Sam Seitz

I don’t think anybody would deny that the American political system seems to be in decay. Now, it’s possible that the intransigence and brinksmanship that is currently driving Washington to gridlock is only a transitory phase, but I’m becoming more and more skeptical. From the games over Scalia’s successor to the long and arduous campaign season to the cults of personality politicians develop, American democracy is creaking at the seams. In fact, just as a thought experiment, pretend the U.S. were some Latin American or Eastern European democracy. The headlines practically write themselves: “Political Infighting Over Judge Appointments Leading to Constitutional Court Crisis” or “Party Sectarianism Leads to Fiscal Disaster.” Of course, the American system is not as bad or corrupt as many of the other democracies in the world, but it is also hardly a paragon of democratic efficiency. While I think articles foretelling of the collapse of the American system are a bit exaggerated, I do think that the current governance crises we are experiencing are a direct byproduct of a flawed political system. In short, these crises demonstrate just how ineffective presidential systems are compared to parliamentary systems.

The biggest problem with the American presidential system is clearly the divided mandate. In parliament, the majority party always occupies the executive because the PM is always a member of the biggest party (absent weird coalition shenanigans). This system means that it is always clear which party has the mandate to rule. This feature, quite obviously, does not exist in the U.S. With a liberal president and a conservative legislature, neither side can convincingly assert that they represent the will of the people. The legislature can argue that its elections are more frequent, thus representing the most current views of the electorate, but the president can easily retort that only he represents the political views of the entire country. This divided government is an enormous problem because it ensures gridlock absent one party controlling both houses of Congress and the Executive. Parliamentary systems simply don’t have this problem. One party rules until it loses the popular mandate, in which case elections are held and another party is able to assume leadership. This streamlining means that periods of gridlock only last a few weeks at worst, therefore minimizing the risk of a government shut down.

The second reason that parliamentary systems are superior is that leaders can be easily removed. An excellent example of this is Margaret Thatcher (the Iron Lady, at least until Merkel arrived). She and her Conservative Party dominated the British Parliament for three elections. But then she started to advocate for a hugely unpopular poll tax. In response, the Conservatives held an emergency meeting and, over the course of a weekend, Thatcher was gone. This kind of party efficiency ensures that a) party leaders are accountable to their party/base and b) there are much fewer lame ducks. Presidents are much harder to remove. Absent impeachment, presidents are virtually guaranteed power for at least four years, regardless of how much political capital and influence they have. An example would be Bill Clinton. Regardless of what you think about him, it’s very clear that after 1998 Clinton had zero political capital. In a parliamentary system, he could have easily been replaced by a new, powerful leader. Instead, he was allowed to continue as the American president despite having no ability to get anything done. It is not in a country’s interest to have an ineffective chief executive, but in a presidential system, ineffective leaders are far too prevalent (just ask Brazil).

The third reason is that parliamentary systems ensure that unqualified political outsiders cannot assume power. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would never become Prime Minister because they have not risen through the ranks of their respective parties. In a parliamentary system, the PM and Cabinet are all senior party members who have proven their ability to govern and work with other politicians to get things done. This feature ensures that the executive possesses talented and effective leaders and not some random demagogue. In parliamentary systems, voters cast a vote for a party, not a candidate. This guarantees that governing parties/coalitions are determined by merit and their ability to represent and address the electorate’s issues and concerns. It also forces people to vote for a platform and not for a person, minimizing the risk of personality cults.  Finally, it prevents candidates from being elected based on looks, religion, or personal wealth, all factors that are irrelevant but are often used by voters to select their representative.

Of course, parliamentary systems are not perfect either. They are more prone to instability due to the more fluid election cycles, and they can lack the ability to govern when a vote of no confidence succeeds but Parliament can’t decide on a new ruling coalition. Parliaments can become fractured by many smaller parties who don’t have enough power to govern but possess just enough to spoil, and the power of the PM can allow him or her to dominate the system without any real checks or balances. However, many of these problems are relatively easy to fix. Countries can impose electoral thresholds to ensure that small parties that don’t get above a certain percentage of the vote can’t enter the legislature. Countries can also implement constructive votes of no confidence – like what exists in the German Bundestag – to ensure that votes of no confidence can only occur if a new government is immediately ready to step up. Judicial institutions, too, can check the power of the PM and the Cabinet, ensuring that no leader becomes too powerful. Presidential systems are much harder to fix because the whole principle of checks and balances functionally prescribes gridlock.

Of course, the U.S. is not going to shift to a parliamentary system. Moreover, I still have faith that the current governing issues can be resolved. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that the Constitution was not the best, most enlightened political document ever written and that we would be much better off if the founding fathers had more closely emulated their British rivals.