political revue


Year LVII, 2015, Single Issue, Page 166



Towards a New Model of Federal Democracy*





Democracy and its Future.

The institutional aspects of federalism are related in many interesting ways to crucial aspects of the more general theory and practice of democracy.

From the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, the history of democratic experience has been marked by an essential tension. On the one hand, what gave that complex of ideas, patterns of behaviour and institutions that habitually go by the name “democracy” the capacity to take hold in Europe and, outside Europe, in the English-speaking world, was its original conjunction with the ideal of people’s sovereignty, i.e. the affirmation of the general will, the identification between rulers and ruled.

Alas, the implementation of that ideal has never, since that time, gone beyond a few sporadic commencements. Indeed, even classical theoreticians of democracy, such as Rousseau, or Jefferson, clearly perceived that making reality conform to an ideal was only conceivable in a small state, i.e. in an authentic community, in which the identification between rulers and ruled might in fact be achieved by a daily and intense participation of the citizens in managing the community’s affairs.

Yet, historically, the small state, as a political form, was already doomed in Rousseau’s days. In most cases it disappeared in the following century because of the emergence of the nation-states and the power struggles which intervened between them. Only in particular historical circumstances did this process not take place, where, for example, the minimal strategic significance of some Zwergstaaten kept the greater states’ appetites at bay. But is was certainly not in such neglected corners, forgotten by history, that Rousseau’s ideal had a chance to be fulfilled. Depending on their powerful neighbours for their security, welfare and communications, deprived of any possibility of deciding their own destiny, they were no longer places in which a large and active consensus could take shape: the consensus which develops only when people are faced with decisive options, those which act as a framework for all the other options and, if taken autonomously, support their autonomy. The small states’ democracy was thus inevitably reduced to the exercise of purely ceremonial practices.

On the other hand, with the enlargement of the state’s territorial sphere, it became utterly impossible to introduce institutions of direct democracy on a national scale. We must recall, to be sure, that the historical experience of democracy, as it developed within the nation-state, was a great phase in mankind’s progress towards emancipation. As a consequence of the democratic revolution, an unprecedented widening of the social horizon, within which political elites were recruited, took place. Institutions and patterns of behaviour which guarantee their replacement took hold in legal systems and in customs. Democracy was thus a great agent of social progress and guarantor of pluralism.

Representation, in the nation-state, nevertheless fails to fill the gap dividing rules and ruled, as it mostly ends up by restricting the citizens’ participation in politics exclusively to the rite of voting, thus giving the idea of popular sovereignty the appearance of a deception. It was in this way that, during the French Revolution, Rousseau’s conception was used, paradoxically, as a weapon belonging to the rhetorical arsenal of centralising Jacobinism. And it was in this way that, throughout the history of European nations, every kind of abuse was perpetrated by majorities against minorities.

This process has gone so far that today the “classical” theory of democracy is no longer considered as “scientific” and tends to be substituted by a more “realistic” approach which, in Schumpeter’s wake, defines democracy as a set of rules regulating the struggle for power.[1]

But the truth is that, although today democracy is also this, it is, in a perspective transcending the present, much more than this. The ideal of democracy would not have shaken Europe so profoundly in the 19th century, nor would it still be one of the deepest motivations of the active sections of the peoples of the earth who are fighting to free themselves from oppression, if the essence of its message were not the promise that power will one day disappear thanks to the affirmation of popular sovereignty.

If it is true that men make their history by themselves, however large the scope to be attributed to self-deception in human conduct may be, it does not seem justifiable to maintain that the key-words expressing their profoundest aspirations during the great phases of advancement of the process of human emancipation were and are pure nonsense, without any counterpart in reality, or at least in that potential reality identified by Kant in human dispositions, bound to occur in the progress of history.

This means that the history of democracy is not yet over, that the idea of democracy has not yet externalized all its features and that the programme of this future development is contained in germ in Rousseau’s theory of popular sovereignty.

If, then, the problem of reconciling the idea of popular sovereignty with the need to have large territorial areas ruled through the institutions of democracy has not yet been solved, this does not mean that this problem will not be solved in the future, as would happen if it were a pseudo-problem, posed in wrong terms on the basis of a false definition of democracy.

Rousseau himself glimpsed the path to be followed. In the Social Contract he wrote that a “confederation” is the instrument “for joining the external power of a great people with the simple rule and the good order of a small state”.[2] But for Rousseau, who expressed his intuition in 1762, a “confederation” could be nothing but an association between sovereign states with purely defensive aims. Hence, for him, the problem of having the association as such ruled by the principles of democracy did not even exist. He remarked, moreover, that this was “a thoroughly new matter, whose principles have still to be established”. In actual fact, subsequent historical developments have shown that confederations, i.e. defensive unions of sovereign states, have a short life and are bound to dissolve, or to be consolidated into federations or unitary states.[3]

The problem was posed in concrete terms for the first time with the beginning of the American federal experience. In this case, we are no longer confronted by a single order of governments united in an association for common defence, but by two orders of government each of which, according to Wheare’s definition, in its own sphere, is independent and co-ordinate.[4]

The problem of democratic rule for large areas is posed in new terms precisely by the two inter-related elements of independence and co-ordination. Through them we can envisage an institutional structure where independent local governments are allowed to experiment with advanced forms of self-government, with no interference from central government, but where, at the same time, thanks to the co-ordination existing between the two levels of government, both the way the political will is formed at the regional level and the content of the decisions taken at the same level can somehow be transferred to the general level.

In the federal experiences which have taken place in history until now, such a transfer has occurred only within very restricted confines. In a system founded on two tiers of government only (the Nation and the states), the regional level, which ex hypothesi enjoys independence, is too large to be a suitable seat for democratic self-government. Furthermore, co-ordination between the two tiers occurs only through the devices and mechanisms of bicameralism at the central level and by means of the settlement of disputes about the division of powers by the judiciary. This is generally insufficient to ensure authentic continuity between regional and general levels in the process of formation of political will.

The path to be followed when attempting to transform the ideal of popular sovereignty into a reality within increasingly large territorial spheres must be one which no historical constitution has ever followed before: the federal principle must be drawn up in such a way that the element of independence reaches down to spheres of self-government sufficiently restricted in size to be appropriate frameworks for authentically communitarian and participatory experiences. At the same time, the element of co-ordination must be reinforced by the introduction of institutional devices making it possible to link the formation of the political will at all levels and channelling it into a unique upward process in which the contents of the general will, as they emerge at the levels where they express themselves spontaneously, are transferred to the upper territorial tiers.

In this respect, it seems to me that some suggestions bringing real theoretical advancements along the path we are pursuing can be put forward on the basis of the model of post-industrial federalism which has been debated for some time within federalist culture, the main features of which were indicated in an essay published in a recent issue of this journal.[5] The main requirement, imposed by the trends emerging in post-industrial society, to which this model tries to provide an answer, is that of multi-tier planning. This is a kind of comprehensive policy which is not limited to the economic sphere only, but is both economic and territorial. Furthermore, it is not worked out and enforced bureaucratically from the centre, but is implemented democratically thanks to the co-operation of various territorial agencies, each capable of taking initiatives and with the power to decide with reference to the problems whose territorial scope is equal to theirs. Multi-tier planning, in its turn, requires federal institutions to be duly implemented. But the federal institutions in question must have characteristics which clearly distinguish them from the classical model, as their specific function is precisely that i) of diffusing the element of independence, which must also become a feature of territorial spheres small enough to be a convenient frame for real community life and ii) of reinforcing the element of co-ordination, so as to render the institutional system in its entirety capable of taking decisions that, without prejudicing the independence of each of the levels of government of which it is made up, voice that one general will which manifests itself most genuinely within the communities forming the base of the system.

The Epistemological Status of Models.

It is perhaps helpful, before going any further, to state as clearly as possible what is the epistemological status of a model, in the meaning in which I use this term.

It is not a concept describing an existing state of affairs. Rather it is designed to depict an ideal, a state of affairs not as it is, but as it should be. Now, an ideal is most certainly of no theoretical interest if it only mirrors someone’s subjective preferences. Indeed, the theoretical usefulness of models depends on the philosophy of history underlying them, and, in particular, on the relationship which the individual thinking about history has vis-à-vis his object. To illustrate two opposing attitudes of the interpreter vis-à-vis the historical process, let me contrast my concept of model with Max Weber’s ideal type. Both concepts have common features, as the ideal type does not wish to reproduce reality as it is, but deliberately alters it by choosing certain specific points of view, and selects only those aspects of reality which fit into these points of view, connecting them up to each other in order to obtain a coherent picture of the process, institution or situation under scrutiny.

Max Weber believed that the decision to privilege one or other point of view depends exclusively on the historian’s or the social scientist’s values, which, in their turn, are largely arbitrary and have no link with those which, consciously or unconsciously, influenced the behaviour of the agents in the situation to which the ideal type refers. That is why the purpose of ideal types is only to provide the historian or the social scientist with a conceptual grid designed to interpret the inextricable muddle of historical events by forcing upon them an interpretation which, albeit arbitrary, provides him with the only possible instrument for introducing a certain order into processes which would otherwise exhibit none.[6]

My use of the model as a conceptual tool, on the contrary, assumes, as I intimated before, a different philosophical stand. The values influencing the definition of the concepts to be used for interpreting history are not construed as being the result of an arbitrary choice of the interpreter but are taken over by the interpreter from a historical reality to which the observer himself belongs, and which is relied by a continuous thread to the situation to which the concept refers.

This means that the selection of the features to be abstracted from – or added to – reality by the interpreter to build a coherent picture is determined by values which were already – consciously or unconsciously – shared by the agents of the process or the situation to be interpreted. Thus, historical interpretation must be seen as a dialogue between the agents of the process or the situation to be analysed and the interpreter. And this dialogue is made possible by the existence of a code common to both, i.e. by a continuity of sense.

Now, as history is a process that develops in time, the idea of continuity of sense implies progress and advance. Indeed, sense is dialectical: the context receives its meaning from its constituent parts, but the meaning of the parts is not complete until the context is made explicit. This means that each part of a discourse is all the more determinate, the more advanced the discourse is. On the other hand, each part of the discourse contributes to giving the context its meaning inasmuch as it has the capacity to anticipate the meaning of the whole.

The same considerations can be applied to history. If we concede that history has a sense – i.e. that it is like a discourse –, we must draw the conclusion that those who come after can understand the sense of any event of the past better than the agents themselves could, because they have a wider context at hand. But the event is a link in a significant chain, not merely a brute fact, to which a meaning should only be given by the interpreter: it is a message, with a sense of its own, launched by the agents to the interpreter.

Let us go back to our concept of model. If history is like a discourse, the meaning of any historical process, event or situation is bound to grow in richness and precision with the passage of time, reaching full maturity in the ideal moment of the completion of history. But, at the same time, all that really occurs in history contains in germ, and hence anticipates, the whole of future development. It already possesses, more or less implicitly, the sense that the further succession of events will unfold in its full explicitness. This is why it makes sense for the political philosopher to scrutinize ideas and institutions surfacing in history with a view to discovering the hidden implications they have and the determinations they must take on in order to reveal their full meaning. This is not mere amusement. If there is progress in history, the features implicitly contained in any idea, process or institution are bound to become real afterwards. Drawing up models, therefore, means trying to forecast the future behaviour of men, and, at the same time, means shaping conceptual tools which help to assess the shortcomings of our present situation and speed up the march towards a better world.

My aim in this essay is to make a contribution, with this end in mind, to clarifying the implications of the concept of democracy, and to try to see the institutional consequences of the full development of Rousseau’s idea of popular sovereignty in a world increasingly freed by the scientific and technological revolution from the constraints of class antagonism and raison d’Etat.

The fundamental features distinguishing the model of post-industrial federalism which is taking shape in our debate from the classical model are essentially the following:

i) the multi-tier nature of federal government, starting at the neighbourhood level, and working up through a whole series of intermediate tiers, to the world level;

ii) the establishment of federal bicameralism at every level, the only obvious exception being the lowest one;

iii) the introduction of the “cascade” electoral system. This is designed to regulate the temporal sequence of the elections for the legislative bodies of the various tiers very rigorously: elections start from the lowest tier, thereby ensuring the most truthful transmission of the general will from local communities, where it naturally takes shape, to those tiers which, due to their growing size, are increasingly remote from the original source. In this way rational co-ordination among the various tiers of federal planning is guaranteed.[7]

On the basis of this model it is possible to formulate a number of suggestions presenting some element of novelty. It must not be forgotten in this respect that these suggestions are elaborations of a model which is projected into an ideal stage of the historical process in which, thanks to the full accomplishment of the scientific and technological revolution at the world level, the political, economic and social conditions of the complete realisation[8] of democracy are taken for granted. The problem is, then, merely to spell out some of its institutional implications. Thus, many of the suggestions put forward below take for granted a situation in which the purport of the roles imposed upon the citizens by the economic and productive system tends to fade away, organized interests as such lose a considerable part of their political relevance and the behaviour of the citizen-elector gains a higher degree of freedom, needing only appropriate institutions to be turned into action. It thus follows that many of the suggestions in this paper might not be suited to a transitional situation like that in which we are at present (the electoral method suggested, for instance, has nothing to do with the Geyerhahn method, that the federalists, on a different occasion, pointed out as being the most suitable for the European Parliament’s elections).[9]

It has to be noticed, moreover, that the suggestions contained in this paper are only partial ones, and hence could be felt as being out of tune with the general nature of the statements constituting the paper’s point of departure. Nonetheless, it seemed important to me to try to show that research in this direction makes sense, and deserves to be pursued, especially in times like ours, when awareness of the source of the original inspiration of the idea of democracy seems to be growing fainter and fainter under the impact, on the one hand, of the general acceptance of the charismatic nature of power and, on the other, of the increasing diffusion of reductive interpretations worked out by certain brands of political and sociological thought.[10] The issues with respect to which the post-industrial federalist model allows us to make some institutional remarks relevant to our main theme include: i) the composition of the legislative bodies at the different levels; ii) the constituencies for elections to the Lower Chambers iii) the electoral system for Lower Chambers; iv) representation in the Upper Chambers; v) timing and mode of elections to the Upper Chambers; vi) the presidential role and power to dissolve Chambers.

Number of Members in Legislative Bodies.

Legislative bodies of nation-states, and particularly Lower Chambers (the House of Commons, Assemblée Nationale, Bundestag, Camera dei Deputati) are traditionally made up of a large number of deputies (several hundreds). This is for three main reasons.

i) In the nation-states the bulk of the legislative work is done by national Parliaments and a large number of representatives is needed because Parliaments have to be subdivided into many commissions.

ii) The absence of intermediate levels of government with any real autonomy means that the interests of individual localities have to be represented directly at the national level. The more representatives there are, the better this can be achieved.

iii) Politics is practised mainly at the national level. The national Parliament is, therefore, the place where the political class is formed and expresses itself. Drastically reducing the number of representatives would ipso facto mean mutilating the political class in an unacceptable way.

On the other hand, the large number of elected parliamentary representatives seriously hampers any sound development of democratic life. The most momentous of the ensuing inconveniences is the difficulty legislative work has in producing anything which can be identified with the general will. Parliament is flooded with a huge mass of local and sectoral demands, which can easily be voiced precisely because the low quorum required for electing a representative leaves plenty of room for action by organized interest groups within each single constituency. And this is one of the most important causes of the corporative degeneration of democracy.

In a multi-tier federal structure, national Parliaments of current proportions would not be needed. A multi-tier federal structure makes the division of legislative work among the representative bodies of the various levels entirely possible. It thus considerably reduces the number of tasks each level is called upon to undertake. But, at the same time, when it expresses itself, the political class need no longer rely on a single institution (or at least one clearly privileged over the others), but has at its disposal a whole series of bodies, each fully independent within its own sphere, to plan and follow its cursus honorum. Finally, multi-tier planning eliminates the need to have local interests directly represented at the highest level. The synthesis of the problems perceived and the solutions proposed at the lowest levels is created step by step as co-ordination progresses upwards in territorial spheres of an increasing size.

We can draw the conclusion from this that the various legislative bodies at the different levels of our federal state model (and particularly at the higher ones) ought to be made up of a much smaller number of members than is the case now. At the national, continental and world levels, this number ought not to exceed a hundred.

The advantages that a small number of representatives would entail are worth recalling: i) greater prestige attached to the representative’s role; ii) more rigorous political class selection, at least at the highest levels, which is an indispensable prerequisite for correctly carrying out a function which, in a complex framework like the federal one, is destined to become increasingly difficult and delicate; iii) political debates and legislative work become more rational and matter-of-fact (provided, however, the representatives are assisted by efficient technical services); iv) a steady decline in the role played by local and sectoral conditioning.

Constituencies for the Election of Lower Chambers.

As indicated in the preceding section, the unitary nation-state has to reconcile two irreconcilable elements: firstly, the need for centralisation, based on the dogma of the nation “one and indivisible”, and, secondly, the irrepressible persistence of a great number of infinitely diversified local realities. The institutional device used to “solve” this consists in directly representing local realities within the national Parliament. This result is also achieved, as seen in the preceding section, by establishing a high number of representatives in legislative bodies, and by creating small constituencies (although their size varies according to the electoral system adopted). The result is that the representative is closely tied to his constituency, in which his political fortunes are at stake, and often makes the constituency’s interests prevail over the country’s.

We should not forget, besides, that, until a short time ago, it would have been impossible to organize elections in any other way, since transport and communications were not sufficiently developed to make an electoral campaign a practical possibility over very extended areas.

Both these constraints disappear in the post-industrial federal state model. Representing local communities’ interests directly at the centre is no longer necessary or justified since, firstly, local communities’ problems are tackled directly by autonomous levels of self-government in the territorial sphere in which they occur and, secondly, they must be coordinated with one another within larger territorial spheres. The “cascade” electoral system ensures a link between the different levels of the debate on the main orientations of multi-tier planning. Besides, at every level, in federal bicameralism the Upper Chamber has the institutional function of representing the interests of the distinct territorial spheres of which each level is made up. The specific task of Lower Chambers at every level is to take legislative decisions which identify and express the general interest of the whole of the territorial sphere over which they have jurisdiction.

This is the reason why it seems right to argue that parliamentary representatives should be elected at all levels in single constituencies (regional, national, continental and world-wide) so that they are not compelled by the very logic of their election to set the interest of a portion of the territory before that of the whole.

The logistic reasons which made it impossible until a few decades ago to generalize the adoption of single constituencies in very extended territorial spheres now no longer hold true: progress in transport and mass media (especially television) is changing the nature of electoral campaigning. It is a trend which presents significant and positive aspects. We should not overlook the fact that only personalities with a considerable political stature are able to stand at elections in which, due to the institution of the single constituency and to the limited number of representatives to be elected at every level, they are compelled, through the mass media, to come “face to face” with huge numbers of electors, in order to obtain their vote. This is a solid guarantee against the election of the excessive number of yes-men, lobby-representatives, party-bureaucrats, etc. who crowd national parliaments today.

The argument asserting the democratic value of direct dialogue between candidates and electors – which is already weak when applied to an election for a level of government covering a large area, due to the law of numbers – becomes even less convincing in the context of our federal state model, in which local interests are specifically shaped and voiced at city-neighbourhood, district and regional level, i.e. where direct contact between candidates and electors is still possible. At higher levels, only guidelines giving the basic framework of coordination of the options taken at the lower levels are defined. As to these general guidelines, the general will is correctly expressed, rather than through personal contact between candidate and elector (which can be achieved in any case only at the cost of splitting the general will into a number of conflicting particular wills), by an electoral mechanism capable of directing the attention of candidates towards the problems of the whole rather than towards those of a single part. (We should not forget, moreover, that the specific function of the “cascade” elections is to avoid abstract antithesis between the interest of the whole and the interest of the parts, and to give a concrete form to the general interest taken as a synthesis of the interests of the parts).

A final point relates to the previously mentioned need to maintain a constant link between the sections of the political class operating at higher and lower levels. Since it is at lower levels that needs are actually perceived and general will casts its roots, it might be thought that small constituencies would strengthen this link, whereas a single large constituency would weaken it. But the reverse is true. The enlargement of the state’s size in the course of history, from the Greek city-state to the great continental states of our time, bears witness to the growing interdependence of the problems politics is called upon to settle, though such problems keep on surfacing in the form of needs felt and expressed in the daily life of local communities. This implies that the task of the higher levels of self-government is to create the conditions of compatibility necessary to tackle lower level problems successfully. And this goal can be attained only if the political class at the higher levels feels responsible to the electorate of the whole territory within which the synthesis must be effected. If this were not so, i.e. if representatives acted as interpreters of the interests of only a fraction of that territory, compromise would usurp synthesis, the logic of power would arise and the problem of pursuing the general interest would recede into the background.

The List System and Preferences.

Introducing a single constituency at every level for Lower Chamber elections inevitably leads to the list system and raises the question of preferences.

No further discussion is required as regards the list system, since objections to it are the same as those already discussed when dealing with single constituencies.

The problem of preferences, however, still remains. They are widely, and not unjustifiedly, held to be a serious source of corruption in the political system, which tends to become increasingly corporative, where preferences are used. But the penalty for getting rid of preferences without abolishing the list ballot is that parties impose candidates chosen by the party apparatus on the electorate. This is rightly felt by people as a violation of the spirit of the democratic game.

What in actual fact turns preferences into a degenerative factor in political life, fostering clienteles and cliques and making corporative interests overshadow the general will, is the fact that they are optional: it is no secret that the majority of electors do not, in fact, indicate any preferences, thus favouring the strategy of organized interest groups, who get their candidates elected with the votes of a relatively small number of electors.

The solution is to make preferences compulsory, by stipulating that a vote is valid only when it indicates a minimum number of candidates on the list.

Combined with the single constituency, which in all cases compels parties to endorse distinguished candidates, potentially capable of attracting a large number of votes in all geographical and sociological sectors of the constituency, this mechanism would give a decisive contribution to eradicating patronage.

Representation within Upper Chambers.

The function of Upper Chambers in federal states is to represent the interests of the member states in the federation’s Parliament. Their traditional make-up has usually been historically dictated by the circumstances in which the United states of America were created. At that time, the problem was resistance from the smaller states, who were afraid, that, if the principle of proportional representation, applied in both federal Chambers, had turned them into insignificant minorities, as compared with the larger states, then giving up their sovereignty would mean losing any possibility of asserting their position.

This led to the introduction, in the American Senate, of the principle of equal representation, whereby the smaller states were allotted much more power than they would have obtained from a population count.

In our model of post-industrial federalism, equal representation should be substantially confirmed (albeit with certain adjustments and with the proviso that it has to be applied at all levels). The paramount government function in a post-industrial federalist model is multi-tier planning, whose main goal is to achieve and maintain a balanced territorial setting. To achieve both these objectives, those regions in a federation which, at the time when the federation is set up, are peripheries, threatened with depopulation and underdevelopment, must be placed in such a position as to make their voices heard with the same strength as the rich, densely-populated, well-serviced central regions of the same size. In a system heavily characterized by polarization between centre and periphery, because of the greater numerical, and hence political, strength of the privileged areas, proportional representation within both Chambers would tend to reinforce polarization and would thus jeopardize the main objective of multi-tier planning.

More generally, proportional representation within the Upper Chamber is a straightforward negation of the basic nature of federalism as such. What distinguishes federal planning from centralized planning is precisely the former’s capacity to channel resources towards underprivileged regions reversing their spontaneous tendency to flow towards the centre, thanks to the greater political power they command in a federal institutional setting. On the contrary, the logic underlying the defence of the interests of the economically hegemonic regions is the same that would spontaneously prevail within a unitary state. This is the reason why attributing political weight to the different territorial spheres corresponding to levels of self-government proportional to their population would mean reproducing the very same imbalance within the federal state that the federal solution was designed to overcome.

This does not mean that only peripheral and underdeveloped regions would benefit from this institutional mechanism. Indeed, territorial imbalances bring damage to both rich and poor regions alike. Rich regions have to put up with congestion, pollution, a tremendous increase in property values, exceedingly high service costs, and the like. This means only that, as the spontaneous logic of territorial polarization is to be self-sustaining, even against the medium-term interests of the richer regions, it can be countered only by giving greater political clout to the weaker poles.

The principle of equal representation within Upper Chambers is valid in the post-industrial model of federalism, however, provided that the territories for a particular level of government are of a comparable size. If, for historical reasons, this does not happen, and some of the territories with the same level of government are both limited in size, and yet very rich and densely populated (like Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg in Europe) equal representation would bring about consequences diametrically opposite to the ones expected. It would further strengthen already strong regions. In such cases, the principle of equal representation would need to be attenuated by adopting weighted representation mechanisms, like those currently applied within the European Parliament. Yet, even in these cases, at least in a first phase, the arguments heeded by the American Founding Fathers are still valid: thus small states must always be allowed a certain degree of over-representation to guarantee their independence and to recompense the sovereignty they are called upon to abandon. We cannot conclude the section on equal representation within federal Upper Houses without touching on the problem of its seeming to contradict the principle of one man one vote, which is commonly considered one of the basic principles of democracy.

Indeed, the institutions of representative democracy carry out two most important and sharply distinguished functions: as government and as guarantor. The latter was paramount in the first phase of the history of democratic institutions, when the task of Parliament tended to coincide with the defence of the subjects’ rights against the arbitrary power of monarchy.

Parliament’s increasing power over the centuries radically changed this, as the executive became an expression of Parliament. The latter has thus become an eminently governmental institution, with the result that its function as a guarantor has tended to become obliterated. This drift went far enough to raise the problem of protecting the rights of the citizens against the arbitrary rule of majorities, around which the debate between liberals and democrats in the 19th century centered.

Federal bicameralism makes it possible to recuperate the function of representation as a guarantor. The latter is carried out by protecting the rights and interests of the lower tiers of self-government against possible encroachments by majorities in the higher tiers (thus complementing the role of the judiciary, which in addition has the task of protecting individuals’ rights against any arbitrary interference by political power). This function is allotted to the Upper Houses. All this implies a division of labour among the Chambers, reflecting the diverse interests each of them represents. Lower Chambers initiate the legislative process, shape and control the executive with democratic procedures. The Upper Chambers’ tasks are to safeguard the specific interests of the lower tiers of government and guarantee their rights, laid down in the constitution.

In support of this we may recall that our federal model does not provide for bicameralism to be established at the lowest level, namely the neighbourhood. Though political representation is preserved at this level, the orientations of self-government emerge spontaneously from the day-to-day debate among the citizens, i.e. among the very people who directly bear the consequences of those decisions they take part in making. At this level (the one which comes closer than any other to achieving Rousseau’s ideal of an identification between rulers and ruled) the distinction between the two functions of representation is abolished (as self-government is achieved in this case in the full sense of the word). Yet the same distinction surfaces again at the immediately higher level (the municipality, or district) and finds its expression in bicameralism.

All this highlights the reasons underlying the different mechanisms through which representation takes shape in both Chambers: the principle one man one vote must be scrupulously applied within representative institutions with governmental powers (as the principle of majority rule is the very essence of democracy in this particular capacity). On the other hand, in those institutions functioning as guarantors (whose task is to secure respect of the insuperable limits of a government’s action) the principle of equality must be applied with reference to the levels of self-government whose spheres of independence ought to be protected, and only within each of them does the principle of one man one vote reacquire its cogency.

Timing of Elections for Upper Chambers and Attendant Electoral Methods.

In the USA the evolution of the Senate’s structure and function has been such as to eliminate the Upper Chamber’s specific role as a place where federal policies are rediscussed in the light of member states’ interests. The Senate has become a kind of duplicate of the House of Representatives. American bicameralism has thus lost its federal character, since senators and representatives are elected in the same way, which both weakens the Senators’ links with their states and preserves the Representatives’ links with their constituencies.

In our model, the essential difference between the two Chambers is already guaranteed by the single constituency device for electing Lower Chambers at each level. But a further guarantee could well be provided by an election calendar designed to focus the public’s attention on the specific nature of the problems emerging at every level and their connection with what emerges in the electoral campaigns of the lower levels. Hence, making the election of an Upper Chamber and the Lower Chamber at the level immediately below it coincide, so that campaigning in both elections is on the same issues, seems the best way of ensuring that members of the Upper Chambers are sensitive to the specific problems of the territorial levels they represent.

The arguments for a single constituency in Lower Chamber elections hold true, mutatis mutandis, for Upper Chamber elections, the only difference being that the latter are bound to be held in as many single constituencies as there are territorial spheres to be represented at the higher level. For example, continental-level Upper Chamber elections will beheld on the basis of national single constituencies, national-level Upper Chamber elections on the basis of regional single constituencies, and so on.

Finally, as regards the electoral system in the strict sense of the word, it seems that the single transferable vote is to be recommended both because of the small number of representatives to be elected at each level for the higher one and because of the greater flexibility political alignments will presumably acquire in the post-industrial era, in a multi-tier federal structure.

The Presidential Role and the Dissolution of Parliament.

As regards the Presidential Role at the different levels and the power to dissolve the Chambers, let me first of all recall a conclusion reached in my previous essay, which I took for granted in the foregoing section: that, if we ideally locate ourselves in a historical perspective where the division of society into antagonistic classes and of mankind into exclusive nations has been overcome and where multi-tier planning basically becomes the only government function, then it is not hard to see that the relationships between the legislative and executive can only be patterned on a parliamentary model, i.e. a model where the cabinet needs the confidence of Parliament, or of one of Parliament’s Chambers, to get into office, and Parliament, or one of its branches, has the power to dismiss the cabinet at any moment by a vote of non-confidence.

One of the corollaries of a parliamentary system, in the constitutional tradition of western democracies, is the existence of an institution with a presidential role (Head of state) and with the power, among others, to dissolve Parliament (or at least the Lower Chamber) when it fails to produce a government majority.

What form of institution with a presidential role is compatible with our model? Could such an institution be empowered to dissolve Parliament, or one of its branches?

As regards the first question, in a multi-tier federal system, the problem not only concerns the general level, but regional levels as well. There is no way to escape this conclusion because the independence of all levels of government is an essential feature of all federal structures.

As to the nature of such an institution, a number of interesting ideas are to be found in the Draft Treaty of the European Parliament (which on this point as with other points, owes much to the ideas put forward by the UEF).[11] In the case of the European Union, the strongly differentiated nature of all aspects of European society and persistent national loyalties (which are by no means incompatible with a strong consensus for the idea of European political unification, as it exists in European public opinion) has imposed the adoption of a corporate solution as to the Community’s Presidency. The presidential function has thus been attributed, in the Draft Treaty, to the European Council. In a world perspective, where the disappearance of any non-juridical external constraint will tend to weaken any spontaneous drift towards centralisation, it seems legitimate to maintain that the solution indicated for the European Union should be extended to all levels. The only exception would be lowest level, whose homogeneity requires a different solution. The presidential function would thus be attributed, for each level of government, to a corporate body made up of the heads of the executives of the level immediately below.

As regards the second question, the problem is to see whether, at each level of government, the corporate presidency should be empowered to dissolve the Lower Chamber, should the latter fail to produce a majority supporting the cabinet (the same problem does not arise with the Upper Chamber which, ex hypothesi has no power to control the executive).

In actual fact, the corporate Presidency’s power to dissolve the Lower Chamber is incompatible with the essential function of “cascade” elections: to secure organic and permanent links among the different tiers of governments, which thus enables the general will to reach levels of government which are not so closely in touch with the real needs of the citizens. (The “cascade” system selects the political class in such a way that candidates are compelled to express their options and their programmes on the basis of those spelt out at the lower levels of government; so that, once the political will is formed, the greatest co-ordination among the different tiers of global planning can be achieved. For this to be realised, it is essential that the timing of elections at the various levels should be both rigidly fixed and unalterable, which would not be the case if the Lower Chamber of a single level of government were dissolvable).

Clearly relationships between the legislature (the Lower Chamber in particular) and the executive must be established in our model in such a way as to make it possible for the system to function without the need to resort to dissolution.

Before suggesting the possible institutional remedies, let me recall that, in a world-wide multi-tier federal government, any transitory institutional impasse affecting one level alone would be much less momentous than in a nation-state. Indeed, in the latter, a government crisis brings about a total, or almost total, paralysis of the decision-making process in the public sphere, including the crucial field of foreign policy. But in a multi-tier federal scheme, the crisis would only affect one of the many levels of government, and thus a limited sector of public life; and, even if it did affect the world level, it would be no more critical for this, as, once deprived of the power to run foreign policy (and its current monopoly in the field of monetary policy) the world level of government would have no greater effect at all on citizens’ lives than the smaller territorial spheres, inasmuch as it would not have the power to take decisions immediately affecting their day-to-day interests.

This does not of course mean we must not try to find institutional mechanisms capable of reducing the chances of a cabinet crisis at any level to a minimum and of ensuring, should it prove impossible to avoid a crisis, that it can be managed in the most effective and least traumatic way.

The most appropriate remedy for an institutional impasse would seem to be the constructive vote of non-confidence, introduced after the Second World War into the Fundamental Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. This device, however, cannot avoid the impasse arising either when a Chamber fails to produce a majority to support a cabinet, just after its election, or when the cabinet itself resigns.

In these cases it seems legitimate to state that the responsibility for running the executive power during a crisis should belong to the corporate Presidency, complemented with further representatives of the cabinets of the immediately lower order, assisting the respective heads of government. The corporate Presidency would appear to be the sole body satisfying both the requirement for democratic legitimacy (even though this legitimacy is expressed at another level) and the requirement of establishing a structural link with the decisions of lower order levels of government.

* This paper was first published in The Federalist, 27 (1985), p. 90.

[1]Cfr. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, London, Allen & Unwin, 5th ed., 1976, pp. 250 ff.. For a recent and very interesting series of comparisons between the “classical” and “competitive” theories of democracy, see Graeme Duncan, Ed., Democratic Theory and Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, in Id., Oeuvres Complètes, Paris, Gallimard, vol. III, 1959 ff., p. 431 and note on the same page.

[3] Cfr. on this point Murray Forsyth, Unions of States. The Theory and Practice of Confederation, Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1981.

[4] Kenneth C. Wheare, On Federal Government, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 4th ed., 1973, p. 10.

[5] Francesco Rossolillo, Federalism in a Post-Industrial Society, The Federalist, 24 (1984), pp. 120 ff..

[6] Cfr. Max Weber, Die Objektivität sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis, in Id., Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 3. Auflage 1968, p. 191.

[7] This proposal was first put forward by Mario Albertini in his Discorso ai giovani federalisti, Il Federalista, 20 (1978), pp. 51 ff.. The rationale behind the proposal is the creation of a mechanism which, thanks to a fixed series of elections at different levels in rapid succession, forces parties and candidates to organise their electoral campaign and draw up their manifestos in the light of the trends emerging from lower-level electoral debates. The adoption of this type of method would have the natural result of providing considerable continuity in selecting the political class, because the latter would be forced to define their leanings and persuasions in the light of the requirements of multi-tier planning and would be compelled to indicate the most effective syntheses of the solutions regarding which popular consensus has been expressed at lower levels, rather than trusting their fortunes, as usually happens today, to the support of sectoral interest groups.

[8] See Mario Albertini, note 11 of the essay Peace Culture and War Culture, The Federalist, 26 (1984), pp. 26 ff..

[9] Cfr. Movimento federalista europeo, Il sistema elettorale per la seconda elezione europea. Proposte tecniche, Il Federalista, 22 (1980), pp. 85 ff.. To illustrate the difference between the two perspectives (transitional and model) from a more general standpoint, reference can be made to the two great typologies identified by Arend Lijphard (Democracies. Democratic Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries, Yale, Yale University Press, 1984), namely majority democracy and consensus democracy. Clearly, the current practice of majority democracy (of the British type) would seem to be more appropriate to the requirements of transition, whereas the model is the purest expression of consensus democracy (where the process of decision-making occurs through a basis of consensus which is much greater than a simple majority and which may even mean unanimous agreement).

[10] Examples of reductionism, albeit at undisputed levels of scientific seriousness, may be seen for example in Robert A. Dahl’s identification (i.e. in Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy, Yale, Yale University Press, 1952) between democracy and “polyarchy” (i.e. pluralism of power centres) or in the conception of democracy as a legitimising procedure put forward by Niklas Luhmann, in Legitimation durch Verfahren, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp, 1983.

[11] Union of European Federalists, Proposals for the Solution of the Institutional Crisis of the Community, February 1982.



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