A few days ago, my neighbor M and a few others and I were having a Facebook conversation about American politics and the pros and cons of the two-party system vs the multi-party system. In fact, it’s still going on. But I wanted to share some of it here. The discussion started two posts ago.
M: Yes, the structure of the system has some important impacts. But does it also result in better people being put into office? Does the system enable those people to make their own decisions on based on in-depth, well informed, careful consideration of the situation? Or do they just vote as a block? How are the actual candidates chosen in such a parliamentary system? Are they chosen based on their strict loyalty, or their experience and competence?
Me: Yes, they are better people! The Dutch are better at everything! But seriously, a party decides where it stands on how to go about an issue. The politicians can make their decisions much more based on consideration of the situation because they don’t have to second-guess their constituents and what they want to hear. Their constituents are the people who voted for them based on the party platform.
In addition, Dutch politicians aren’t in the pockets of special interest groups, because money doesn’t come in to politics.
M: Is there something intrinsic to a parliamentary system that helps keep money out of politics? Or are the two issues separate? It seems that if you still have expensive election campaigns, the parties still need to raise money from somewhere. Donations from wealthy sources (political investors?) will still go to parties that vote for their interests. Or is there something different about elections in a parliamentary system?
Me: That’s a good question. I had never thought about that, but there probably is something intrinsic to a parliamentary system that helps keep money out of politics. Or at least it keeps money to a minimum.
So first let me tell you about political financing in the Netherlands.
About half of every party’s income comes from membership dues. Membership fees often depend on the member’s income. On average the memberships are about the price of a magazine subscription. Also, every representative pays a kind of representation tax, about 10% of their income. Don’t ask me why.
Parties can hold fundraisers like parties and dinners, and this is a relatively new phenomenon in Holland. A dinner in 2002, to meet representatives of the VVD, Holland’s economically most conservative party, was 500 euro a plate. They were very pleased to rake in all of 15,000 euro this way. (The euro is presently less than the dollar.)
Apparently parties can now receive donations from individuals and groups, as well as companies, but they don’t all see this as a benefit, since they don’t want to be accused of having conflicting interests. Each party has its own policy on this at the moment. But all donations higher than about $4,000 must be made public.
And finally there are the government subsidies. The subsidies are considered a safeguard of democracy, because the smaller parties can’t cover all their expenses from membership dues, and because it allows parties to stay independent from special interest groups. The subsidies are based on the number of representatives in parliament and the number of members.
Indirect subsidies include payment for training of representatives in foreign affairs and such, as well as what is still the main TV presence of parties: every day on public television, for five minutes, one of the political parties can present their platform. All the parties get their turn. This rotates year-round, election year or not. And the parties get small subsidies for making the films for these short presentations.
The election campaigns are also paid from these forms of income. Until 1998 parties weren’t allowed to use their subsidies for election campaigns, but now they can buy TV time, which they still can’t afford, and so some parties are looking for more income from these newly allowed private and business donations. I DON’T LIKE THAT!
So now to answer your question if there is something intrinsic to the parliamentary system that helps limit money in politics?
Yes! Because a parliamentary system has more than two parties. Holland has about 20 to 30 parties at any given time, some really big and some with one representative in parliament. And since there’s proportional representation, those small parties are also present if and when election financing comes up, and it’s not in their interest that election spending is allowed to get out of hand, because they wouldn’t benefit from it.
In America, on the other hand, there are only two parties (for all intents and purposes; since there isn’t any proportional representation the other parties aren’t in congress) and it’s in both their interests (they think) to keep other parties out. The financing status quo will do just that.
The next post in this series is about campaign ads.
In the American system (which is not the best in the world by any means… presuming everyone defines what “best” is in the same way in a perfect world) it’s all about getting votes; it’s a numbers game. It’s not about popular vote but rather getting enough votes to win in the electoral college. The founding old guys put this in place to kind of balance the idea of multiple parties. Popular vote suggests that if you have, for example, four parties, that one party, Party A, might carry the popular vote while the remaining three parties collectively have more votes. Hence voters for Parties B, C, and D may not have had enough popular votes to get their respective guy in office, collectively they certainly did not want Party A to win. So it becomes like it’s not about who I am voting FOR but rather who I am NOT voting for. Sooo… the money goes to influence votes. Advertising gets the message out… and repeated advertising banging around between our favorite TV shows is just playing on the idea of (not so) subtle brainwashing; we are simply human, as you stated… send a certain image into our heads over and over and we are likely to end up believing it enough to sway our vote. It’s Madison Avenue meets the ballot box time. You suggested in an earlier post that the multi-party system brings the opportunity for the parties to reach compromises and coalitions. Perhaps a reason we ‘Mericans have just two parties is not that the system somehow suppresses other views but rather the need for votes forces the two parties to include the diverse views (or convince otherwise) in their respective party platforms. In other words, if 10 parties pop up in America the two main ones will compromise the hell out of the smaller ones.. thus assimilating the votes… which is what it’s all about in the end… votes.
Yeah, there will be multiple parties in America when pigs fly, like you said before. Because whatever small party pops up, like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, they don’t get the donations needed to get the message out, because the big donors want to spend on the parties that have a chance of getting things done. I agree that having two parties isn’t about suppressing anyone’s message. The founding daddies couldn’t imagine such a large and diverse population–diverse in its needs and priorities, that is. But suppressing is the unforeseen consequence. So many people right now feel that they might as well not vote, including my husband. He’ll vote in the end, I think, but he doesn’t feel that either party represents him. I just think it’s per definition impossible for two parties to truly represent even close to everyone.