Before we get to American political parties, let’s look at the most common form of democratic government in the world, the parliamentary system. If one is to truly give meaning to the word democracy, government by the people, the parliamentary system comes a lot closer than ours because it is far more representative of the public at large than is ours and because the representative legislative branch has the power to change the government once that government falls out of favor. Furthermore, the executive branch is drawn from those elected to the parliament, so there is more co-equality than in our system.

Because of the above, to understand this system one starts with the Parliament, which depending on the nation can have many different names. It is a representative, legislative body elected by the people voting in specific districts, which also are called different things in different countries. They would equate to American precincts.

The key difference between the parliamentary systems and ours is that there is a threshold of votes for being seated. It runs from country to country from about 1.5% to about 5%. Any one party that can meet the fees and registration to run can put forward one or more candidates. Any candidates that meet the threshold get a seat. There are variations, but that’s the basics. The higher the threshold the fewer different parties will be elected. On the other hand the lower the threshold, the greater the representation of smaller, often single issue parties, get elected. The higher the threshold and fewer the parties usually the more stable is the government; the lower the threshold the more purely representative is the body. That often makes good theory and bad government.

Two examples. Israel. It has a 1.5% threshold for election to the Knesset (Parliament.) A major American misunderstanding about the two major parties in Israel is this. They aren’t parties. Likud is the Likud Bloc and Labor is the Labor Coalition. That means each is made up of former parties that coalesced over time because their major issues were close enough that it was politically and economically more efficient to give up the independent label. Every few years a new party pops up and another disappears

In the 2015 election 15 parties fielded candidates for the 120 seats. The smallest vote for election garnered 5%. Israel has had 15 governments in its 61 years.

There has never been a party that has gained a majority. The government is a coalition of however many parties it takes to gain a majority vote in the 120 seat unicameral (one body) legislature. Thus, in Israel’s case the tiniest of the parties, usually one or more religious parties, can hold the government hostage on the major agendas to get the government to accede to their’s. This just happened when under pressure the Netanyahu government rescinded two pronouncements that are wildly unpopular both in Israel and amongst American Jews–the area at the Western wall where men and women could pray together was closed and the recognition by the Israeli rabbinate of American performed Orthodox marriages  has be voided.

Now if you think this smacks of chaos, the latest word to be stuck onto the White House’s operations, let’s look at Italy. About a decade ago a “lady of the night” decided to run to for Italy’s Parliament. She ran mostly during the day. Her platform was one of more rights and better treatment for the women in the world’s oldest profession (even though according to Mel Brooks’ “2000 Year Old Man” the oldest profession was rock smashing). She had little money and no formal backing. She did a lot of her campaigning in her car, which she often drove topless meaning her top was down not the car’s, that had campaign posters on its side. She was elected–it is Italy after all.

Italy has a bi-cameral system made up of the Chamber of Deputies with 630 seats and the Senate of the Republic with 315. In the last election five coalitions representing 14 parties fielded candidates for the Chamber of Deputies. Those seated had from 1.75% of the vote to 25.4%. The Senate race had six coalitions representing 20 parties. Seated officials represented from .45 % to 27.4% of the vote. Italy has had 61 governments since the Second World War when the monarchy was abolished!

There is yet another critical difference between most European democracies and ours. That is in the termination of the governing mandate. Because ruling coalitions are jigsaw puzzles, they can come apart fairly easily. While bound by verbal or written contract to support the major party, minority parties can bring down the government by calling for a vote of no confidence. This is occasioned by one or more of the minority parties feeling that the dominant party has violated its part of the agreement or a changing of the political winds that finds the ruling coalition leader not able to get the votes on what should be its core pieces of legislation. If a vote of no confidence is called and the majority coalition loses then new elections are called. The government has lost its mandate to rule.

I realize this is about as boring as watching paint dry, but sometimes it’s important to know if the paint has dried. This information is important because it will help you understand how and why other governments look at us as they do, often with envy, when things are going well, and not so much when they aren’t.

It is also important to understand the terrible mistakes of assumption that can be made when leaders of one system don’t understand the constraints on leaders of another. For many reasons, including this one, that is why a fully staffed, functioning, tenured Department of State is so critical to American safety and success.

Next week, baring more soap opera in the nation’s capital, we’ll apply another coat of paint by looking at what representative government means in the good ole USA.


If you like what you’ve read go back and read some other posts, please let me know what you think and take a look at “Mirth, Wind, and Ire–Political and Social Commentary with a Little Humor Thrown In” available at, also available on your Kindle and Nook devices.


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