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Matthew Yglesias has a pretty alarming essay regarding the eventual state of American politics and basically why we need a parliamentary system.

By fnord12 | March 2, 2015, 2:02 PM | Liberal Outrage


well, we're fucked because we have politicians who are bringing snowballs into the Senate Chamber to prove global warming is a myth. there's pretty much no chance of Americans coming up with something better when the whole thing breaks down.

I'm not buying it. The problem isn't that America doesn't have a parliamentary system but that America is so deeply divided. The measures that Obama wants to pass are opposed by large portions of the American people. Liberals want a parliamentary system because they're convinced it would be easier for them to get their programs passed but they forget the reverse is also true.
Also, advocates of a parliamentary system seem to forget that most countries with a parliamentary system don't have a strong religious right. Israel does and the effect has been to magnify their influence. Do you really want a Christian Fundamentalist Party having a Ministry in an American government?
In fact, a parliamentary system does give extremist parties disproportionate powers.
Parliamentary systems can also be very unstable, as demonstrated by the fact that Italy has changed its government five times since breakfast.
Yglesias also argues that America's democracy has been flawed historically by the standards of modern democracies. Well, so have most modern democracies been flawed by today's standards. The point is we avoided turning into a one-party state.
He claims that the United States didn't impose our system on Germany, Japan, Italy or Austria because it recognized our system was flawed. Aside from the fact that in Germany, Italy and Austria we had to come up with a system that was acceptable to the British and French, we were trying to find a system that would prevent the Axis members from becoming either fascist or communist in the future.
If you did want to change our system of government, it would be impossible. The Republicans and Democrats would both be trying to come up with a solution that favored them. Plus, if you scrap the Constitution on Presidential elections, then why not on gun control? Freedom of religion? We'd get bogged down in all sorts of side debates.
And don't forget parliamentary systems can fail dramatically- Weimar Germany, France under the 3rd Republic, Czechoslovakia in 1948. Yes, they were special circumstances but what they all had in common was that the Left and the Right favored using violence to recreate society in their images.

Michael, as always thanks for responding and being civil about it.

A lot to unpack in your comments, but let me make some (long) counterpoints and then i'll leave it at that.

I think the way to look at Yglesias' essay is as a problem statement. The problem is gridlock. I don't think Yglesias is seriously saying we should scrap the constitution and become a parliamentary system (i know that's how i framed in in my link-blog). I think what he's saying is that if we were to do it over from scratch today, we wouldn't come up with the same constitution we did 200+ years ago. One of the big advances in those 200 years is the method parliamentary systems have for dealing with gridlock. And he uses that to illustrate the problems we have with gridlock.

As for me personally, it is true that i want it to be easier to pass legislation when my party is in power, but i accept that it means the other side would be able to do the same. This is consistent with my argument in recent years to abolish the filibuster in the Senate. I think the party in power should be able to govern. One of the complexities of our political system (unanticipated by the founders) is that people mostly vote in presidential elections. They don't vote in the off years. So in our system a minority of motivated voters is able to obstruct any popularly elected president. But as the Yglesias article notes, people and the media still hold the president accountable for what happens. So if, say, the economy continues to languish after a president is elected, they blame him even if he hasn't been able to enact his agenda to fix it. Or if he can't deliver on campaign promises, supporters see it as a betrayal. That results in an "all parties are the same" attitude or basic demoralization that leads to less voter participation, and that is the real #1 danger to democracy. If whichever party is in power is able to enact their agenda, people can see it, and more accurately say if it's working or not. If people don't like what a party is doing, they can get outraged and vote them out, and the alternate party is able to reverse course without obstruction. In our current system, there are so many "checks and balances" that it can't happen that way, even if people do vote in a new president. We can blame the voters for not voting in off-year elections (and that's only part of it) but realistically that's not going to change.

You talk about parliamentary systems being more susceptible to extremism, but a couple of points there. First, if a certain percentage of our country is "extreme", then that *should* be reflected in our system. I don't like the idea of a system of government being kept in place just because it keeps out people with views we don't like. It's also worth noting that our system also favors certain kinds of extremism. Right now a state like Utah, with a higher than normal Mormon population, gets as many Senators as the state of New Jersey despite having 6 million less people. I don't have any problems with Mormons, but it does show that a religious group could gain disproportionate representation in our form of government. A more concrete example is the fact that for decades a regional faction with extreme views on Civil Rights prevented any progress on that topic. That had very tangible consequences that are more concerning than, for example, the relative rise of a far right party in France, where even now they are unlikely to have any real power. At the very least it shows that switching to a parliamentary system would be net neutral when it comes to extremism.

It's also worth realizing that a lot of the recent rise in extremism in Europe is due to a type of gridlock as well, since the center-right and -left parties have had their hands tied by the ECB. There's a whole different thing going on in Europe right now that makes apples to apples comparisons difficult. That's also a major part of the frequent changes in the Italian government. No one is able to form a coalition to actually deal with their economic problems, and that's really because of the structural problems of the EU. But the fact that they are frequently changing governments shouldn't be seen as a sign of a disaster in and of itself. Changing governments in a parliamentary system is really just saying that they're renegotiating alliances or holding elections. It doesn't mean they're in a state of anarchy (yes, it may seem chaotic in the short term and if the EU problems aren't resolved it's dangerous in its own right for larger reasons). And again it has to be contrasted to the US where everyone sits around doing nothing for 2-4 years hoping that something will change with the next election.

I think Yglesias makes the case very well that there's a problem in our constitutional system. It may not have always been there, in part because our politics have gone through major realignments, especially on race issues, so in the past you could have liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. But we're now out of that phase, and stuck with gridlock as the economy grinds and nothing is done about global warming and many other issues. The current system requires overwhelming majorities to change the status quo in any way. And it's only going to get worse as politics becomes more polarized; we're just recently out of the realignment phase where the likes of Zell Miller were Democrats, for example.

That's the point Yglesias is making and he's using the parliamentary government as an example to show how other countries have resolved that. If we acknowledge that it's going to be a problem then we can start talking about a solution. Some more moderate ideas (still "extreme" compared to the status quo, but much less so than scraping the constitution) could include:

*Abolishing the filibuster and "holds" in the Senate and the Hastert Rule in the House
*Changing all House and Senate terms to 4 years and holding the elections only in presidential years
*Making House elections statewide, with proportional representation, to eliminate gerrymandering

We could even start with more moderate things like making election day a paid holiday and/or otherwise making it easier to vote (mail-in ballots, etc.). But before we can do any of that, we first have to acknowledge that the gridlock we're seeing in government is a serious problem that isn't going away on its own.

It would also help if we had a voting system that allowed for viable third parties to exist (which doesn't necessarily mean a parliamentary system). Even if we're still polarized, at least it wouldn't necessarily be exact opposites. If your party doesn't have common ground with one party, it should have common ground with the other.