Governmental Gridlock

There is now widespread agreement, in the media, academe and among the general public, that one of the main problems facing the United States is the increasing inability to make coherent policy decisions and, critically, to legislate and implement them. Partisans on both sides of the political divide are convinced that the problem is that ‘the other lot’ are willfully obstructive and will stop at nothing to prevent their side from achieving its goals. However, to objective observers it is obvious that both sets of complaints are right and both sets of complainers are wrong: the problem is not ‘the other lot’, it is both lots and is thus systemic. Furthermore – and on this pretty much everyone agrees, the problem is getting worse.

Nor is the problem of governmental dysfunctionality limited to the United States, although it is especially pronounced there. In the United Kingdom, the now-imminent general election may well end up producing no clear majority in parliament for either party, so that the next government – whomever forms it – will be unable to adopt badly-needed and long-overdue measures to address major economic issues facing the UK. Japan, on the other hand, had the same party in power almost uninterruptedly from 1955 until last year, but it proved woefully unable to deal with the massive problems that have been dragging the Japanese economy inexorably downwards for the last 20 years.

The list doesn’t end there, but I cite these three countries because, in addition to their being large and important, they all operate a parliamentary system based on ‘first-past-the-post’, which should – and generally does – provide clear-cut results and allow the formation of governments based on a single party. That, of course, is totally unlike the Israeli system, which never has – and probably never will – produce a clear-cut outcome, and no single party has ever formed a government on its own.

Many people, including the overwhelming majority of columnists, op-ed writers, letter writers and others who have voiced their opinions over the years in the Jerusalem Post – and, I strongly suspect, the great majority of readers of this paper –strongly agree that an electoral reform which moves Israel from its current party-list-based parliamentary system to a first-past-the-post constituency system is essential. Indeed, many of them seem to believe that this would, more or less on its own, ‘save the country’.

However, and with whatever respect is due to these numerous and supposedly wise people, I think this entire argument is without either basis or merit. The facts are clear enough: one of the large American parties wins the Presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress – but cannot govern. That country faces extraordinary challenges on numerous fronts, notably in the economic sphere, but instead of pulling together, the two major parties are unable to agree about anything in Congress, unless a gun is held to their heads. On the one hand, if a party has a majority, why is bipartisanship necessary? On the other, if the country is in the throes of a major crisis, why do they find it so difficult to make common cause? Don’t bother to answer, these are rhetorical questions. Let’s move to the UK where, as noted, disaster looms and urgent measures are necessary – yet the two main parties cannot and will not co-operate, before or after the elections. Even the British situation is a doddle, compared with the relentless demise of Japan, yet the previously hegemonic party of power proved unable to stop the rot – because it required smashing vested interests and revamping the entire social fabric of the country. The Japanese did exactly that in the second half of the 19th century, but proved utterly incapable of repeating the feat in the late 20th century.

Meanwhile, supposedly ungovernable Israel has proven time after time that its political system is capable of delivering the goods, when faced with severe, often  existential, crisis. Starting from 1967, then that year and 1973/4, 1984/5 and 2002/3 represent well-documented examples of effective multi-party, coalition-based responses to major crises – several military, some socio-economic. The most recent example, of 2003, is especially instructive, because it saw a strong government implement a clear and determined socio-economic revolution, in response to a severe socio-economic crisis. This was not consensual but highly partisan – but it generated  more, and more important, reforms legislated and implemented within 2/3 years than any of the major European countries have achieved before or since. None of this is to say that the Israeli system of government is a paragon of anything – this week’s events starkly displayed its ineptness. But to believe that the US or the UK (or Japan, or Germany) are role models? Give me a break.

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