Institutional dysfunction

Between global and local the old nation-states muddle along, trapped between a territorial decentralization that produces fragmentation

All of us are victims of some defective institutional design or other, whether it be on a global or local scale. Consider, for example, the 14 municipal representatives who had their group photo taken last week while inaugurating a traffic roundabout, in a town near Granada. Or the G20, an institution that has so far been incapable of addressing issues such as climate change and the regulation of the financial markets.

Between global and local the old nation-states muddle along, trapped between a territorial decentralization that produces fragmentation, a supranational integration that presses for recentralization, and the centrifugal logic of economic globalization. Things look no better in the supranational sphere. In this crisis, the EU has shown how much a system of governance may suffer when it comes to making decisions that are at once effective from a technical viewpoint, and legitimate from a civic one.

But the recent prize must go to the US political system. Those who regret the extent to which EU dysfunction has become a political risk for the world economy can console themselves by considering how the separation of powers in the US - originally designed to stop the dictatorial temptations that have affected every presidential republic in history - has become a global risk.

Seen from Europe, it is tempting to indulge in facile irony about how a supposed instrument of stability - the debt ceiling) has turned into a weapon of mass destruction - both in the financial and political instability it causes. But what is perhaps more paradoxical is how the Republicans' assault on Obama's healthcare law would not have been possible if the United States had a stronger party system.

In Spain, and throughout Europe, many of us publicly bewail the lack of an electoral system that could break the iron discipline of the parties, liberating the elected representative from the corset imposed by the party leadership. To introduce more internal democracy within the parties, they say, would allow candidates to be elected in primaries that are open to registered party members or sympathizers. What's more, if the electoral slates were open, or based on single-name constituencies, the representatives would owe their seats directly to the citizens, and not to political bosses and regional barons. Instead of fomenting personal servitude and uncritical loyalty, we would have independent politicians, who are innovative and capable of leadership.

As has been shown by the American case - and also by reforms introduced in Italy in the 1990s - institutional designs can have unintended and unpredictable consequences. In the United States, the combination of primary elections and single-name constituencies has weakened the party leaderships to such an extent that, in the case of the Republicans, they are left in the hands of the Tea Party. In the past, individual candidates needed the party's support to raise funds and receive media attention; but today the members of the Tea Party finance their campaigns autonomously, and have digital media at their disposal that enable them to reach their voters at a very low cost. In short, they don't need the party to get on the slate, be elected and aspire to re-election. Since all that counts is winning in their constituency, the moderate Republicans who do not bend to their demands will not win the primaries, or be re-elected.

The problem is a wider one. Whichever way we look, the representative mechanism - which is essential to democratic life, and is built around electoral competition between a set of parties capable of forming a parliamentary majority and a government - seems swamped by the complexities of reality. However, since all the alternatives are far worse, we resign ourselves to using this machine, and give it a tune-up or an overhaul now and then. The institutions are both the solution and the problem.