

However, no 3rd party candidate has won the presidential race since Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt won as a Republican. The third-party run was later.

#72 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 12:42 PM:

James 67: IIRC, The last Lord seriously considered for the Prime Ministership was Halifax, during the war, and his peerage was one of the reasons he didn't end up getting the position.

Was he a broken man after that? Did he go and join Barrett's Privateers?

Now he's a broken man, he's a Halifax Peer,
The last of Barrett's Privateers.

Earl 69: Isn't there a legal time limit to how long they can go without calling elections? That was my understanding. They call them when they know they're popular, but they HAVE to call them eventually.

#73 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 01:05 PM:

Xopher @ 71: They call them when they know they're popular, but they HAVE to call them eventually.

It tends to come down to trying to predict when, up to that mandated deadline, calling an election is likely to produce the best election results. If an election is called too soon after the last one, people get annoyed, which biases things against whichever party forced the issue -- which leads to attempts to pass the blame: "That party wouldn't support our confidence motion, so it's their fault the election was called!" "Their party made an unsupportable proposal and made it a motion of confidence, so it's their fault!" If a ruling party's popularity is waning, they can try to call an election quickly and hope that things don't get worse suddenly, or try to ride things out and hope that the situation improves before the deadline arrives. And then we occasionally have an M.P. switch parties, often because they're angered by something the party leadership has done, occasionally for less-well-regarded reasons such as an offer of an important position in the new party. When things are finely balanced, the number changes can also affect election timing.

#74 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 01:51 PM:

Electoral politics are just Too Blasted Complicated, whatever system you're under. No wonder so many people just want to bring in a dictator and be done with it. Yes, I know, that just makes things worse.. but at least it's SIMPLE. Do what the Leader says, can't get much simpler than that.

While we're at it, y'all should give up these fiddly "automobile" things and get back into your oxcarts.

#75 ::: James Moar ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 01:53 PM:

Xopher @ 71 --

Yes, and the time limit is five years, set by the Parliament Act of 1911 (it was seven years before that).

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both tended to call general elections at 4-year intervals. I think John Major's hanging on for the full five years was seen as a real sign of weakness, hanging on to power as long as he possibly could rather than risking it on an election (which, in the end, he lost). Gordon Brown seems like he might be heading the same way.

#76 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 02:13 PM:

But damn, it's exciting to hear someone actually say in public that the war on drugs is a big mistake, or that an endless war on terror, police state measures at home, intervention in every country on the globe by measures ranging from sending money to blowing stuff up and invading them, and the building of a large American empire isn't really a great idea.

To reprise a recent thread, whence comes the idea that only Ron Paul is saying these things? *ahem* *ahem* KUCINICH *cough cough* *splutter*

#77 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 04:00 PM:

Kier @#47: but the US hasn't blown up because of inelegant politics yet.

That's debatable -- at least some of the current problems can be traced to the bipartisan capability to exclude "third voices". While there hasn't been a visible explosion, the ongoing gerrymandering has made local and Congressional politics less and less competitive. This has shifted electoral conflict generally toward the national stage, which is easier for the parties to manage in Iron Rule fashion.

The problems are manyfold:

1) As noted previously, our constitutionally specified methods of election strongly favor a two-party system.

2) This has been exaggerated by the fact that most of the states have gone over to awarding their electoral votes as a winner-take-all prize. That increases the power of (most of) the individual states, but it does nasty things to the overall dynamics of the presidential election.

3) Since the electoral system is specified in the national constitution, any attempt to alter it opens Pandora's box -- the whole Constitution would become a battleground, including the Bill Of Rights and later extensions. That's how the USA really could become a theocracy, or worse!

#78 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 04:59 PM:

Nicole, Kucinich is not a nutcase. It is therefore unsafe to pay attention to or repeat any of his positions-- people might vote for him.

#79 ::: Jennifer Barber ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 05:17 PM:

Kucinich is not a nutcase. It is therefore unsafe to pay attention to or repeat any of his positions--people might vote for him.

In fact, I've been trying to decide whether I want to do just that, simply for the novelty of voting for a presidential candidate I actually agree with on most of the issues, or vote for Edwards, who has somehow become my favourite of the three that actually might be able to win the nomination.

(Last time, I voted for Edwards in a desperate attempt to avoid ending up with Kerry. This time, I could actually vote for him, rather than against Obama and Clinton--both of whom I could live with as the final nominee--even if not as enthusiastically as I would vote for Kucinich if I thought he had even a slight chance of winning.)

#80 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 05:31 PM:

Jennifer Barber @78: I have had the pleasure of speaking with John Edwards, and was most impressed. He's the one I'll be voting for...

#81 ::: john ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 05:32 PM:

John Stevens at 61: Minor factual point - the current party of government in the UK is still plain Labour on ballot papers, in its constitution, and on its website (, unlinked to prevent spontaneous projectile vomiting. I count one "new Labour" in a slogan and eight plain "Labour" - nine counting the URI).

#82 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 05:52 PM:

I have heard it claimed by several people who've lived in Cleveland that Kucinich in person turns out not to be too bright, even though he's chosen a lot of good positions and is very good at repeating predigested arguments for them. (Mind you, at least that would make him a better president than Bush or any of the current Repugnican crop.) I don't feel I have any basis to judge if this is true or not, but it gives me some pause.

Are there any ML readers in Cleveland who can take objection to the claim or agree with it? I'd prefer an intelligent president who can deal with unexpected crises, and whatever you think of Obama, Edwards, or Clinton, it's clear all three of them are sharp as razors.

#83 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 10:56 PM:

Keir@58: The Greens have wrung various policy concessions out of Labour, while remaining out of government.

So in the US, your choice of party is very constrained, especially in very liberal or conservative areas,
For presidential elections, perhaps. But the tripartite system means that representatives can shift with the area's politics -- Massachusetts' last few Republican representatives were rather to the left of some then-Democrats. (The same applies to governors -- MA's 1990-96 was a Republican so liberal that the Republican chair of the Senate committee on ambassadorial appointments wouldn't even schedule his hearing.)

BTW, my apologies for the term "crank"; it was excessive.

#84 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2008, 11:58 PM:

Don't forget also that the current Presidential election is NOT electing the entire government. Only about 1/3 of the Senate are due.

(OK looks like 35 seats in the Senate (23R, 12D) 2 of them are special elections, not for the full 6 year term)

All of the House is up for re-election. But they're always up for re-election. Representative elections are often much more about local issues than national. Local in the sense of what did my Rep do for me recently, and could some other Rep do better for me.
Of course, "all politics are local."

#85 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2008, 12:01 AM:

Well, Kucinich is my congressman, and I don't get the impression he's lacking anything in the intellectual department. He might not be Mensa material, but then again, neither are a lot of people in office.

Just my $.02, FWIW.

#86 ::: myrthe ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2008, 12:05 AM:

Mez @ 54 "Sometimes they took a lead from innovations in the Dominions."

I understand Blair's New Labour borrowed heavily from our Hawke/Keating era Labor party. This fails to fill me with nationalistic pride.

#87 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2008, 12:14 AM:

The Greens abstain on confidence votes, and in return Labour implements various Green policies.

The Greens don't get a Minister in cabinet (or out), and they don't get tied up in the Opposition's attacks on Labour, but they do get their policies passed.

#88 ::: myrthe ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2008, 12:26 AM:

CHip@55, 83 Yes, minor parties get their influence through major party attempts to assemble a majority, usually by horse-trading provisions in the current Bill or quid-pro-quo on future votes. AIUI it's the same way things get done in the U.S. House or Senate.

You mentioned the deals Israeli Labor have done to achieve majority. Agreed. Seems to me an unhandled weakness in many democratic systems is that major parties* will be so heavily focused on opposing other major parties that they will prefer doing deals with the smallest competitor possible, even if that means lending weight to some pretty extreme views. (Example Australian Labor giving preferences to the 'ultra-right' One Nation or Family First parties). that needn't be the case.

*or blocs, factions or what have you.

#89 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2008, 07:53 AM:

#myrthe #86, <hangs head>, well, yes, <shuffle> that is one of the more recent examples I'm not swelled with pride about either. OTOH, I don't *think* Oz, NZ/Aotearoa, Canada or Serth Effrica are called Dominions within the Empire/Commonwealth any more. It was more along the lines of secret ballots or the stepwise advance towards universal suffrage (remember not all men could vote, just owners of property), or redistribution of seats to represent population (no pocket or rotten boroughs).

BTW, is your name here, myrthe, a reference to the Myrtaceae, of which the Eucalypts and other important Australasian genera are such grand examples?

Earl #70: "Why would a Prime Minister ever, ever, voluntarily relinquish power at all?" Some of our last few PMs from both major parties have shown examples of how difficult it can be for them to hand over to a successor from their own group. Some speculate that if John Winston Howard had been replaced as PM by his party, that the 'new face' effect of Kevin Rudd as Opposition leader wouldn't have been so powerful. I suspect that it would not have prevented the change of government without some other Tampa-like incident to exploit.

#90 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2008, 08:52 PM:

To me it seems as if there's very little effective choice in the system. I.e you're being asked to choose between Coke and Pepsi and there's not an even semi-effective way of getting Fanta, what then milk or water.
Usually, this is a fairly good analogy.

This particular year we're being asked to choose between Coke and strychnine. Which makes it a bit odd when people point out that Coke is basically empty calories and don't you know caffeine is addictive?

#91 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2008, 04:49 AM:

Yeah but Coke Zero is the front runner. Whoever that is.

#92 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2008, 08:58 AM:

#76 Nicole: Fair enough. I haven't looked into his positions much, but maybe I should. What I have seen reading a couple debate transcripts didn't exactly blow me away.

#90 Chris: Yeah, I'd say that's a pretty fair analogy. Do you want something bad for you in the long run, or something that'll do you in today?

The really creepy part of this is, one of those guys is going to be the Republican nominee. Even this year, if the Democrat self-destructs in some spectacular dead girl/live boy fashion, or if issues just turn against the Democrats, that guy will end up as president. We're looking at a significant chance of Huckabee or even Giuliani as president, with all that implies. (Maybe this is my warped perception, but I don't see any change that the nominee will be RP, both because his positions aren't popular among the Repubs, and because essentially all the powerful people in the party are against him.)

#93 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2008, 10:30 AM:

Also, a PM might not have a majority of the Commons behind him - he just has to be the leader of the largest party. Labour PM James Callaghan (77-79) didn't, and allied with the Liberals and the Ulster Unionists in order to get legislation through. He eventually lost a vote of no confidence.

Incidentally, the last PM from the Lords was more recent than Halifax: Alec Douglas Home in the 1960s was a peer when he became PM, though he later joined the Commons.

#94 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2008, 01:29 PM:

> a PM might not have a majority of the Commons behind him - he just has to be the leader of the largest party

He doesn't have to have a majority of the Commons in his party, but if he can't get an alliance with majority support behind him, he won't last long (as with your example). And AIUI, at least in theory the PM needn't be the leader of the largest party, if a coalition of smaller parties has more support collectively than a single larger opposition party.

#95 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2008, 07:07 PM:

The PM must (a) be an MP and (b) enjoy the confidence of the House.

Beyond that there's no restriction, other than custom. To take a NZ case, if Jim Anderton (leader of Jim Anderton's Progressives - 1 MP) was still Deputy Prime Minister, and Clark died, it's entirely possible he could take over as PM, and that wouldn't offend any constitutional convention. It might be a bit unlikely, and he might not stay there long, but it could happen.

In FPP parliaments, normally the leader of the larger Party is given first shot, but it's conceivable in an MMP parliament that three parties with 1/5th of the seats each could form a government over a party with 2/5ths.

#96 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2008, 10:46 PM:

Keir@87: if the Green vote on confidence matters, how did Labour assemble a government in the first place? Either they have a majority without the Greens, or they're going down Real Soon Now -- at least in a standard parliamentary government; your 93 suggests that somehow a government can form without a majority if the minorities can't get it together, which is ... unusual.

#97 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2008, 03:26 AM:

Chip @96. Don't know about the situation in NZ, but for one whole term of 4 years (1991-1995), the Greiner & Fahey Liberal/National Party coalition operated as minority governments in the State of New South Wales. (See some details accessible from the NSW Parliament site NSW Political History page.)
I think after the 1991 election when the 'balance of power' situation became clear, the two major parties each negotiated with the independent members to try and get their support to form government – they then took the agreement to the State Governor, who agreed that they seemed to have a workable majority.

Unfortunately I can't quickly find the actual numbers from the Electoral Commission. In the Legislative Assembly (lower house) there were 4 independent members; I think if 3 of them voted with either of the two major groups (Liberal/National or Labor) that side would win. Even if some of them abstained from voting, it could mean giving victory on a bill or confidence motion to a particular side. The members from each party would very seldom not "vote at their party's call".

Rather more recently, I vaguely remember there being a situation in South Australia where one single independent lower house member held the balance of power. (Somewhere in the large PDF, Statistical Record of the Legislature 1836 to 2007, there may be some hints about it.)

#98 ::: Steven Brust ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2008, 06:53 PM:

Patrick #66: "but if you're going to do electoral politics, and you're serious about getting anything done, the two parties are where the real decisions are sorted."

So, Patrick, which are you? A Federalist, or a Whig?

#99 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2008, 10:02 AM:

Okay, put me in the same bucket as Dave Luckett with regard to the whole "what the [expletive] is going on over there?" question. I read all these explanations of the US system, and I wind up more confused than when I started.

So here's my list of things that are confusing me. The bits in parentheses at the front refer to the posts I'm referring to in each item.

1) (JESR @38) I don't understand why the general public are voting for people like judges, coroners, school boards, attorneys-general, treasurers and similar. In the Australian system, the appointment of people like coroners and school boards is something which is a public service job, and therefore gets handled by the State public service as required - appointees tend to be chosen based on their skills for the job. The Attorney-General and Treasurer are both government posts, and they're therefore given to elected representatives of the party in power. The position of Treasurer is usually reserved for the second-in-command to the Premier (or Prime Minister, on the Federal level). However, each of the departments these people oversee is staffed by public servants, and the head of the Department of the Treasury is a career public servant who has probably worked with masters from each side of the political fence.

2) (Debra Doyle @37) Okay, it's hard to explain this without getting into the whole "all y'all are just plumb strange" territory too - a bit like having to explain what colour blue is. So, I'll start with the basics: politically, I'm a part of a town, a state and a country, and I have representatives at each of those levels. Some of those levels overlap in certain areas (for example, health care is a site of overlap between country and state governments; planning decisions is a site of overlap between state and local governments). Where there's an overlap, one side may say X, while the other side says Y (an example might be the way our state planning minister is busy trying to have a local council decision on how tall beachfront buildings in my local area are going to be - the local council says "3 stories max", the state is busy trying for 12) and the issue will remain deadlocked until one side or the other shifts position (or an election changes the players).

Then there's the party layer on top of things - for example, my federal representative at the moment is the deputy leader of the Liberal party at the Federal level. Given I gave her my *last* preference in the past election, she doesn't represent my views - but then again, I was outvoted by the other people in my federal electorate. Her party is in opposition, which means she'll be voting against government measures a lot of the time, by default (and this is a Good Thing, since it means the government of the day has to try to appeal to a broader issues base than just their own party in order to get legislation passed). In the senate, there are twelve senators who represent my state. Of them, six are in the opposition party, four are in the government party, and two are members of a smaller party. If I was going to be lobbying my senators, I'd concentrate on the ones where my efforts would do some good - the two from the smaller party. The votes of the other ten are already decided, but those two aren't necessarily set yet. This is where the smaller parties have an advantage in the Australian system - they can often be the key to deciding whether or not a piece of legislation passes.

I'm sure I'm not doing a good job of explaining this to anyone - this is the first time I've even tried to do so. To me it seems reasonably logical, sensible and practical (well, as much as anything political can acquire those qualities) but then, I've grown up in this system.

3) (Terry Karney @42) Ah! This makes some sense of things for me. In the Australian system, there's an unspoken understanding that a cabinet minister will *also* be representing their electorate, as well as representing their particular party. Most of the day-to-day "head of department" functions are performed by a career public servant, someone who has worked with people from both sides of politics, and will continue to ensure the department remains fairly party-neutral. Our equivalents of the Head of the FCC and EPA are both career public servants, reporting to the ministers for Communication and the Arts (in the first case) and The Environment (in the second).

4) Could someone correct me if I'm wrong, but does the US system have a position congruent to "Leader of the Opposition" anywhere in the workings? I get the strong impression this isn't the case.

5) Just to correct Mez (@54) and Dave Luckett (@14), the Australian Constitution does have mention of political parties. It was added by referendum following the mess of the Whitlam Dismissal. The mention is in the section about "Casual Senate Vacancies" (eg those caused by a senator dying while in office), and specifies that the replacement chosen by the senator's state has to be of the same party as the original senator (which could cause problems if an independent drops dead between elections). Given the whole Whitlam dismissal mess was caused by the (National Country Party) state government of Queensland replacing a deceased Labor senator with a Liberal, who then gave the conservatives in the senate enough votes to be able to block supply, it was a necessary alteration. It's also one of the eight out of forty or so referenda which have been held since Federation to have actually passed.

Our constitution also mentions the office of the Prime Minister, although mostly in a ceremonial context. If someone only read the constitution of Australia, they'd probably assume the country was governed by the Governor-General as a near-dictator. However, the massive structure of British parliamentary conventions was assumed to be part of general knowledge among the political classes - and those conventions make it very clear that the actual power rests with the Prime Minister, and the monarch (or their representative) is just a figurehead.

6) (Debra Doyle @48) I think this might be a reflection of cultural difference. In Australia, at least, we have compulsory turnout - you have to show up at a polling place and receive your ballot paper, or you face a fine. Registering to vote is pretty much a given when you're eighteen, and voter registration is handled by electoral commissions, which are politically neutral public service bodies. Everyone here is expected to vote, and there's a lot of effort put into ensuring that voter registration is up-to-date in the year or so preceeding an election.

Not much of the Australian population is involved directly in politics or in matters political. Not many people are members of political parties of any stripe. My own politics tend toward the left and the green, but I don't plan on joining either the ALP or the Australian Greens any time soon - to do so, in my mind, would be tantamount to admitting I have political aspirations of my own. Politicians being regarded as something of a parasitic lifeform in Australian popular culture, it's not something I plan on. Political choices over here are regarded as a personal matter, rather than being anyone else's business. This may be why the US system, with the assumption that a potential voter will declare for one party or another when they enrol to vote, strikes me as being a tad on the strange side of things.

#100 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2008, 11:19 AM:

Meg @99 -- maybe someone with more expertise will come along, but I'm here and awake and I'll do my best.

#1: As with so many many things in the US, this varies state-to-state. My impression is that the number of positions which are directly elected is somewhat correlated with the newness of the state.

The state I grew up in (Oklahoma), which was the 46th or 50 current states (1907), has a truly impressive number of electoral bodies -- besides the ones you mentioned, there's the Corporation Comission (regulates utilities), the Insurance Commission, and I don't know what all. Much of the cabinet is also directly elected.

That came out of the progressive movement of the early 20th century which tried to address corruption and cronyism through the magic of democracy. Whether the trade-offs were worth it is a good question indeed.

2. The multiple layers is pretty much like the US, except that in some sense the states and the federal government are the only "real" layers. The smaller layers operate under delegated authority from the states, and the states could (and sometimes do) muck around in what would seem to be their internal affairs.

There are also more layers and more overlap, at least some places.

I'm part of a town, a county, a water district, a smog control district (that's not the real name, but I can't remember it right now), a school district, and a country. At previous locations, I've also been in library districts, fire control districts, ambulance districts and hospital districts. Most of those have some kind of independent control board for which I could vote and many of them had taxing authority of some sort.

4. You're basically right; there's no obvious unified leadership office for the party out of power. There are "minority leader" positions in the houses of congress, but they're house-specific, and correspond more closely with the majority leader position than the President.

There's also the head of the opposition party committee, but that's usually a consultant or advisor-type, not an actual politician. The only counter-example I can think of offhand is Haley Barbour who was head of the Republican National Committee in the 1990s and now is now governor of Mississippi.

That lack probably contributes some to our drawn-out Presidential primary system.

#101 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2008, 05:42 PM:

Mitt has just picked up Nevada for another 16 delegates.

#102 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 08:42 AM:

This is the thread for non-Americans who don't understand the US system, right?

I have a question. It might well be a stupid question that's obvious to people who understand the system.

At the 2000 election, when the Republican staffers rioted and broke up the recount in Florida, Teresa said this was the action of people who didn't ever expect to be called into question for their actions, people who would never lose power. And for the last seven years, a particular set of people have had power, and done things with it worse than we could have imagined. These people have been behind Bush and his administration, and some of them have been in it. They're not about to let go of power.

Who is their candidate for 2008?

#103 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 09:20 AM:

Jo Walton@102

Basically, they don't seem to have united behind a single candidate yet.

They'll probably eventually fall in line behind either Romney or McCain.

#104 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 09:40 AM:

Jo 102: If we knew that, we could mobilize against him, which I suspect is why we don't. Since McCain burned his honor on the altar of his ambition and started sucking up to the Bushistas, it could be him. But I can't rule out Romney either.

I think we can safely rule out Huckabee. I think the Bushistas wear a conservative Christian mask, but the real Christian conservatives, even the Christo-fascists like Huckabee, scare them.

Finally, I'm not entirely sure they have one. In 2000, it looked like the permanent Republican majority that some GOP operatives were publicly proclaiming might actually endure. At this point I don't think any but the most fanatical still believe in it (and they would have to believe that the current Congressional majority is a temporary blip).

There's a theory that the smart GOP candidates are sitting this one out, that the candidates running now are sacrifices, because no one really believes the GOP will keep the White House this time around. The bill for the debts incurred under Bush the Prodigal Son will come due under the next administration, and they want the Democrats to pay it.

So this fall's election won't end the fight. We're going to have to keep reminding everyone over the next four years that the terrible things that will be happening to us are the fault of the GOP, not the people who will (I hope and believe) be in power then. Unfortunately, the usual pattern is that that doesn't work, because Americans have short memories.

We fight on.

#105 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 10:46 AM:

I suspect their candidate is Romney, but they'll fall in line behind McCain if they can get one of their men into the VP slot. (I don't think McCain, if elected, will last through one term - he'll be 25th Amendmented out.) Watch where those two are getting their funding from.

It's easier to see which ones are not part of the group: Huckabee and Giuliani. I'd wager that they thought Giuliani to be the greater threat, as he'd insist that he, not them, be the decision maker. They had to take him out early; and, so we now see him down in the 5% or lower range. Huckabee, however, was a surprise to them. After years of expecting the fundies to follow along after the dog whistles, they couldn't imagine the fundies would find their own candidate and actually vote for him.

#106 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 10:53 AM:

Todd @ 100

California does something like that, but I think there may be more appointed boards than in OK. (We got a major remodeling of state government in the early 20th century (Hiram Johnson) which changed a lot of stuff. Not always for the better, I suspect.) I think our coroners are civil service, but the DAs are elected, as well as the judges (we get to confirm their continuance in office, at least).
I don't know how the AQMD (or the LA transit agency) board is chosen, but I think they're appointed by elected officials when they aren't already elected (mayors, county supervisors).

#107 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 11:11 AM:

Jon #105:

I'm pretty sure RuPaul is also not their guy, given his positions. I think the Bush administration has broken the Republican coalition, and it may be that nobody's sure how to glue it back together again. I expect hate and fear to be the main techniques, since love and mutual respect ain't there anymore. You can't get the evangelicals, the paleoconservatives, the fiscal conservatives, the free market/liberatarian types, and the neocons to like each other or believe they're all on the same side anymore, but you can at least get them all really worked up about The Evil Hillary who's gonna go to socialized medicine, push the Gay Agenda[1], help the Scary Brown and Black Minorities[2], yield to the Islamofacist hordes, etc.

[1] These damned Democrats just want to make you *happy*.

[2] Except those named "Barrack."

#108 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 11:37 AM:

Adding my speculations to those expressed in 103, 104, 105, 107: I think the establishment candidate is Romney. I think McCain and Huckabee are pretty terrifying to the power brokers; they're both pretty independent, plus Huck has that whole God thing going. (Romney's God thing is not so scary because it's very controlled, very... Republican.) But a Romney/Huckabee ticket would please no one but the religious right and might not even please them, they don't like Romney. McCain is too wild and too old to be safe anywhere, besides, I don't think he'd accept the VP spot. But I could be wrong about that. Romney/McCain is a bad fit, especially on immigration, but also on torture, plus I don't think McCain would accept the VP spot. I'm having trouble seeing a VP candidate. Romney/Giuliani? Ugh. Romney/DeLay? Eeew.

Albatross, I think the only way Rs win this time is by propaganda and Dirty Tricks on a scale which will make the Kerry Swiftboating look like hearts and flowers, and that degree of venom against even Hillary Clinton might backfire. It depends how ugly it gets -- the country might finally say, Okay, we've had enough. No bets, though.

#109 ::: Ronit ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 01:31 PM:

For what it's worth: Rush Limbaugh has been attacking Huckabee and McCain all week.

So whoever is pulling his strings* is presumably backing Romney. Whether that reflects part or all of the Republican establishment's feelings on the matter is unclear.

*Oxycodone joke here

#110 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2008, 10:33 PM:

So here's a question I've been thinking about since November of 2006, triggered by Jo@102: Yes, the Republicans were acting like people who never expected to lose power or be called to account for their actions...but is it possible that they weren't actually intending to dismantle democracy, but instead were simply arrogant, foolish, and shortsighted?

#111 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2008, 11:06 AM:

Here in Georgia, Huckabee is currently ahead in the polls among Republicans. Since we're a Mega Tuesday state, Huckabee is looking to pick us up.

Bill and Barack are currently competing in the blacker than thou stakes here (thanks to Andy Young who proclaimed Bill blacker than Barack).

#112 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2008, 08:08 AM:

David Goldfarb @ #110:

Hanlon's Razor -- "Do not attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence" -- may be trumped by Grey's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice."

#113 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2008, 09:08 AM:

David #110:

Nah. If they were arrogant, shortsighted and foolish, surely that would have been apparent in their seven years of power so far.

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