What Sets the U.S. Apart from the Political Turmoil of Europe
By Daniel Corin
Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 @ 9:07PM
The efforts to change the Electoral-College vote has failed. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Still, Hillary Clinton’s supporters claim this is unfair because she received 2.8 million more votes.
Trump was elected President because of the unique way the United States elects its chief executive—not by popular vote, but through the constitutionally mandated Electoral College. In all but a handful of elections since 1788 – in 1888 and 2000 – a majority of the votes matched that of the Electoral College.
However, because the 2016 outcome occurred just six years since the last time, the losing parties have called for an end to the Electoral College and adopt a system where presidents are elected by popular vote, which a purer form of democracy—similar to many European countries.
But is the European system a good thing? Edmund Burke who called democracy “the most shameless thing in the world,” would have found ample evidence to his assertion in European politics.
On December 4th, Italy held a national referendum to approve or reject far ranging (and necessary) constitutional reforms. The Italians said no to the reforms. The rejection led to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s resignation and created a sense of economic insecurity within Italy and the European Union, causing stock markets throughout the continent to tumble.
This was the second time in six months that the head of a major European country stepped down after voters took to the polls to decide a major national policy change. In June, British voters agreed on a referendum to leave the EU, aka Brexit. Within days, British Prime Minister David Cameron—who opposed Brexit—resigned and Theresa May took over as Tory leader and moved into 10 Downing Street.
Such political instability is not new to Europe. Spain and Greece have experienced political instability over the past couple of years. Belgium went 589 days in 2010-11 without a government because the fractious political parties could not come to an agreement. And Italy has had 65 governments (an average of about one a year) since the end of the Second World War. Risk-averse European political leaders often refrain from making important but unpopular policy changes, out of fear of being ousted by a popular vote. And it is noteworthy that in the 20th Century Europe had seen the rise of tyrannies – the Nazi, fascist, communist, socialist and welfare statist alike, which were elected by the “popular majority.”
In contrast, not long ago, the U.S. has experienced the upheaval of the Vietnam War, Watergate, double-digit inflation, and a major financial crisis (to name a few). None has led to the political turmoil seen in Europe.
Why? What makes European democracies so unstable compared to the U.S.?
The main reason for the political stability in the U.S. is the fact that it is not a pure democracy. Rather, it is a federal republic governed by the U.S. Constitution. Unlike European democracies, political power in the U.S. is divided between the federal government and the states. Administrations do not come and go based on the whims of public opinion. It is the Constitution that codifies the length of terms for members of Congress and the president.
Another reason is the fact that federal policy in the U.S. is not made by national referendums. At the federal level, it is representatives of the people—not the people themselves—who have the power to form public policy. In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton defended the need for a representative government:
It was equally desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation…A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.
European governments are fraught with multiple political parties—none of which can garner the support of a majority of the voters. The results are fragile coalitions that break up at the first instance of political disagreement. The U.S. is different because it has the tradition of a two-party system, which ensures that Congress will always be ruled by a majority and not by a coalition of small parties. James MacGregor Burns explained the importance of the two-party system in The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America:
To operate properly majority rule required a reliable mechanism: a vigorous, competitive party, under strong leadership. To be sure, majority rule in one sense is not the same as a strong two-party system; the liquid, ever-changing majorities, embracing different coalitions, that form and re-from in a New England town meeting, a city council, or the French Assembly, can do so apart from durable party lines. But effective majority rule on a national scale in a continental nation demands a durable popular majority organized by a leader who can depend on his following in moments of need.
The President-Elect has a capital R (for Republican) next to his name. Thus, the Republican majority in Congress is compelled – whether they like it or not – to work with him because their political fate is tied to the success of the Republican in the White House. If the policy initiatives of the Republicans are a failure, voters will take it out on them in the mid-term elections in 2018—just as Republicans did in mid-term elections of 1994 and 2010; and the Democrats did in 2006.
Winning as a Republican and not as an independent, has given Trump the ability to govern—and to be held accountable by the voters. Given the divisiveness that Mr. Trump seems to cause, if he had won as an independent, and not as a Republican, it is unlikely he could have formed a governing coalition of Democrats and Republicans members of Congress to get any legislation he supported passed. It would have been gridlock from day one.
But the 18th Century concept of the Electoral College – enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – helps maintain the political stability that Americans take for granted. Thus, the election of the Donald Trump has not caused the same level of anxiety as the French had with the National Front’s Marine Le Pen or Beppe Grillo of the 5-Star Movement in Italy.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence says: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes.” The U.S. Constitution created a sense of “prudence” in the federal government, and prevented the types of political upheaval that have dominated Europe over the past century. So why tinker with the very thing that has ensured such stability? The rare outcome, like the ones that occurred with the 2000 and 2016 elections, does not rise to the level of a problem in need of radical change.
* Daniel Corin is a Fellow at the ACD.