Monday, July 2, 2012

The Real Difference Between France and the US

If you were to ask me the major difference between France and the US, I would have to answer "France is a democracy".

NAJAF: Election day
At the ballot box.
Photo courtesy Al Jazeera English
I'm not kidding. Nor do I mean this in the sense of those pedants who correct you when you refer to the US as a democracy by replying loftily that "the US is actually a republic."¹

Not much voter choice in the USA

Consider the US Congress. According to the US Census Bureau, since 1975 the US Congress has never had more than two members who were not a Republican or Democrat. For four of those years, Congress only had Republicans and Democrats. With 535 politicians controlling legislation for the entire United States — and impacting the rest of the world, to boot — it's worth wondering if never having third parties representing more than one half of one percent of said politicians is truly representative of Americans?

With more than two-thirds of Americans say they would vote for a "third party" candidate (and half saying a third party is needed), it's interesting to note that the term "third party" seems to imply that there should be a fixed number of parties rather than "parties should exist to reflect the will of the people." Many people in American would vote Green, Socialist, or Libertarian if they had the choice (many Libertarians run as Republicans, though), but doing so is seen as throwing away your vote because your candidate can't win.

The US political system is due in part to something called Duverger's Law which asserts that a "winner-take-all" electoral system like that of the United States tends towards two-party systems. This tends to lead to low voter turnouts and interesting issues where Bush, in 2000, became President even though only one quarter of the eligible voters voted for him (and, of course, the electoral college allowed him to win even though he lost the popular vote, and that's ignoring the Supreme Court issues).

To understand more about why third parties cannot succeed in the United States, you can read this excerpt from the book Third Parties in America. In particular, I point you to this interesting point about even getting your name on a ballot:
The Democrats and Republicans have constructed a maze of cumbersome regulations and procedures that make it difficult for minor parties and independent candidates to gain a spot on the general election ballot. Whereas major party candidates automatically appear on the ballot, third parties must petition state election officials to be listed. A candidate whose name does not appear is obviously disadvantaged: voters are not cued when they enter the polling booth; it is difficult and at times embarrassing for a voter to cast a write-in ballot.
Ballot access was not a problem for third parties in the nineteenth century, because there were no ballots as we now know them. Prior to about 1890, the political parties, not the states, prepared and distributed election ballots (or "tickets," as they were called), listing only their own candidates. Party workers peddled their ballots, usually of a distinct color and shape, at polling stations on election day.
This undermines the argument that the US has had successful third parties in the past and therefore can do so again: the Republicans and Democrats are quite happy to ensure that they are the only game in town.

It should be clear that in the United States, where the game is clearly rigged against third-party candidates, it's hard to truly claim to be a democracy if you think of a government where the will of the people can be exercised by voting. Americans regularly mock single-party "democracies", but as one Brian Wisti points out, the US has a 1.5 party system. Though my view is somewhat unpopular, I view Republicans as on their knees, fumbling at the zippers of major corporations whereas the Democrats meekly ask that the door be closed first.

Perhaps most telling of all is President Obama, despite admirable intentions of trying to stop some of the worst excesses that happened under the Bush administration, found his hands tied by even the Democrats refusing to support him because they wanted to be re-elected and couldn't come across as being "soft on terror".

Or if you really want to be depressed, read this detailed Princeton study demonstrating exactly why the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy and then watch this video which clearly summarizes and explains the Princeton study:

Not perfect, but France has plenty of voter choice

France is different. Though not having proportional representation (the voting system that I think best represents the will of the voters — both good and bad, but that's a democracy!), France uses two-round voting. In this system, you vote for any candidate you like in the first round, secure in the knowledge that you're unlikely to be throwing away your vote. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a second "runoff" round of voting is held where you vote for the top two candidates. The system is not perfect and France also has two major parties, the Socialists (who are still in favor of capitalism) and the Union for a Popular Movement (the UMP), a center-right party. However, they also have the New Centre, the Communist Party, the Radical Party, the Radical Party of the Left, the Green Party, the Democratic Movement and many others.

Due to the two-round voting system, the French government usually forms a coalition government whereby minority viewpoints actually get represented. It's far from perfect and yes, like a proper democracy, groups that you don't like actually get to be heard, but at least there is choice. Now compare that to a campaign ad from the last major third-party Presidential candidate to be given serious consideration in the US:

US campaign finance is horribly corrupt

In what's becoming a regular occurrence, a man and his son-in-law hastily set up dummy corporations to each funnel one million dollars to Mitt Romney's SuperPAC. Under US law, this is not a crime. In the now infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations (and unions, but they tend not to have as much money) are allowed to donate unlimited amounts of money to independent political activities. They can't just give this money to Romney, but as long as the Romney's SuperPAC doesn't coordinate directly with Romney (nudge, wink), everything is just fine.

So all you have to do is get a million dollars, set up a dummy corporation, give the money to the corporation who in turn gives it to an "independent" political organization. Then you dissolve your dummy corporation. Were you to give your money directly to the political organization, it would then be a crime.

Does that make sense? Of course it doesn't, but it now means that the megacorporations in the US dwarf anyone else's political power. In a country where Presidential campaigns must burn through hundreds of millions of dollars to be viable, the $20 dollars you mailed in are meaningless.

France campaign finance is relatively restrained

It's expected that the Romney-Obama battle will cost about one billion dollars. In a recent Time Magazine article describing France's recent Presidential election, they revealed that the top two French Presidential candidates spent $54 million between the two of them in 2012. There are no SuperPAC's, corporations and unions are forbidden to fund their desired candidates, and spending your way into power is much harder. From the article:
For better and worse, France puts égalité in politics before the liberté of candidates to invest big bucks in mass marketing displays of what little fraternité they feel for one another. Indeed, flesh-flaying attack ads frequent in U.S. elections are illegal under French rules. Not only is buying French airspace for political commercials forbidden; so is disparaging rivals in any electoral advertising that is allowed. Turning a campaign around with an effective but expensive Willie Horton, Swift Boat, or Morning In America adjust isn’t an option in France.
Presidential candidates must get 500 mayors in France to support their candidacy and, if they do, they get the same amount of space to advertise publicly, same amount of free airtime, and strict laws are in place to ensure the media treats them fairly, whether they are the front runner or a guaranteed loser.

And the icing on the cake: on election day, it is a serious crime to report poll results early. No more manipulating those numbers to encourage groups of voters to stay home.

I actually think a lot could be done to improve the French democracy, but so far, it's a damn sight more fair than the US. If I had to characterize the US political system, I would describe it as a plutocracy with a thin varnish of democracy to make it more palatable to voters. There is, quite frankly, not much that is appealing about the current state of the US political system. By traveling the world and seeing it first hand, you get a shocking sense of just how bad things have become.

1. Invariably this "correction" does little to serve the conversation at hand and seems designed solely to impress.


  1. "tends towards to-party systems". I always suspected they were there just for the parties!

  2. Calling UMP a "center-right party" is probably correct from an american point of view, but as you have many readers from different part of the world, I think it would be useful to state that from a european point of view, UMP is not center-right, but right. Even the UMP don't describe themselves as a center-right party :)

    1. Thanks for the correction, but I confess I kind of struggle understand it.

      It's similar to how I describe Democrats and Republicans as a right-wing party and a far-right-wing party. Compared to most other major economies, this is a fair description, but many Americans think the Democrats are a left-wing party, when this is laughably ridiculous. So by this standard, is UMP center-right or right?

  3. Maybe it's time for the Pirate Party to invade America.

  4. So I guess what they have in the US is a demockracy?

    France’s system sounds healthier than even Germany’s, even though Germany too has multiple third parties and routine coalition formation. (The major third parties tend toward majority positions anyway, so coalitions make little real difference, and in recent elections the government has been formed by the two major parties in coalition anyway, which results in particularly stagnant politics (c.f. the rise of Merkel). It has to be granted that the system in Germany unlike in the US still has potential to get healthy (c.f. the rise of the Pirate Party), but in practice it is ill.)

  5. The problem with proportional voting is that it often leads to fragmentation of parties, and serious difficulty of forming a government coalition (and often disproportionate influence of "tip the balance" minor populist parties). Some countries try to avoid fragmentation by imposing limits (e.g. 5% of all votes to get place, 7% for conglomeration of parties, minority parties excluded from this requirement).

    On the other hand I think it is "winner takes all" in plurality voting system. For example there is this idea of single-winner voting system with single-winner possible (first-past-the-post voting).

    Nb. choosing a good voting system is hard, see e.g. Arrow's impossibility theorem and the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem (even if you throw out some theorems assumptions, like having ordered set choice instead of single choice).

  6. I agree with the fragmentation. Some of the political issues I've seen with it are awful. Plus, you can't cater to every minority group out there. That being said, I look at the Netherlands and see that they're not doing to badly, despite the existence of Geert Wilders.

    And thank you for mentioning Arrow's impossibility theorem. I had read about it a long time ago, but I couldn't remember the name.

  7. Proportional representation isn't really a voting system, it's a way of divvying up the seats after voting has occurred. France's two-round system sounds like the first two iterations of what's sometimes called "Instant Run-Off Voting" or IRV. In IRV, you mark first, second, third (and so) choices on the ballot, and the rounds iterate, with losing candidates dropping off at each iteration, until a candidate emerges with a clear majority - this person is the winner. Only one election is required, as everyone has expressed their ordered preferences on a single ballot. As a software guy, I'm sure you appreciate the simplicity of this algorithm.

    You're dead on about the USA and its sclerotic democracy. In America, the powers that be did one better than the old Soviet Union's single party system, by creating the fiction of choice, and all the drama, energy, and money wasted in battling out this spectacle. Our democracy wasn't always this enfeebled, but with the dominance of money, amplified by the Citizens United decision, that's all it's about, and that's who the candidates really represent regardless of appearances. If the Soviets had figured out and mounted a similar spectacle, they might still be standing.

  8. I used to think both major parties did what they thought was best for America - they just disagreed on what was best. Now I realize that neither party wants what is best for America - they just want to get reelected.