BRITISH & AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY
C. MAJORITARIAN DEMOCRACY & CONSENSUS DEMOCRACY
What is the basic difference between majoritarian democracy and consensus democracy? How does British majoritarian democracy differ from American consensus democracy?
1. The Constitutional Bias of the Governmental System:
The difference between majoritarian democracy and consensus democracy lies in the constitutional bias of the governmental system. A majoritarian democracy is constitution- ally biased toward quick decisionmaking and action by a democratically elected majority in the government. A consensus democracy is constitutionally biased toward operation of numerous checks and balances, making necessary delay and prolonged debate, deliberation, negotiation, bargaining, and compromise before the government can resolve highly controversial issues of public policy.
2. Majoritarian Democracy (UK):
The British system of government, a majoritarian democracy, operates on the principle of straight majority rule. The governmental system is geared for quick and easy political decisionmaking by a popular majority and its elected representatives in the government. The governmental system is geared for (1) quick decisionmaking and action by the voters in a single national election and (2) quick decisionmaking and action by a united, highly disciplined party majority in the legislature, led and managed by its legislative leadership group, which is also the top executive authority in the government.
In British elections, formation of an electoral coalition consisting of a national majority is generally a fairly easy and rapid process. That national majority coalition quickly and easily places its political leadership--i.e., its elected representatives--in complete control of the institutional machinery of authoritative decisionmaking and action on matters of national public policy, giving one political party (1) a clear majority of the seats in the lower, more powerful house of the national legislature and (2) the legitimate right to control the executive as well as legislative organs of government.
In short, the majority of the British voters, in a single national election, elect a majority of the members of the House of Commons, and the Commons majority, in effect, chooses the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members. The voters choose the lower and, more powerful chamber of Parliament, which, in turn, chooses the top executive authority, the Cabinet.
Since the House of Lords lacks authority to amend or veto a money bill and the House of Commons can easily override the Lords' amendment or veto of a non-money bill, the majority in the Commons can enact into law any measure it pleases, except, of course, to the extent it limits itself by observing the conventions of the Constitution. As long as the party majority in the House of Commons holds together and the party continues to be victorious in national elections, the party platform can, without difficulty, be translated into public policy.
In other words, a majority of the British voters, in a national election, gives its elected representatives and political leaders a clear and unambiguous mandate to govern, unim- peded by any need to negotiate, bargain, and compromise with elements of the minority party. The victorious, majority party is put in the position where it can take complete charge of the government, where the party can quickly and easily make and carry out the authoritative, binding decisions of government, exercising this political authority in the service of the interests, views, and ideology of the majority party and its supporters.
The positions of the majority and minority parties, however, can be quickly reversed. As the consequence of a single national election, complete control of the legislative and executive organs of British government could pass from the Labor Party, the current majority and ruling party, to the Conservative Party, which is the main opposition party at the present. One election could change the status of the Conservative Party from that of "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" to that of the majority party, having obtained from the voters a clear and unambiguous mandate to govern British society, to take complete charge and exercise political authority in the service of the interests, views, and ideology of the new majority party and its supporters.
Most contemporary constitutional democracies are, in varying degrees, majoritarian democracies.
3. Consensus Democracy (USA):
The American system of government, a consensus democracy, was carefully designed to delay majority decisionmaking and action, to prevent quick and easy decisionmaking by a majority of the voters and their elected representatives in the government.
The constitutional structure of American national government was designed to (1) provide for a division and balance of power among three separate and largely independent policy- making organs of government--the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the Presidency, (2) provide the three organs of government with different constituencies-- constituencies with varying and competing interests, (3) necessitate the concurrence (consent, or approval) of all three governmental organs to secure the adoption and implementation of highly controversial decisions on national public policy, and (4) prevent quick and easy governmental decisionmaking by simple majority vote of the voters' elected representatives. This constitutional structure makes authoritative decisionmaking and action on highly controversial policy questions dependent upon the ability and willingness of the separate and largely independent organs of the national government to bargain and compromise with each orther and to accomodate the differing and competing interests they represent. The central purpose of the system is to safeguard minority rights and the general interests of the national political community by making something more than acceptance by a simple majority of the nation's voters and their elected representatives the precondition for adoption and implementation of controversial policy decisions likely to adversely affect the vital interests of one or more politically significant minorities. What the system requires for authoritative decisionmaking and action on controversial issues of national policy is consensus--widespread agreement among the various elements of American society, rather than simple majority approval.
In the U.S.A., the constitutional structure of the national government, the federal character of the relationships between the national government and the states, long-standing political practices, important characteristics of American political culture, and the pluralistic nature of American society combine to create an electoral system which (1) prevents quick and easy formation of a nationwide electoral majority and (2) makes it extremely difficult for such an electoral coalition to attain sufficient strength and unity and win in enough constitu- encies to place complete control of the legislative and executive organs of the national government in the hands of the leadership of a single cohesive, highly disciplined political party. It is virtually impossible for the leadership elite of an electoral coalition consisting of a simple majority of the nation's voters to secure tight party control over all the major policy decisionmaking institutions of the national government, as the result of victory in a single national election. The electoral system makes it very very difficult for an electoral coalition comprising a slim but clear popular majority to provide its political leadership with sufficient popular and legislative support to give it a clear and unimpeded mandate to govern American society--a mandate that would enable the leadership of the national popular majority to easily and quickly translate the majority party program into national public policy, make and enforce authoritative, binding decisions which serve the interests of the slim national majority, and easily override the objections of any minorities perceiving these decisions as seriously jeopardizing their rights and vital interests.
A single political party cannot gain complete control of the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. national government by winning a majority of the seats in one chamber of the national legislature--say, in the U.S. House of Representatives. In order to obtain control of the Presidency and the Congress, a newly formed major party, or the existing major party that heretofore has been the normal minority in national elections, would have to win in a series of elections held at different times over a period of many years. In this series of elections, the party would need to win and hold on to the Presidency and a clear majority of the seats in the U.S. Senate as well as in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has taken the Republic Party more than sixty years to get anywhere close to gaining--and maintaining, on a continuing, longterm basis--simultaneous contrrol of the Presidency and the two chambers of Congress and thereby replacing the Democratic Party as the normal national majority in the U.S.A.
Even when a single political party has won the office of President and slim but clear majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives--as the Democrats frequently did in elections held during the period from 1932 to 1994, and as the Republicans did in elections held during the earlier period from 1860 to 1932--the result has never been unimpeded government by one cohesive, highly disciplined political party and its leadership elite. To make majoritarian party government work in the American constitutional system, the President and the House and Senate majorities would have to hold together, tightly and continuously. They would need to be strongly predisposed to closely work together as a single tightly-knit political team, cooperating with and mutually supporting one another in a joint effort to govern the nation, resolving their differences behind closed doors in party caucus, and always displaying in public the image of being a united party with a coherent program and plan of action. Production of a national leadership team of this nature and degree of cohesion is virtually impossible to accomplish, due to important features of America's political culture, weak and decentralized political parties, and wide variations in the group and regional interests which make up the three different national majorities--the presidential majority, the Senate majority, and the House majority.
Three of the principal power centers in the national government--House of Representa- tives, Senate, and Presidency--share the national legislative authority, the consent of all three institutions usually being required for the enactment of national legislation. A slim majority in either chamber of Congress can block the passage of legislation supported by a majority (no matter how large) in the other chamber. And the President has a very strong veto over legislative bills passed by the two houses of Congress--a veto which, when exercised under normal conditions, cannot easily be overriden by Congress. In short, each of the three governmental organs has the constitutional authority to oppose, block, check, and counteract the others by withholding its consent to proposed decisions on national legislative policy.
Since the President, Senate, and House of Representatives have different constituencies with varying and competing interests, the three power centers have strong incentives as well as the constitutional right to oppose and thwart one another. Consequently, debate and deliberation on proposed legislation are prolonged. Legislative decisionmaking is slowed down and often brought to a halt. The adoption of authoritative decisions on highly contro- versial issues of public policy requires negotiation, bargaining, and compromise among the three governmental organs and the interests they represent. Many different interests must be taken into consideration and accomodated. Failure to compromise and accomodate results in "gridlock."
In summary, the American governmental system is a consensus democracy--the type of constitutional democracy that operates to prevent quick and easy majority decisionmaking and action. The governmental system in the U.S.A. functions to prevent quick and easy decisionmaking and action by the nation's voters, making it virtually impossible for a simple majority of the electorate, as a result of victory in a single national election, to give one unified, highly disciplined political party complete control of the major policymaking institutions of the national government and enable that party to exercise its will, unhin- dered, in all important areas of national public policy. The numerous checks and balances which characterize the governmental system slowdown and make difficult decisionmaking and action by a majority of the voters' elected representatives in the national government. The system of checks and balances, or balanced government, necessitates delay and prolonged debate, deliberation, negotiation, bargaining, and compromise before the nation- al government can resolve highly controversial issues of public policy. The government must do significantly more than satisfy a simple majority of the electorate nationwide; the government must take into consideration and accomodate the interests and views of many different segments of American society. The American system requires the support of a consensus--rather than simple majority approval--for adoption and implementation of governmental decisions on controversial questions of national public policy.
The American constitutional system was designed to safeguard individual liberties and the welfare of the entire political society against the possibility of a self-interested and over- bearing majority emerging within the nation, acquiring complete control of the national government, exercising unchecked and overriding political power, and ruling American society in a tyrannical, or despotic, fashion. The constitutional system was intended to operate to prevent "tyranny of the majority," or"majoritarian dictatorship."
The governmental system in the U.S.A. is the prime example of a contemporary consensus democracy. As we have seen, the British political regime and most other constitutional democracies in the world today are majoritarian democracies.