Consensus and the Constitution

Gerard posted an interesting perspective yesterday on the ways in which the Constitution magnifies the power of the majority, but I’m not sure they serve the consensus-building role that Gerard suggests. As Arend Lijphart has argued, and I do as well in my forthcoming book (Two Presidents Are Better Than One), our winner-take-all elections and other majority-centric policies encourage partisan conflict and gridlock. For consensual government, I would look to Switzerland and its system of power sharing rather than our system of majoritarian government. What I like about Switzerland is the principle that the major parties share the executive power, and the executive branch operates by consensus rather than by majority vote.

Of course, proportional representation systems can break down too, but all that tells us is that constitutional drafters have to be careful how they arrange power sharing in their political systems. For example, setting the threshold too low for representation in the government can give small parties too much leverage. The U.S. may have done reasonably well with presidential government, but as the Latin American experience reflects, the worldwide experience is not so good.

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4 Responses

  1. Gerard Magliocca says:

    There’s a cause-and-effect issue here. Does the Swiss system work because the range of political opinion there is narrow, or does their system narrow the range of political opinion and thus make compromise easier? Arguably, we are in a power sharing arrangement right now (GOP controls the House and the Dems control the White House and (sort of) the Senate). It’s not helping much.

  2. Shag from Brookline says:

    The Swiss system just might disclose a lot of holes if expanded to the population and geography of America.

    • David Orentlicher says:

      Switzerland actually scores higher than the U.S. on measures of social heterogeneity, and it had a period of serious religious conflict in the past, including a civil war. There is good reason to think that its sharing of power has been more effective than our political system for dampening social conflict. I think power sharing works better in Switzerland than in our government because the executive branch operates by consensus. Elected officials there have much greater incentives to cooperate and less incentive to engage in conflict than in our system, in which the minority gains little by cooperation and much by conflict.

  3. Joe says:

    The type of power sharing is important too. See, e.g., the “sort of.”