Coalition Governments and American Exceptionalism

October, 2017

Berlin -- After recent elections with no clear winners in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany, coalition governments are being formed to proportionately reflect voting outcomes in each country. This is not easy when the top vote-getting parties have major policy differences.

In Austria and the Czech Republic, new parties and leaders on the right have emerged with pluralities. They may be able to form governments with other parties not distant ideologically. In Germany, however, the center-left SPD has pulled out of its previous coalition with the center-right CDU and will now become the leader of the opposition. Although the CDU and the centrist FDP have ruled before in coalition, after the most recent elections they now need Green Party participation to form a government.

One idea under consideration in Germany is to create two vice-chancellors under Chancellor Merkel of the CDU, one for the FDP and one for the Greens. But there is no authority and no precedent for this, so there may have to be other solutions. The process may take the rest of the year.

Meanwhile, shortly after pulling out of the national coalition, the SPD scored impressive gains in the subsequent elections in the state of Lower Saxony. It is as though the SPD discovered new backbone and voters responded accordingly.

All of which is a contrast to the situation in the United States. American exceptionalism does not provide proportional representation at the national level, so there is not much structure around which coalitions can be formed. With an increasingly polarized American electorate, the result is either gridlock or, with a president having no experience in government and no skills to bring people together, dangerous misrule.

American state and local governments, by contrast, have diverse ways of avoiding polarization: non-partisan elections, proportional representation, even non-partisan unicameral bodies, as in Nebraska. It is not always fully appreciated that in the United States, election laws are under the authority of state govenments, including authority over congressional districting. States could do much to apply correctives to the sorry state of the national government. This is a feature of American exceptionalism that needs urgently to be exercised.