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Cabinet Government

There are basically two types of Democratic-Republics in the world – Parliamentary, or a Prime Minister led government, and a strong President based system.  Hybrids of various kinds involving monarchs and other systems with varying degrees of power abound, but every democratically elected government in the world falls into one of these categories.  The person who shows up at the international conferences has one of these titles.

But is that the only way to go?  The situation in Egypt, among other places, has led me to wonder if there is some way a nation with a history and tradition of strong leadership might do better under a system of more than one nationally elected leader with defined roles and a real balance of power between them.  I call it an “Elected Cabinet”, and the inspiration comes from the laboratories of democracy, the US States.

The UK House of Commons.  It mostly works.

The UK House of Commons. It mostly works.

Every Democratic-Republic starts with a legislature, congress, or commons of some kind.  This is a body elected by the people, almost invariably by district.  The members are one of many and represent a defined set of people.  So far so good.

But a legislature alone cannot run a nation – there has to be leadership.  And most Democratic-Republics have found it necessary to somehow temper the will of the people in a way that takes care of tradition, the rights of minorities, or simply a ruling class by having an “upper house” with the same or less power.  The US Senate, elected by state, is designed to be more august and thoughtful by nature.

Beyond that, someone is elected to be in charge of the nation and make quicker decisions in an executive function.  If the parliament elects a Prime Minister you have one form, if the people elect a strong President you have another.  Israel has a largely powerless President and a directly elected Prime Minister, so titles can vary.  Either way, they array around them a cabinet they chose to either form a coalition or execute their will in the day to day operation of the state.

But what if only some or most of the power was in the chief executive and most of the cabinet was elected?  For example, 46 US states elect an Attorney General that is separate from the governor.  Most elect a Treasurer independently, to keep the money handling distinct.  There is usually an elected Secretary of State for independent elections.  Many states have elected Insurance Commissioners, Agriculture Commissioners, and so on.  Minnesota has the unique position of Auditor, whose job is to keep an eye on the operation of (mostly local) government.

The US Senate.  Imagine if they had something they had to do.

The US Senate. Imagine if they had something they had to do.

If most of the cabinet was elected separately with distinct roles, and formed into an upper house (a Senate, perhaps) you could distribute power among many executives and create a balance while retaining strong roles.

What would such a body look like?  An elected Attorney General is obvious, as is Treasurer, Secretary of State, Auditor, and so on.  But why not an elected Education Senator or a Health Senator?  How about a Labor Senator and a Commerce Senator who have to work together?  Some of the power of the President can be shared into a body that has to give a majority assent to legislation and perhaps approve the appointees to a Presidential Cabinet.

What should stay with the President?  Control of the military and the Foreign Ministry for starters, along with judicial appointments and the Civil Service’s general operation.  It would still be a powerful position, and the degree of power that leader retains can be tweaked based on national need or preference.

An elected cabinet as an upper house should probably not initiate legislation or spending authorization – so there goes the tricky Conference Committees that often make backroom deals in the US.  But they might have some unique powers over the lower house such as the ability to yank a bill onto the floor and force a vote, reducing the power of an entrenched old guard to bottle up important legislation.

A strong leader or chaos? No, don't just pick one.

A strong leader or chaos? No, don’t just pick one.

But the real payoff comes in the balance of power when times are bad.  If the Attorney General or similar function controlled the police and the Secretary of State controlled a strong citizen militia, armed crackdowns and coups would be difficult.  You could still have a strong state mechanism, but if it is shared among different parties it would be hard to be too brutal.  It would be up to the people to elect different parties to make that happen, of course, but as a nation grows into its democratic traditions you can bet they would.

Such a system might be just what a place like Egypt needs to balance things out and escape from a tradition of autocracy.  Naturally, putting the military under civilian rule, obviously the President, would be a tricky first step.  But there has to be something between an often chaotic Parliamentary system and a strong President that would suit an emerging nation.

Can you think of any current examples?  I can’t.  So here is my proposal.

7 thoughts on “Cabinet Government

  1. You have a knack for crazy ideas that might just be brilliant. I have to think about this one. Why Egypt? Aren’t there better examples of nations that aren’t simply falling apart?

    • I picked Egypt because part of how this came to me was thinking about how this would go down if the police weren’t tied to the military. It grew from there. Multiple separations of powers in many layers seems to suit a state that is otherwise falling apart to me.

  2. What a great idea! What I like best is how women and minorities could be elected to some of the smaller posts and have national prominance. There would be room to grow and display talents in a way that we don’t have here. No one goes from the cabinet to the president but that would be logical really. In this system it would make sense since you have people already voting for you.

  3. The problem in Egypt is the nature and direction that policy and society should go in. The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization. It is a type of fundamentalism. Democratic capitalist nations have a degree of free enterprise, markets, voting, rule of law, human rights, civil liberties and civil rights and equality. I have to do my research, but the best thing for me is to find out what Muslim Brotherhood adherents think on the political questions of the day.

    It is a bit odd that Egypt would overthrow its democratically elected government. They have divisions in their society like any does.

    The beauty of the US system is we have self-correcting mechanisms and a vision of freedom and equality that is in creative tension. In the 1950s and 1960s the US looked at itself and we saw we didn’t up to many of our ideals. Hence the civil rights movement and women’s rights and environmentalism and gay rights. Still,we still fought communism every step of the way, still believed in markets and ushered in the Reagan Revolution.

    • But how do you get from point A to point B? I don’t have all the answers. I’m proposing here an alternative system, as if systemic approaches are the right way to go. I know that’s inadequate at best.
      The US does have an amazing system, and the people really do know best – at least eventually. As a democrat (small d) I fundamentally believe that. Other nations are a bit adrift in all the change, and who can blame them since it’s so much to absorb. But they will get it right if they get a chance to see it through over the long haul.
      Changes often take generations to achieve, especially fundamental ones. How many mothers in our world can really relate to what their daughters are facing? It’s so hard to provide guidance and each generation is cast adrift to find its own way. That makes for slow, uneven progress. But …. there is progress.
      Egypt will work it out or collapse into what appears to be a safe place where they think they can hid (as Iran did). I don’t know which. But I do think a system that holds the tension in some kind of stasis might help, at least a little bit. The same is true for many other nations. Lord help us all, this is a difficult time for everyone.

  4. Pingback: What is a “Nation”? | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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