Why Brad DeLong is Not a Political Scientist

Brad DeLong has been doing a very very good line in posts directed at “Republican Grownups”. Although something of an endangered species, recent events prove that they are not in fact mythical beasts.

But Brad's latest, It's Not too Late for the Grownup Republicans demonstrates why, while he's a great economist, he'd be miscast as a political scientist:

It’s not too late for the grownup Republicans to act. There’s
still time for the House and Senate Republican caucuses to go to Bush
and force his and Cheney’s resignations. Then Hastert and Stevens can
decline the job, and the presidential succession passes to Colin

This then gets us a president who:

  1. is a Republican.
  2. certainly does not have a smaller chance of winning in November than George W. Bush.
  3. would in all probability be good at the job.

It’s what would have already happened to any political leader in a
parliamentary system. It’s what the grownup Republicans owe the
country. And it may well be to the partisan political advantage of the
Republican Party to close down the current Clown Show as quickly as

On the one hand, yes, this would be an optimal solution for the nation, and probably for the Republicans (if you believe as I do that they look increasingly doooooooooooomed in the next election…although 'a week is a long time in politics' and the election is not next week).

On the other hand, while Brad's plan is good for the nation, it is so Not Going To Happen.

1. W is not a listening kind of guy. Any grownup who gets an audience with him will get the Wrath of W, not an attentive audience. And the Bush clan remembers its grudges.

2. Even if W goes, and even if Cheney passes up the chance to have the trappings of power as well as its reality, the chances that the hyper-ideological duo of Hastert and Stevens would (a) swallow all their personal ambition and (b) step aside for Traitor Powell (as they must surely see him) is so small we need a new number to describe it.

Of course, Brad knows this, so I suppose he's mostly jesting (and the part that isn't jest is wishful thinking), and by so doing demonstrating what a bind the dwindling band of mostly elderly Republican grownups find themselves in. Their choices are to sit back and do nothing, which is nearly criminal, or to commit party treason for which they will never be forgiven in their lifetimes.

Where are the Republican grownups? Mostly still in hiding.

PS. Why do I say this post shows why Brad isn't a political scientist? Because he bows in the direction of a parliamentary system. In fact, Parliamentary systems are like Republican-dominated government all the time. No checks and balances even on the good days. Yes, they can depose the irrational leader (e.g. the takedown of Thatcher). But that actually takes a very long time to happen. And parties in those systems often run awful leaders in elections (Michael Foot, William Hague, for example).

Meanwhile, the party majority votes in lockstep for fear of loss of preferment (poll tax!). No thanks.

UPDATE: Drezner has ideas, but they won't lead to results either…

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10 Responses to Why Brad DeLong is Not a Political Scientist

  1. Evelyn Blaine says:

    I’m not sure that DeLong is arguing for a parliarmentary system so much as an infusion of a certain ethos, which is certainly more prevalent in parliamentary systems but probably has more to do with the existence of a strong multiparty tradition — the idea that one is elected to advance a particular collectively determined platform, and one is obliged to answer to the leadership of one’s party for how well one does it. I don’t know to what degree this ethos was prevalent in earlier phases of American political history (it would be an interesting question for someone more learned than I), but since 1945 at least it has clearly been absent from the US scene, inasmuch as we have had 1) only two parties, with considerable ideological overlap; 2) no party discipline and no insistence on keeping to fixed platforms; 3) an extraordinary embrace of personalism at all levels; and 4) strong ideological resistance to political contestation precisely where it matters most — thus the “bipartisan foreign policy,” deference to the executive in so-called national security matters, the cult-like worship of the intelligence services, etc., etc. How to overcome this is, it seems to me, a question whose answer depends less on the constitutional question (presidential vs. parliamentary) and more on a general sociological analysis of political agency in bureaucratic/administrative cultures.

  2. Alan says:

    Australia rejected a referendum to become a republic in 1999. The proposal was for a powerless ceremonial elected by parliament, although popular opinion was massively in favour of a president elected by the people.

    The main push behind the proposal was the obsession of members of parliament with protecting the prime minister form the alleged threat of a president asserting a popular mandate to overrule the prime minister. No-one ever actually pointed to a historical example of a president doing this in a stable democracy. The populist trimmings the political elite used to try and justify this silly idea was that a popular election would choose a politician. No-one ever actually examined systems of government with parliamentary presidents. if they did they would have discovered a politician always emerges from the parliamentary election.

    I do not think the differences between presidential and parliamentary systems are well understood. on either side of the divide. No Australian government has lost a parliamentary vote of confidence since the 1940s. Two sitting prime ministers have been removed by their own parties. Letting a president’s congressional caucus remove them would not create a Westminster system, although it would be an earthquake in other ways.

    The elective autocracy of prime ministers is worse under the Westminster system than in Washington. On the other hand, devices like question time and having the chief executive on the floor of the house lead to a completely different atmospheric.

  3. ross says:

    Not quite right. Parliamentary systems displace sitting PMs all the time. In the UK, the single-member district plurality voting for the House of Commons, combined with a relatively centralized party endorsement process, produces single-party governments that are difficult to displace other than through general elections or extraordinary events like the removal of Thatcher. But are such PM removals extraordinary? Not really, first, PMs understand the limits of their discretion and so, it seems probable, constrain their behavior accordingly. Thatcher made some mistakes (eg. the poll tax). By contrast, Italy represents the other end of the spectrum with regularized displacements of PMs as governments came and went. At least that was the case in Italy under the old electoral and party system. The new rules, introduced in 1994, have changed that a bit. Japan also offers an interesting comparison. Even during the period of LDP hegemony PMs were frequently displaced by the party when needed. The same is true for many other countries.

    The point is to consider the interaction of parliamentarism with a given electoral system and the resulting party system (the party system is also a function of the distribution of popular preferences).

    Now, would GWB have been ousted by a majority party Republican House of Representatives if it were a parliamentary legislature? Hard to answer. He certainly would have had to feel greater constraints on his ability to do as he pleased. As importantly, I suspect GWB would never have been able to become a PM. Don’t think his particular skill-set would suffice.

  4. Altoid says:

    When I read Brad’s post I thought he was referring to the former British practice of a PM resigning when he/she has clearly lost popular confidence or had some obvious loss of face (or of connection with reality). But really that hasn’t happened there in a very long time, and certainly not since Thatcher. She, like Blair, had plenty of opportunities when she should have resigned under the old rules (poll tax fiasco, for example). I don’t think Brad was really plumping for a switch to full-Monty Westminster rules.

    Under Thatcher-style iron control of party caucuses, that system has given Britain and Canada the most unbelievable elective despotisms. (Added to which, the Canadian parties now lie blatantly about what they’re going to do, but that’s another story.) I once proposed to Barbara Frum that they should adopt American-style recall elections in the constituencies as a way to put fear of the electorate back into their system. I still think it would do a whole lot better than by-elections.

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  6. Evelyn Blaine says:

    I tend to think that the “elective despotisms” of Britain and Canada are to be blamed less on parliamentary government than on first-past-the-post voting — whose baneful effects are certainly visible in the US as well. But then PR is another pet cause of mine …

  7. ross says:


    It is the combination of parliamentarism (fused legislature and executive), first-past-the-post (SMD) voting (which manufactures majority-party government), and centralized control of party endorsments, that really drive the centralization of power. Toss in effective unicameralism and a unitary government (not federal) and the UK is even more centralized than Canada. But relaxing any of these factors (eg. introducing presidentialism, PR voting, or open party primaries) would be a step toward decentralizing power in the UK.


  8. evan says:

    the best thing to say about a parliamentary system is that Bush would never have made his was to the top in it.

  9. Dem says:

    When assessing the value of parlimentary systems, suggest you look at those created more recently. Germany is a very good example.

    As others have said, the UK’s winner-take-all system limits the benefits. In Germany, for example, citizens are given two votes. One for the local representative, one for a party. The local reps then are virutally always from the major two parties, but the party vote provides for a true multi-party system and coalition government, which is inherently more representative and responsive.

    Add to this mix Sweden’s requirement that elected officials earn exactly the average income of the nation as a whole, with no possibility for supplementing that income, and publicly funded campaigns. This attribute avoids the legalized campaign craft and attendant regulatory capture problems endemic in the US system.

    But be careful to avoid systems that lack stability, such as Italy’s or Israel’s. Israel’s problem is very much structural. By giving representation to any party with as little as 1/120th of the vote, they guarantee seats to fringe parties. This gives the fringe parties disproportionate power during the coalition forming phase, which is why Israel has so many senseless laws enforcing orthodox religious observances even though the majority are not orthodox. Germany’s system requires 5% before a minority party gets representation. (There is an exception made for the Faerie Islands, but their representation is about local needs and not fringe political views.)

  10. MP says:

    Exactly what do you call the form of government envisioned by Democrats, whereby Americans are ruled from Belgium? And what is the name for the islamofacism that would soon conquer western civilization as a result?
    Anyone who thinks another country has a better system than ours is free to vote with his feet and leave.


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