In Praise of Gridlock

Oh dear. We seem to be having a Mussolini moment.

You remember Mussolini. Big guy. Bit of a bully. Had a thing for uniforms. Some people didn’t like how he did this or that but, hey, he made the trains run on time.

That’s the usual defence of hypercentralized power. It may not be ideal but it sure gets things done. And when times are uncertain, that’s a lot better than the alternative.

And so we have government House Leader Peter Van Loan telling Canadians they’re lucky the federal government is the most centralized in the Western world, that Parliament has been emasculated, that one man runs the show. Look at the Europeans. Look at the Americans. They don’t have our “il Duce” model. And they’re circling the drain. The conclusion is obvious.

“Anybody who suggests that we shouldn’t be making decisions is really inviting the kind of political gridlock that you’ve seen elsewhere and is so harmful economically,” Van Loan told The Canadian Press.

Gridlock. Is there any word more frightening? Let’s all cheer for the big man who makes the big decisions and keep the trains running on time.

The same theme emerged recently in National Post articles about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plan to reform the Senate.

The plan “would set a non-renewable nine-year time limit and prescribe a process where provinces and territories could elect senators who would then be considered for appointment,” reported Kathryn Blaze Carlson. “Some political analysts suggest … Canada could well be headed for an American-style system characterized by gridlock and an unprecedented competition between two bodies that could be controlled by different parties.”

Now, there are lots of reasonable grounds for objecting to the prime minister’s plan, or demanding some alternative. But gridlock? We are talking about a change which may, at some time in the distant future, create a single restraint on a prime minister’s otherwise overwhelming dominance of the federal government. We have a long way to go before we get to gridlock.

But fine. The “il Duce” fans are worried about gridlock. So let’s imagine it. Divided government. A prime minister with a majority in the House facing an elected Senate controlled by the opposition.

Should we tremble at the very possibility? Quite the opposite.

Remember that the “il Duce” model is not the norm in the Western world. Not even remotely. Division is the norm. Minority governments. Bicameral legislatures in which control of the two chambers may be held by different parties or coalitions.

You can find divided governments in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland. The Netherlands. New Zealand. In fact, you can find them in almost any peaceful, prosperous, well-governed country you care to name.

Australia has had a directly elected Senate – with 12 senators from each state – since 1900. And yet somehow, mysteriously, it continues to prosper.

Of course you can also find a divided government in the United States, and the American system really is failing, as those enamoured of the “il Duce” model never fail to mention.

What they don’t mention, however, is that the current failure of the American system is due to many factors – including unprecedented political polarization – which are not inherent to a bicameral, elected legislature. Nor do they mention that the American constitutional order has functioned well enough in the past to make the United States the world’s oldest and most successful democracy. Rather an important detail, one would think.

But the more basic problem is that it’s silly to judge a system of governance – any system – by how well a country is doing at a single moment in time.

Remember the early-to mid-1990s? Our government was almost as hyper-centralized as it is now and yet we were circling the drain.

At the same time, the American system was so divided that a standoff between the Democratic president and the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives actually closed the government – and yet the same people, working in the same system, produced a budget agreement that ended a generation of deficits and laid the groundwork for an unprecedented economic boom. The solid fiscal foundation created by that divided government didn’t last, sadly. It was destroyed by a president whose party controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives for much of his time in office, and thus was not restrained by gridlock – unfortunately for all concerned.

I don’t want to take this too far. As we might expect, political scientists have found evidence that divided governments have a harder time eliminating deficits, for example, than governments controlled by a single party. But that shouldn’t be exaggerated. As Yale political scientist David Mayhew famously showed, American federal governments are just as likely to pass major legislation when the government is divided as when it is controlled by a single party.

The real difference is negotiation. In the “il Duce” model, it’s not necessary. If the Big Guy wants, he can push things through in whatever form he wishes. But in a divided government, the executive has no choice but to discuss, negotiate, and compromise.

Some people don’t like that. They call it gridlock. I do like it. I call it democracy. It can be messy and maddening. But it can work, if we give it a try.

By the way, that thing about making the trains run on time? Didn’t happen. It’s propaganda that became myth. Big Guys are full of hot air.