Interest Groups and Political Systems

Parliamentary Vs. Presidential System - Different Operating Environments

The political system is a major determinant in interest group politics. Institutional conditions, along with political traditions, are the basis of the political culture which shapes the operation of interest groups. This section of the site should be read along with the introduction about "interest group history" in order to fully appreciate the similarities and differences of "interest groups today".

The two major types of constitutional democracy in the modern world are the presidential system, which is exemplified by the United States, and the parliamentary system which in its classic form can be seen at work in Great Britain. Germany has a parliamentary system but also contains some features of the American system, such as federalism and the process of judicial review -- the power of the courts to examine the actions of the legislative, executive and administrative branches of government in order to ensure that they are acting in accord with the constitution.

The U.S. presidential system is based on the principle of separation of powers and distinguishes sharply between the legislative and the executive; in the parliamentary system the legislative and executive branches are not so clearly separated from each other. The government is elected by the majority of the parliament.

In the U.S. system the separation of legislature and executive is reinforced by their separate elections and by the system of checks and balances that provides constitutional support for routine disagreements between the branches; in the German system the integration of legislature and executive is reinforced by the necessity for their constant agreement, if the normal processes of government are to continue. In order to pass laws, the German government generally depends on unanimous party support. In the American presidential system, party discipline is less necessary and is rarely applied because both the president and Congress serve different terms.

Two-Party vs. Multi-Party System

American parties were, from their beginning, less ideological and less centralized than those in Europe. Because of a high degree of economic mobility and the early adoption of broad-based suffrage in the United States, they were not so distinctly rooted in class identifications. In America, the two-party system is based on Anglo-Saxon tradition and on the electoral system. The winner-takes-all electoral principle makes it difficult for new and small parties to establish themselves. The system of proportional representation, on the other hand, favors small parties. In the special case of Germany, however, proportional representation is limited to those parties that can accrue at least five percent of the general vote. This provision, established to exclude minor extremist parties from the Bundestag, also erects a hurdle for new parties.

Similarities and Differences

The United States and Germany provide a sufficient level of similarity to be compared with one another in terms of interest group activity (Knoke, 511 f.) Both are advanced industrial societies with capitalist economies that maintain significant social welfare systems. Both countries have representative democratic governments, embedded in a federal system. In both cases, two major parties compete for political power, as the smaller German parties ally as junior partners in coalitions with the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats. Furthermore, the two systems share the feature of a strong chief executive.

They differ in the following respects. German federalism tends to be more consensus-oriented than the American system, with the state governments being directly represented in the Bundesrat, the second chamber of the legislature. In Germany, legislators' autonomy is restricted by demands for party loyalty to a greater extent than legislators in the United States. This difference has far-reaching implications for the tactics of interest groups. Moreover, there are several quasi-governmental institutions in Germany, with self-administrative powers (Hancock, 75-78), while interest groups in the United States do not share this institutional embedding.

Political Systems -- Constitutions -- Democracy -- Group Theory