Sick Of American Democracy? The U.S. Could Learn A Lot From These Countries

Let's look at governments that rank high on socio-economic and political indexes.

01/09/2017 09:24 am ET | Updated Jan 09, 2017
Reuters/WorldPost illustration
Chinese President Xi Jinping, L. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, R.

SINGAPORE ― Donald Trump’s election proved to the world that America is just winging it. Rather than steadily improving governance over time, the country is caught in a hapless cycle of flip-flopping parties and policies while overall national welfare stagnates. Populism has prevailed over pragmatism.

But there are many governments in the world where the reverse is the case. Even in a moment where populism appears ascendant, it is far from sweeping the planet. During the campaign, both Trump and Hillary Clinton professed admiration for Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has juggled coalitions at home and crises abroad and is likely to become the country’s longest-serving post-war leader. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have also remarked that they wish they had China’s ability to get things done without perpetual factionalism holding up national priorities, such as infrastructure.

Since America is showing an interest in what foreign governments get right, now is a good time to study them more closely. For my new book, Technocracy in America, I researched all the governments that rank higher than the U.S. in socio-economic metrics, such as life expectancy and median income, as well as in political indicators, such as low corruption, high trust in government and governance effectiveness. Since no one country has the perfect political system, I’ve amalgamated their best practices in how to structure the executive branch, legislature and judiciary into a model I call “direct technocracy.” 

 

Fix #1: Create an executive council, like Switzerland and China have.

The “direct” in “direct technocracy” refers to Switzerland’s style of direct democracy in which people have a direct voice in policy through a system of initiatives and referenda. In America, direct democracy applies first and foremost to the selection of president. Rather than our antiquated and convoluted electoral college system, the winner of the popular vote should logically become president. In both 2000 and 2016, this didn’t happen. If this isn’t fixed by 2020, it’s a safe bet that an even greater percentage of Americans will have lost faith in their democracy than already have.

There is an even more radical executive branch reform America needs: to replace the oversized cabinet with an executive council of a half dozen figures who have real governance experience and skin in the game. Surprisingly, this is what democratic icon Switzerland and authoritarian icon China have in common. In Switzerland, the Federal Council is currently comprised of seven leaders from four different political parties. All of them are elected officials rather than just friends of the president. And they operate by consensus, meaning there is real buy-in to major decisions. They are an effective “team of rivals.” 

The added lesson from observing China’s Central Standing Committee of the Communist Party is that its seven members all have extensive experience governing provinces as large as America and multiple consequential portfolios, such as infrastructure and education. No amateur ever rises to the top, and they collectively deliberate rather than operating in silos. The bottom line is that seven heads are better than one, especially when it’s someone as inexperienced in governance as Trump.

In parliamentary governments, coalitions have to make good on their promises or risk having the government dissolved.

When it comes to Congress, there are also very clear lessons from abroad. All of the countries that rank higher than America on the Quality of Democracy index are multi-party parliamentary systems, not presidential republics. Even though the U.S. Constitution says nothing about political parties, Americans are stuck with just two of them, even though 60 percent of the population wants a third party. 

In parliamentary governments, coalitions have to make good on their promises or risk having the government dissolved, snap elections called and getting ousted from power within 90 days. In high-quality democracies, there are far fewer safe seats than in America’s gerrymandered duopoly. Given how unlikely campaign finance reform is, allowing more political parties might be the only way to challenge money-driven politics. Once citizens have a real choice, Congress will have to actually listen to them rather than only to corporate special interests.

If America was modified along these lines, it’d soon be led by “President Hillary Clinton” and “Prime Minister Paul Ryan.” The head of state and head of government would have to work together far more effectively than the two branches have in recent years in order to deliver popular demands.

Allowing more political parties might be the only way to challenge money-driven politics.

 

Fix #2: Rebuild a strong federal service, like the U.K. and Singapore have.

Fixing the executive and legislative branches isn’t enough to ensure effective policy-making or execution. For that, America needs to restore the strong federal service it had in the mid-20th century that implemented “New Deal” policies, such as the Social Security Administration and the construction of the interstate highway system. To prevent Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure vision from becoming a haphazard collection of boondoggles, the Departments of Commerce and Transportation must work closely with the National Governors Association and Army Corps of Engineers to design regional-scale projects that alleviate the country’s many bottlenecks.

This is where a technocratic civil service ― a cadre of professional experts chosen on the basis of merit and with a proven commitment to national welfare ― is most essential. These civil servants could design and execute long-term plans across administrations, even when elected officials do nothing. On this score too, America ranks way behind European and Asian countries, such as the U.K. and Singapore, where civil servants prepare the entire federal budget and other legislation after thorough consideration of the needs of the full population and in light of fiscal sustainability.

America is, of course, much larger than many of these more focused political systems. For this reason, ensuring America’s future success is a far bigger challenge than merely “fixing” Washington. America’s population is nearing 350 million people spread across 50 states and 350 major metro areas, each of which needs its own strategic economic plan.

These civil servants could design and execute long-term plans across administrations, even when elected officials do nothing.

 

Fix #3: Provide the infrastructure states need to thrive, like Germany does.

This is where Angela Merkel’s Germany comes in. What distinguishes Germany as a large and well-governed country is that the government provides the national infrastructural foundations for each province’s cities and industries to be connected to global markets. Most of the world’s best cars come from Germany — but from three different provinces constantly seeking to outdo each other in performance. Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states the “laboratories of democracy,” but they are also very much the incubators of technocracy. Governors, such as Jerry Brown, and mayors, such as Michael Bloomberg, constantly experiment with long-term and inclusive strategies to boost innovation and improve governance.

Given the Republican alignment of the White House, Congress and Supreme Court, Trump may prove to be a decisive president implementing far-reaching changes across society. But the measure of success is not how much a leader changes but in what direction. That means meticulously measuring national progress in terms of sustainable prosperity for the majority of Americans and modifying the system of government to better execute the best ideas, no matter who succeeds him.

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