Saturday, February 18, 2006

One Striking Difference Between USA and Russia

I have a subscription to "Russian Life" magazine. It claims to have been around for 49 years, and is headquartered in Montpelier, Vermont (ironic considering my family is from Vermont and I used to live there). It is basically for the English-speaking russophile. They sponsor an annual "Taste of Russia" event in Amherst, Massachusetts as well. The most recent issue had a small side column that you often see in magazines, with some statistics and opinion polls. The one poll that really caught my eye is below:
Do you prefer a political system with:

... one political party?_________________38%
... 2, 3 or more parties?________________39%
... with many small parties?______________4%
... without poltical parties?_______________7%

Levada Center is cited by the magazine as the source of the poll.

Maybe any Russians reading this don't find anything particularly surprising about the result. In hindsight, I suppose that I shouldn't either. However, I can say ... from an American point of view, this poll would probably end up being something like the following:
Do you prefer a political system with:

... one political party?_________________5%
... 2 political parties?_________________75%
... 3 or more parties?_________________15%
... with many small parties?_____________2%
... without poltical parties?______________3%

Those numbers are just a guess on my part - but I'm betting they are pretty close. If someone has good data on this, I'd be glad to see it - although I think such an opinion poll would be met with laughter by most here. During the early 90's the 3 or more parties vote might have risen as high as 25% (remember Ross Perot?). In the eyes of many (Republican) Americans, that 3rd party helped get Bill Clinton elected President - an absolute disaster as far as conservative Republicans are concerned. Perot split the conservative voters (so say the Republicans) and Clinton was elected by default. For the record, I actually voted for Perot, but would not have voted for Bush under any circumstances.

To most Americans - a one party system smacks of dictatorship. That is the instant conclusion in our minds. We have no belief in a "benevolent dictatorship". Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So it really isn't considered a viable option ... not even in the slightest.

Anything more than 2 parties tends to make a clear consensus candidate unattainable, and Americans find European coalition governments quite amusing in their ineffectiveness (we are pretty smug about that).

The Russian results brings to mind the following quote:
“Ever since the Romanovs ascended to the Russian throne, from Mikhail Fyodorovich to Nicholas I, the government has been at the forefront of education and enlightenment. The people follow along, but often lazily and half-heartedly. And it is precisely this which constitutes the strength of our autocracy.” — Alexander Pushkin


PM said...

One thing to note is that often there are more parties in existence but people just do not like them or want to vote for them so they do not get funding and therefore cannot further their cause. That is why it often appears to be a one horse race or two horse race. Many parties that are sidelined simply are too narrow in their outlook and policies and base all their policies along narrow issues only relevant to themselves and so are in effect pressure groups and not real political forces. The Green Party is an example of this in the UK.
Great Blog and debate.

Dmitry Medvedev Russian Elections President

Chrisius Maximus said...

What exactly is the difference, functionally, between a government with two or more parties, on the one hand, and a government with one party with wide internal divisions, on the other?

W. Shedd said...

Good question.

Funny that this old post has risen to the top of the comments, but I suppose it is rather timely given elections in 2008 in both countries.

I'm no expert on political party systems, but my impression is that a two party system encourages debate and compromise on the forming of laws. At any given time, one party may have a majority over another, but generally this corrects over time.

With a one-party system you essentially have the executive branch writing the laws. What the executive asks for, he receives, almost unhindered.

As we've recently witnessed, this can happen at times even with a two party system, most notably in times of war where debate is set aside. Generally with a two party system, this only continues for a time and is regretted or corrected to some extent in hindsight. Numerous examples abound, from Japanese internment to the current Iraq war, where both parties questioned the legitimacy of prior laws and actions.

I don't see this happening so clearly (or openly) in a one-party system.

Chrisius Maximus said...

I can certainly imagine situations in which there is greater unanymity among the parties in a two (or more) party system than within an internally fractured one-party system (for instance, in the CPSU at the very end of the Gorbachev era).

I suppose my point is that what is important seems to me to be not accidental (in the Aristotelian sense) features of a given government (number of parties for example), but rather the amount of room for debate that exists therein. Functionally, I do not see what the difference is between, say, a two-party system and a one-party system with two wings.

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