Winner Take All or Splitting the Difference: Lessons from Switzerland

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November 30, 2012

By David T. Koyzis

Another protracted presidential election cycle has come and gone, with Americans on one side of the political aisle celebrating victory, and those on the other licking their wounds in dismay. Two months ago in this space I asked whether the United States is becoming the next France, whose politics was long characterized by sharp division between partisans and opponents of the 1789 Revolution. The end of the recent election campaign will not diminish and may only exacerbate these tendencies.

What would the U.S. look like if it had no president? What if we were spared the quadrennial hoopla that has Americans investing so much of their energies in putting one person into a single political office at such huge expense? It might look something like Switzerland.

Switzerland is one of the oldest countries in the world, boasting a stable democracy and a federal division of powers governing a diverse population of nearly 8 million, speaking at least four languages, divided between Protestants (35.3 percent) and Catholics (41.8 percent). The current constitution of the country was adopted in 1848.

Like many federal systems, Switzerland has a bicameral legislature, consisting of a 46-member Council of States representing the 26 cantons and a 200-member National Council elected by proportional representation. But the most unusual feature of the Swiss constitution is the executive branch, headed by a seven-member Federal Council, elected for a four-year term by a combined sitting of the two legislative chambers. Members of the Federal Council represent the major political parties while nevertheless keeping them at arm’s length during their tenure in office. All seven councillors publicly defend the government’s policy agenda, even if some may privately disagree with it. In this respect they may find themselves at least formally at odds with their own supporting party organizations.

Each year one of the councillors becomes president of the Swiss Confederation, an office that confers only the right to preside at Council meetings and carries no more weight than those of his or her colleagues. This presidency rotates among the councillors, with the previous year’s vice president becoming president by convention. The legislature elects the occupant of this office, who serves for only 12 months. The president may not be an especially visible or well-known figure to the larger Swiss public, who thus have little emotional energy invested in him or her.

The United States, of course, has a different political system, and it would be pointless to argue for scrapping the presidency and opting for a Swiss-style plural executive. But we should be aware of our own system’s drawbacks, all the same. With a single chief executive, only one person representing one political party can win. Because of this, an election campaign inevitably takes on the character of a zero-sum game, especially if the electorate is sharply divided along ideological or even religious lines. There can be only one winner, and thus the stakes in the contest are that much higher than they might otherwise be. Losers are tempted to engage in apocalyptic rhetoric, fearing the worst for their interests and viewpoints. The winner has little incentive to bend or to compromise with his or her opponents, who, it might be argued, ought perhaps to accept defeat and go away.

With such a polarized electorate, the United States might be better served with executive power less focused in one person and more evenly distributed among several offices. Yet given that this is unlikely to come about any time soon, it might be wise to remind our fellow Americans of the ways the system currently does disperse political power. Yes, executive power is concentrated in the presidency, but legislative power is shared by president and Congress, with the Constitution assigning Congress primary responsibility. The president is a powerful actor within the system as a whole, but he is not the only one. Moreover, when facing a hostile Congress, his power is significantly curtailed.

Given the realities of the “checks and balances” the Founders built into the system, it is time that Americans stopped investing so much of their hopes and dreams in the person of the president, who is only one office-holder among many. If a divided electorate produces a similarly divided government, with the president of one party and Congress of the other, this should be seen as ample reason, not to face off angrily across the barricades, but to find ways to compromise, when possible, along Swiss lines.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has completed a second book on authority, office and the image of God, for which he is seeking a publisher.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.