Can Politicians Compromise?


Should the wing nuts (that’s right-wing nuts and left-wing nuts for you, Dutch readers) have less say in the elections? Or More? How does that work in the Dutch parliamentary system?

The other day my neighbor M and I had a Facebook conversation on American and Dutch political representation. My last post was the beginning of this conversation, with me shamelessly expanding on my Facebook comments. In this post my answer to his first follow-up question.

M: A parliamentary system with multiple parties represented does hasvesome advantages over the current U.S. system. But that doesn’t address the issue I was questioning. If you still vote strictly for whoever demonstrates the most blind loyalty to the top special issue that you support, you do not get the best, most experienced, competent and thoughtful people elected into government. In fact, you can sometimes get extremely radical minorities having excessive influence as governments try to put together a 50%+ majority on votes.

To put it another way with an example: if 50.01% of the voters think the tax rate should be 30%, and 49.99% think it should be 34%, I would like a system that either (1) chooses a 32% compromise, or much better (2) chooses a tax rate somewhere in that general range based on a detailed in-depth study by experienced competent people of what is best in the current situation. I suspect that we no longer have a government that does either in practice. (i.e. it fails to pass any budget / tax plan because of an inability to find a reasonable compromise that 60% of the senate will vote for).

Me: There are two things I need to explain more about the parliamentary system.

First: Each party has it’s own platform, with its stances on all the issues it finds important, and how it would deal with them. Most parties will address the economy, education, transportation, foreign affairs, healthcare, the environment, crime, etc, in greater or lesser detail.

There are always some one-issue or one-demographic parties that come and go, like the Partij van Huiseigenaren (homeowners party, 1920), the Artiestenpartij (artists party, 1922), the Partij van Ongehuwden (party of unmarried persons, 1966), the Werklozenpartij (party for the unemployed, ?) and the Partij voor de dieren (party for the animals, 2002 – ), to name just a few, and they get proportional representation. Often that means one or two seats in parliament, if even that. The same goes for the most right-wing parties and the most left-wing parties.

(What usually ends up happening to the very smallest parties is that they merge with like-minded small parties to make a smallish party. For instance, in 1991, the Pacifistisch Socialische Partij (pacifist socialist party), the CPN (the communist party), and the two progressive Christian parties Politieke Partij Radikalen (political radical party) and the Evangelische Volkspartij (evangelical people’s party) merged to form Groen Links (green left), a party with heavy emphasis on peace politics, the environment and social justice. A merger like that by necessity makes each separate group expand its horizons a bit, since they have to work together.)

It’s exactly because in a multi-party system no party is trying to get 50%+ of the vote (that would be futile), that extremists do not have excessive influence. If the Tea Party were an actual party, it would be relatively small and its influence would be equal to its size, whereas now it has hijacked the entire Republican Party, i.e. half the country.

So, in short, most of the parties address all the issues, describing where they stand on each of them.

The second part of M’s question was: Do the representatives vote with loyalty (not exactly blind) on the issues on the party agenda? Yes, but again, within reason, because the platform is decided by the members and it was the promise to the voters in the election. The politicians are accountable to the party members–and the voters in general who voted for the party.

Having said that, the platform is not a contract, hence my qualification within reason. Since Dutch politics is all about compromise, the representatives do need some room to maneuver. And sure, sometimes this leads to tensions between the representatives and the rest of the party, and occasionally, if it gets out of hand, someone quits or is asked to leave. After all, the members and the regular voters should still be able to recognize the party they voted for in the actions of the politicians.

Exactly how much leeway a party gives its representatives depends on the party. In general the more dogmatic parties to the left and right, by their very nature, are less willing to compromise than the parties in the middle. Not surprisingly, coalitions are usually formed among the four or five largest parties around the middle, which, by their nature, are more pragmatic.

If a country like the Netherlands, with a population of 16 million, has 20 to 30 parties at any one time, a country as large as America should have plenty of parties in a parliamentary system, so the government would always consist of a coalition, because no one party would get the majority vote.

So, can politicians compromise? In a multi-party system they have to.

My question to you: Do you think a multi-party system could ever be established in America, and if so, how?

Source for small party information: Repertorium kleine politieke partijen 1918 – 1967.

The next post in this series is about party platforms.

2 responses to “Can Politicians Compromise?

  1. Methinks Mr. Churchill said it best.. “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” That being acknowledged, it’s not likely anytime soon that the U.S. will adopt any two party system if for nothing else than the fact it’s more or less been this way since the founding fathers did the founding; the evolution of the system they help to found. I’m not suggesting we need to keep it this way “just because”, but rather our society and political ideology… and electoral system, is pretty much based on the two party system. In other words, for us it works.. or rather, it works for us. As governments go, each country devises their own concepts of being governed based upon their own social mores and perceptions of social order and personal freedoms they have learn to foster over the hundreds or thousands of years of their existence. To presume one might be “better” or more efficient than another is pure speculation. In your post you’ve mentioned a few times the parliamentary process. It’s likely pigs would fly sooner than the U.S. adopting such a style of government since our Constitution provides for three distinct levels of government… executive, judicial, and legislative… none subordinate to the other as one might find in certain parliamentary governments. Nonetheless, we are all democracies. Well, no.. the U.S. is by definition a republic; we elect our leaders who then make decisions for us. Far more efficient than letting 350 million people vote on whether or not our tax revenue should pay $500 for a simple hammer. As far as the ability to compromise in order to reach decisions… seems to be far less harder to compromise between two parties than trying to establish a “coalition of the willing” between 20 other parties toward one goal. Besides… the Dutch parliament is likely concerned with the health and welfare of its own citizens, as it should be. The U.S. is concerned with the health and welfare of the entire world… so pretty much little gets done where it needs to get done, and not enough gets done with those who want us to leave them alone anyway. The paradox to this is that for all the right or wrong that results from our political system the U.S. does manage to keep things in some level of balance. Toss a third political party into that mix and gawd knows what will happen to the world.


  2. All good points. Yeah, deep in my heart I know it could never happen, if only because the Republicans and Democrats would never let it happen. But it’s fun to argue over, though. One thing I don;t agree with is that it’s easier for two parties to compromise than a coalition. It’s pretty clear that the Republicans and Democrats don’t compromise. Sure, there used to be a few on each side that would, bu they’ve always been in the tiny minority. And if two parties are both fighting for the same votes, nothing ever happens.


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