In Any Other Country, AOC would be a Nobody

 “In no other country on earth is my story even possible,” Barack Obama said, defining the liberal take on American exceptionalism and his own abiding patriotism.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez too has an idea about why America is exceptional: “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent interview published in the New York Magazine.

If she weren’t so full of arrogance and so lacking in gratitude for the Democratic party, Ocasio-Cortez’s point would have been well taken.

She’s speaking arrogantly, literally, and ignorantly. It’s technically true that in most other democracies, which have multiparty parliamentary systems, she would belong to a minor party while Biden would be a leader in a major party. But no one would know who she is if the United States were a multiparty parliamentary democracy.

The United States has a relatively uncommon form of representative democracy, with an electoral college electing the chief executive, and the legislature being elected separately with a clear division between the two. Most representative democracies take the parliamentary form: in which the majority in (generally) the most populous house selects its leader to become the chief executive, generally referred to as the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then appoints other members of their party in parliament to be in charge of different departments of the executive, creating the cabinet.

Parliamentary democracies are usually multiparty systems, though two big parties almost always dominate the seats in the elected house of parliament. But smaller parties have a much bigger role, especially when an election leaves no party with a clear parliamentary majority. The leader of the largest party is still given the chance to form a government (the executive), but since a Prime Minister can be dismissed at any time through a simple majority ‘no-confidence’ vote of the parliament, smaller parties often become kingmakers by supporting one of the larger parties to form a government. The smaller parties can choose to support from “outside” the government, meaning they support the major party to form a government, but do not participate in the cabinet themselves. Or they can choose to be part of the cabinet. If they do, a “coalition” government is formed.

The western world is most familiar with the systems in Canada and the United Kingdom. In Canada, two major parties are the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. In UK, it’s Labour and Conservative parties. Liberal Democrats are one of the more prominent third parties in the UK, and in Canada, regional parties like the Bloc Quebecois have significant power.

The world’s largest democracy, India, also follows a parliamentary system. It actually has three large coalitions vying for control of parliament in each of the elections: one led by the presently-ruling party of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a second led by the Congress Party, and a Leftist coalition led by India’s nominally Communist parties.

So literally speaking, Ocasio-Cortez is correct. If the United States were a parliamentary democracy, she would probably be a communist party voter, while Joe Biden would be leading a more mainstream liberal party.

But in a multiparty parliamentary system Ocasio-Cortez would also never be able to get elected dogcatcher, let alone to the national legislature, in the way she has been in the United States. Parties aren’t just more numerous in parliamentary systems, they are more powerful. That is to say, the party establishment is much more powerful than they are in the United States.

All one has to do be a Democratic candidate (or that of any other party) for partisan office in the United States is declare themselves a Democrat (or member of whatever party they want to identify with), collect a requisite number of signatures, or pay a fee to appear on the ballot. For non-presidential contests, most states have intra-party primaries, and whichever candidate of a given party gets the most primary votes in that party’s primary then becomes the party’s nominee in the general election. That is how it works for Congressional seats in New York, for example (and that’s what happened with Ocasio-Cortez).

This would never be possible in a parliamentary system. One thing parties are really good at in parliamentary system is controlling who gets to represent them in a general election. A candidate needs to get a “ticket” from their party in order to represent it in an election. The process of getting a ticket varies by country, but there are no popular elections to decide who gets a ticket or who the leader of a party (the equivalent of our presidential nominee) is.

Imagine a nominating process where the only people who have votes are superdelegates. That’s the most leanient process of deciding on a party leader in parliamentary systems. Generally, only a party’s central committee members (DNC/RNC member equivalents) are permitted to vote on who the leader of a party is, and those central/national committee members are not directly voted in by the party’s voters either. Party leaders at the basic local level select executive committee members, who select executive members at regional or state levels, and so forth. The national party in turn exercises significant control over local leaders and executive committees as well. Only these leaders, depending on the level of contest, have any say in who can represent the party before the people in an election.

There is no monopoly on what kind of system produces the worst politicians, but one key characteristic of parliamentary systems is their parties’ tight control over their candidates. Those systems are much more foolproof against takeover attempts by outside forces, surprise insurgencies, and especially lazy candidates who wish for celebrity without the hard work of either building a new party or rising through the establishment of an existing one.

In other words, parliamentary democracies are much better insulated than the United States against people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Either Ocasio-Cortez has not bothered to study the actual implications to her own power of multiparty systems (which is that she wouldn’t have any), or she has coldly calculated that you won’t.

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