Parliamentary elections are upon us – in the United States this fall, in Austria and Germany next year. We don’t need prophetic qualities to predict that voter participation will likely be low, as it was for instance in France this spring, and that one of the most persistent discussions will inevitably focus on the disinterest of the people in parliamentary democracy and in the elected officials whose job it is to represent their interests. The term “political querulousness” only scrapes the surface of the problem. The decision to abstain from voting can have many causes, and a sense of querulousness about the poor performance record of parliamentarians is only one of many possible explanations.
Parliamentary rule is based on an idea that probably never matched reality and from which social realities have increasingly diverged. The idea says that the political interests and goals of any given voter can be reduced to a core set of beliefs. It is posited that these beliefs result from the position of the individual within society. It’s a rather Marxist belief: being determines consciousness and usually refers to an individual’s economic situation, i.e. to the question of how someone earns one’s keep.
All political interests and goals of a worker are seemingly rooted in his or her being a member of the working class, regardless of whether foreign policy or the politics of culture are concerned. This assumption has always been flawed, but it successfully survived as a political trope until a few decades ago. Now, it has become completely redundant against the backdrop of a pluralistic society.
Yet political parties still adhere to the old idea, despite a few minor modifications. They have abandoned the belief that a voter’s economic situation is directly linked to political allegiance, but they still embrace the idea that their respective party platforms can be reduced to one central thesis that spells out the core of Left or conservative or liberal or Green politics, and from which we can somehow derive concrete policy proposals for a wide range of political issues.
The only way to save this idea from absurdity is to reduce the scope of politics to a few core issues – the exact opposite of what is happening in the world. Every question that excites public opinion is quickly turned into a political question: should callers pay for time spent on hold when calling consumer hotlines? Should smoking be allowed in restaurants? Should we be able to make an autonomous decision to end our own life? We don’t even ask what criteria have to be satisfied so that a question of public interest becomes political in a narrow sense of the word. Agreement exists only insofar as we demand regulatory solutions that are as detailed as possible and cover the full range of imaginable cases and exceptions.
It is illusionary to believe that the way we mark our ballots – this party or that one, this candidate or the other – will lead to satisfactory outcomes for the voter, given the range of political issues. It is thus not surprising that many abstain from exercising their franchise. No clever ads, no TV debates, and no amount of popular appeal of candidates will induce a substantial number of non-voters to venture out to the polling station on election day.
To remove the basic flaws of parliamentary democracy, we probably need fewer reforms than one might think, but we must be willing to question basic paradigms that have long stood as the cornerstones of our political system. The election threshold clause – which restricts parliamentary representation in European countries with party-list proportional representation systems to parties that win more then a certain percentage of the popular vote in an election – is one such paradigm. For decades, its proponents have stressed its importance for the formation of stable governments. But the most immediate consequence of the clause’s abolition would be an increase in the range of opinions and interests that are represented in parliament. The will of the people would be reflected much more accurately than under a four- or five-party system.
But would such a country still be governable? If we look closely, it becomes evident that parliamentary rule could be much more dynamic – but no less stable than today – if it truly embraced the idea of popular representation. Of course, parliaments must elect a government that can act as the executive branch and realize the decisions of the legislature. But why don’t we pursue the idea of shifting majorities that can coalesce around different issues, free from the constraints of the party line, and that simply task the government with instituting the laws that are passed?
This process of decision-making would automatically yield simpler, clearer laws: parliamentarians would suddenly have to understand the laws they vote on (instead of relying on party committees to write and vet the bills). Not each individual case would be regulated (as is the case with current bureaucratic bills that are introduced into parliament by party committees or cabinet ministers). Instead, laws would only outline basic premises. Parliamentary discussions would be limited to topics that are truly political.
We can imagine many ways to make our political system more reflective of a pluralistic society. New proposals must be discussed, intensely and profoundly, without self-imposed taboos and without fear of radical change. Resistance will be high because political elites have much to lose. But democratic society has much more to gain: the legitimacy of its political organization.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Idle Knowledge