“America [is] indeed a free country but it [is] free despite, not because, of its constitution,” Professor Francis Buckley of George Mason University said in an interview with The Politic.
The ultimate form of American exceptionalism is the presidential system of government.
After the 2016 election, the question haunting political scientists is whether America can continue to be the exception. When a demagogue can rise to power and win the presidency without a popular mandate, we must examine our system. Key flaws in presidential systems could lead to an unstable government and a decrease in civil liberties, such as free speech.
“The U.S. is really unusual in having an economic, very advanced, sophisticated, experienced democracy—and having a presidential system,” Bingham Powell, professor of Political Science at Rochester University told The Politic. “There are very few of them, practically none. Almost all are some form of parliamentary system.”
The United States would be better served by a parliamentary system than the current presidential model. Parliamentary systems 1) avoid political gridlock and stagnation, 2) result in a more accountable government, and 3) separate citizens’ pride in the country from the political party that is in office.
First, in a parliamentary system, the legislature, not the people, choose the prime minister. In Britain, the prime minister and his or her cabinet are “the government” and they may pass legislation as they see fit.
Under that system, Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow of Government Studies at the Brookings Institution, explained to The Politic, “The minority party is mainly there to give voice to its differences and its criticisms of the governing party, the government, and set themselves up for subsequent elections.”
An American parliamentary system, modeled after the British system of government, might hold the key to ameliorating the government’s shortcomings and weaknesses.
“When parties become polarized it’s possible to have divided governments in deadlock and inaction on major problems,” Mann noted.
Each dot on this graph, from a study done by Clio Andris of Pennsylvania State University, represents either a Republican or Democratic member of the House of Representatives. The lines between them represent agreements between members.
“We have parliamentary-like parties,” continued Mann, “they are very distinctive ideologically and relatively unified internally.” Within the presidential model, the lack of compromise and negotiation creates a deadlock where very little legislation is passed and crucial decisions are delayed. The Affordable Care Act is an example of legislation where the fight to pass it became more about partisan politics than substantial policies.
By contrast, if there were an emergency in Great Britain, during a period with a single party government, parliament “can react quickly and there can be fast legislation to deal with that crisis,” Powell explained. Coalition governments, as was present in Britain between 2010-2015, are more complicated, however lawmakers still tend to compromise and pass legislation quickly without much opposition.
On top of that, gridlock means no law reversal.
“Whenever laws are passed, no matter how bad they seem in hindsight,” explained Buckley, “they turn into the laws that can’t be undone.”
“In the parliamentary system, its very, very simple—you just pass another law. But here you have dreadful laws in the books that just can’t be changed. It’s a bit of a scandal how bad the tax system is—it’s really a prime example— but you can’t do anything about it,” Buckley continued.
Government gridlock stems not only from political parties within legislature, but also from the separation of powers established in our Constitution.
Both the United States and Great Britain run elections through a first past the post system, as opposed to proportional representation. No matter whether an election yields a split of 51/49 percent or 90/10 percent, the majority candidate will win.
“In our system, because its single member first past the post, in districts that are highly irregular, it’s possible to get one party winning the national vote and another party winning the majority in the legislature,” Mann said.
As a result, the Executive branch and the legislature come into direct conflict. There is no mandated cooperation between the branches of government. In theory, this separation is a good example of checks and balances—but in reality it creates strife and stagnation.
Second, our system also means no one takes responsibility for government failures. With multiple direct elections, like in the United States, “the opposition party is in a place in the Congress, opposition to the president, in a position to frustrate the program and the efforts of the presidential majority electorate because of the separation of those two.”
Cross-institutional conflict results in no politician being able to carry out his or her campaign promises and haphazardly blaming the other branches of government for the politician’s inability to complete his or her agenda. No one takes full responsibility.
In hopes of passing campaign promises, American co-partisan legislators go along with “their president because they think he will sign legislation which they favor,” Mann said. “Therefore, they abdicate their responsibilities as the first branch of government and the branch in the best position to frustrate the positions of a would-be autocrat.”
Unlike a prime minister, a president does not have to listen to co-partisans in legislature and instead may act alone. Separation of powers makes the Executive branch very strong, with little oversight, especially because legislators of the president’s party rarely dissent in fear of jeopardizing their party’s standing.
If an American president oversteps his or her executive power, in theory the courts will step in and the president will be impeached, and if a president enacts legislation that his party disagrees with, they can attempt to use the power of persuasion. But most of the time, they must wait until the next presidential election cycle to find a new leader.
“Impeachment in America is pretty much a dead letter in America, it will never happen,” Buckley said.
The danger is, he continued, “When you find a parliamentary country where somebody wants to be a dictator, he makes himself president and turns into a presidential system.”
In a parliamentary system, the relationship between the prime minister and the government is often stable and functional. Unlike an American president, a British prime minister is really the leader of his or her party. Since the prime minister was elected in the same manner of the rest of the members of parliament, all members maintain the same legitimacy.
Mann explained that the prime minister and government are accountable to each other: “The cabinet is presumably accountable to the party caucus or coalition caucus in the legislature and the prime minister is accountable to the cabinet. They tend less to emerge as dominant figures, they are very much anchored in their party.”
The most important feature of a prime minister-parliament relationship is the no-confidence vote, where “the chief executive can himself or herself designate a particular piece of legislation as a matter of confidence, where if this legislation fails, the chief executive will resign,” Powell explained. Though not an official vote of no confidence, after Brexit, David Cameron stepped down because he felt he no longer best represented the country or his party. In Britain, the official vote of no confidence was last used to depose a prime minister in 1979, when by a vote of 311/310 James Callaghan was replaced by Margaret Thatcher.
Like American legislators, British members of parliament “would be much more reluctant to oppose their president’s legislation if he made that legislation a confidence vote and they know if they didn’t pass it, he would have to resign and there would be an election, which they might lose,” continues Powell.
At the same time, the threat of deposition and a change in party rule prevents the chief executive from making decisions that would risk his party’s trust. As a result, prime ministers are anchored to their party or party coalition.
Under parliamentary systems, prime minister’s rise and fall on their own accomplishments. The prime minister and his cabinet bear all responsibility for all government function and legislation. If they make a mistake, they must accept responsibility and work to fix the problem, or else their party will depose them.
Buckley explains how in the United States, “when something happens here, you get a lot of finger pointing, as happened in respect to the Debt Ceiling increase in 2011, where nobody took responsibility.” That doesn’t happen when one party has total control.
When the executive branch and legislature both claim legitimacy, yet blame the other branch for government failures, the political climate becomes hostile and American citizens do not know who to trust and who to vote for in the next election. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015 only 19 percent of the population trusts the American government most or all of the time. Imagine where that number might be in 2017.
The third reason we should adopt a parliamentary system is that once a president is elected in the United States, he or she becomes the head of state and the head of government. They are the face of the nation and the ultimate symbol of patriotism. However, as a result, citizens’ faith and pride in the entire country revolves around who is elected to the nation’s highest office.
In comparison, almost all parliamentary systems feature separate heads of state and heads of government. In Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Jamaica, and more, Queen Elizabeth is the head of state.
“The monarch is essentially forbidden to speak in her own voice about politically controversial matters,” Stuart Semmel, Senior Lecturer of History and Humanities at Yale University explained in an interview with The Politic. Instead, royalty have a ceremonial role and take on some of the celebrity an American president has. They award medals of honor and visit important landmarks, while allowing the prime minister to primarily focus on government.
Semmel gives the example of Queen Elizabeth, who “has been monarch through so many governments and so many prime ministers, there’s stability there, and the very fact that she has been seen as a-political adds to the stability.”
Semmel believes that “the first thing would be, if we had a parliamentary system, we would have to figure out what kind of head of state would we have and who would he be.”
The United States should not call Queen Elizabeth and ask her to come back to the United States. However, the a parliamentarian United States could elect a “president” as its head of state, who would have symbolic powers and act outside of the political sphere.
Of course, the United States would have to determine a lot more than just its new head of state in order to become a parliamentary system.
But, say the United States were to become a parliamentarian system tomorrow.
“Paul Ryan would be prime minister,” Semmel said confidently.
“The speaker of the house would be prime minister. They become speaker because they have a certain relationship to their colleagues in the legislature and within the party,” he explained.
With a parliamentary system, American voters would have to decide whether they like Prime Minister Ryan in the 2020 election or not. If they do, but do not like their local Republican candidate, they would go to the polls and vote for the Republican candidate anyway so that Ryan would stay in power. If they like their local Republican but do not like Prime Minister Ryan, they might vote for a different legislator from a different party.
The voter would also most likely have more options in parties to choose from.
“I think there is no question that the Republican party, and the Democratic party would break down to some extent, into smaller parties and strange alliances would occur between former Republicans and former Democrats who might make new parties,” Semmel said.
Perhaps the election would result in a parliament with no clear party majority, and then the economic conservatives and moderate democrats would form a coalition government, much like the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats did in the United Kingdom from 2010-2015. In that situation, there was a prime minister and deputy prime minister—and they had to compromise on some legislation.
Our new coalition government would need to make major decisions regarding issues such as health care, immigration, education, and more. The legislation would be enacted swiftly.
Of course there have been times when prime ministers overstepped their bounds and the parliamentary system failed. In 1975, Indira Gandhi called a state of emergency and imprisoned political opponents. South Africa was a parliamentary system during the Apartheid. Still, there are undeniable advantages.
To even ever dream of changing the American system of government, we would need a constitutional convention.
“To have a constitutional convention, you need a lot of people that are really upset,” Mark Tushnet, expert on constitutional law at Harvard University and previous clerk for Thurgood Marshall said in an interview with The Politic.
To get people upset, the country would need “not just a bad president, but a bad president unchecked by Congress and without a lot of support.”
“Trying to use the ordinary methods, like electing a new president or electing a new senate majority would not solve the problem. Must think it’s a structural problem, not a problem of individuals,” he continued.
Simply put, the American presidential system is a large structural failure. Though not all parliaments are rousing successes, emerging governments tend to replicate parliaments as opposed to presidential systems because “presidential systems [are] more fragile, more subject to abuse, harder to sustain democracy,” Powell concluded.
Neither the American public nor the political elite will wake up tomorrow and conclude that the United States ought to be a parliamentary democracy. The American government is 240 years too late.
But American government should take some cues from parliament. The executive branch should be weaker, the legislature stronger. Patriotism should form around long standing institutions of this country, such as the Statue of Liberty, as opposed to polarized figures in government. Perhaps, if a politician believes they are not best serving their constituency, they should step down in an act of “no confidence,” or change their views to avoid blindly following their party leader.
The United States, in its technological advances, level of diversity, and international power, is exceptional. Its government needs to rise to the challenge.