One of the main stories from the first week of campaigning was the Social Liberal – Conservative “alliance” which promised us a break with the “bloc politics” of the past decade in favour of broad across-the-centre agreements. Without going into the realism of the specific story, I think the initiative and the reactions merit a more general discussion.
First we should note, that complaining about “bloc politics” is nothing exclusively Danish. Try making a search for “Congress” and “bi-partisan” and you will see that “bi-partisanship” (the US equivalent of “broad agreement”) often comes with positive connotations. “Partisanship” is politicking, “bi-partisanship” is acting for the good of society. Or so we are told.
From an analytical perspective, the “broad agreement” argument raises two very different questions. One is about political integration vs. decision making, the other about politics as problem-solving vs. politics as interest representation.
Integration vs. decision making
In Denmark, every pundit worth his or her worth can refer to the Alf Ross-Hal Koch debate. Alf Ross took the standpoint that democracy first and foremost was a method for making decisions. Consequently, the question was how one created the most efficient ways of making decisions and historically the majority rule has come out as the dominant principle. In case of a conflict you vote, and the alternative with the most votes win.
Hal Koch argued that democracy was first and foremost a way of life with the ambition of integrating the population in a political community. Obviously a system where 49% of the population is systematically overruled can have some nasty side-effects. Another point is that preferences are created during the process and it is the duty of political leaders to interact with the population and explain different courses of action. In this way, negotiation rather than voting is the central decision making principle in a democracy.
What is to prefer? The answer is not an easy one. On the one hand, broad agreements can integrate better than narrow votes. On the other hand, they can also leave voters without an alternative and drawn-out decision making processes can be a problem during an economic or political crisis.
Problem-solving vs. interest representation
So far so good, but how come that business leaders like to complain about the political process and the mud-slinging on the political arena? After all, a true business leader has little patience with deviating opinions and hates wasting time on convincing critics. A business leader “cut through” and fire people who complain or don’t share his visions.
The Danish Conservative politician Poul Møller once wrote that he found the canteen at the (now defunct) B&W Shipyard a much more sympathetic arena than local business clubs. The workers at B&W did see Møller as the enemy but as he was a politician, he was basically okay. He just represented the interests of the opponent. Businessmen, on the other hand, saw Møller as a politician and as such a despicable figure. Sure, they voted for the Conservatives, but basically they hated politics.
The reason for this is that businessmen at a fundamental level do not accept the existence of conflicting interests and values in a society. This should not come as a surprise: Despite all talk about visions and values, businessmen only accept the profit generated as a valid measure. All their effort is directed at solving problems which will help maximising profit. Fundamentally, this is a technocratic view of society.
The Social Liberal Party, curiously, shares much of this view. On a basic level, the party has always believed that there is a technically correct solution to any social and political problem. It is just a case of analysing the issue thoroughly. And obviously, once you have made a thorough investigation, everybody ought to agree on the proposed solution. People who do not agree are … dare we say? … unenlightened.
The problem with this approach is that it leaves no legitimate space for conflicting interests. Just because people do not agree on a solution, we cannot conclude that they are stupid or unenlightened. We may simply be in a situation where the political system has to deal with real conflicts. Pretending that they do not exist or are illegitimate may make a bad situation worse.
So, where do political scientists stand? All over the place, basically. As Arend Lijphart has pointed out, most political systems have weaker or stronger elements of consocialism while pure majoritarian systems are rare. There are probably good reasons for this. On the other hand, we may ask if the division of powers in the German political system is part of the reason why voters habitually are disenchanted with their governments.