record number of Americans now perceive their government as ineffective. A Gallup poll taken in January found that “for the second consecutive year, dissatisfaction with government edged out the economy…as the nation’s top problem.” In May, a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that “just 4 percent (of Americans) say they have a great deal of confidence in Congress,” and only “15 percent say they have a lot of confidence in the executive branch.” In a democratic republic, where governing institutions are designed to reflect and respond to the will of the people, such low grades speak to a corrosive sense of crisis. The public call for the government to “do something” has become commonplace.
Government inaction is most often the product of political gridlock. Our presidential democracy is furnished with checks, balances, and veto points intended to prevent either the legislative or executive branch of government from wielding outsize power. When the president and the congress can find agreement or compromise, laws get passed. But in polarized times, such as our own, these mechanisms are used to halt policy initiatives opposed by one of the two major political parties. During the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, for example, his administration was able to pass the transformative Affordable Care Act in part because large Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate made common cause with the Democratic president. But in 2010, Republicans gained control of the House and in 2015, they won a majority in the Senate as well. Republican lawmakers were quick to slam on the breaks and stop what they saw as a runaway liberal policy agenda. Republican obstructionism reached its apogee with the 2013 government shutdown over funding for Obamacare.
In recent years, pundits have taken to decrying both obstructionism and the system that allows it to gum up the works. That is to be expected. But others are making a deeper, more revolutionary argument than that. Some members of the press and academia are calling for the United States to replace its presidential democracy with a parliamentary one. In a system such as Britain’s, they say, gridlock would lessen or dissolve, obstructionism would no longer plague us, and an empowered American prime minister would swiftly enact effective policy. The argument is timely, provocative, and often has a scholarly gloss to it. But judging by the actual evidence, it is also wrong.
While not reflected in public opinion, our presidential democracy acted more nimbly than its parliamentary allies in response to the greatest challenge of our young century. And our success tells us much about the uniquely American understanding of democracy itself.
he case for parliamentary democracy rests on the mobilization of power: A majority-party parliament is elected by a country’s citizens. The parliament then elects a prime minister. The executive and legislative powers are politically aligned and structurally fused. This makes for a relatively unopposed head of government and the quicker and easier passage of laws.
Americans who are sympathetic to this argument are not so obscure as one might think. In 2011, the journalist Fareed Zakaria wrote a blog post for CNN titled, “Does America Need a Prime Minister?” His implied conclusion: yes. Zakaria writes that we are “living in a world where you need governments that are able to respond decisively and quickly,” which, of course, an American parliament could do. “It’s all very well to keep saying that we have the greatest system in the history of the world,” he writes in a follow-up post, “but against this background of dysfunction, it sounds a lot like thoughtless cheerleading.” Similarly, in 2013, then–Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein claimed that our system of government “is pretty unstable” because “both sides end up having control over some levels of power…and incentives that point in opposite directions.” He went on: “Our system is beginning to exhibit the predictable, and terrifying, tensions of all presidential systems.”
Taking a more urgent tone still is Vox’s Matthew Yglesias. In 2015, he wrote an article under the headline “American Democracy is Doomed.” Yglesias, sounding like the early Christian apocalyptics, argued that someday “there will be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else.” If we are lucky, this would lead to a “better, more relevant political system.” He then cited the work of the late Spanish political scientist Juan Linz to make the case that presidential systems simply cannot overcome gridlock. “In a parliamentary system,” writes Yglesias, “deadlocks get resolved.” In contrast, “within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional train wreck with no resolution.” The conclusion was obvious: America needs parliamentary government.
Writing in the Atlantic in 2015, Yoni Appelbaum was also dire. Noting first that “in parliamentary systems, governmental gridlock is relatively rare,” he delivers a harsh assessment of American democracy: “Blind faith in the wisdom of the Constitution, and in its capacity to withstand the poor behavior of its politicians, will ultimately destroy it.”
If U.S. political institutions are inferior to those of Europe, then we might find that the United States managed the recession more poorly than its parliamentary counterparts.
Other scholars have even explored the question beyond the written page. NPR reported that the American Political Science Association convened a special task force in 2013 to discover whether the United States “can learn lessons from European democracies where there’s less paralysis.” Unsurprisingly, these political scientists determined that we could learn much from parliamentarians but also seemed to agree that stubborn Americans are not likely to implement any of the lessons on offer.
ow do we determine whether or not these claims for parliamentary government are true? Of course, the only way to know for sure would be to abandon our presidential system, make the recommended changes, and examine the results. But, short of that unfeasible option, we can get at a reasonable assessment by moving away from the theoretical and examining the real-world results that we already have. That is, we can observe how the two systems have responded to what Mann and Ornstein might call an “unusually serious problem.”
The Great Recession that began in 2007 was a worldwide crisis that generated tremendous uncertainty for every government on the planet. It is therefore ideal for testing the responsiveness of different systems. The recession began with a global credit crunch and led to low economic growth and high unemployment. Its causes remain disputed but include the collapse of the U.S. housing market, spiraling mortgage-backed securities, falling consumer confidence, and drops in exports. The important thing, for our purposes, is that its effects were felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
The growth rate of real GDP for both Europe and the United States went into negative territory in 2008 and did not become positive again until 2010. GDP fell between 3 and 5.5 percent in 2009 for France, the U.K., and Italy. By 2010, high-income countries had an average of more than 9 percent unemployment, an increase of more than 3 percent from years before the crisis. Some 16 million people were unemployed.
If the institutional arrangements of the U.S. system are inferior to those of Europe, then we might find that the United States managed the crisis more poorly than its parliamentary counterparts. After all, this was a situation that demanded the type of decisive policies that are supposedly beyond the abilities of our presidential democracy. If parliamentary institutions are better at making and implementing policy, then one would think they would have done better economically than the United States.
Using data from the International Monetary Fund allows us to compare the U.S. performance to that of the parliamentary democracies of the euro area on real GDP growth, unemployment, and hourly earnings between 2013 and 2015 (with projections for 2016).
Table 1 shows that the United States was first in growth in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and is first in projected growth for 2016. The U.S. also had the lowest rate of unemployment from 2013 through 2015 and the lowest projections for 2016. Likewise, the United States led in employment growth in those years and is projected to lead in 2016. In regard to hourly earnings, the United States led in 2013 and 2014, was at parity with the euro area in 2015, and is the projected leader for 2016. Finally, consumer price data show that in 2013 the Euro area lost 1.4 percent and has risen to a projected 1.1 percent in 2016, while the U.S. is projected to have slightly higher consumer prices through 2016.
These data point undeniably to the fact that the United States had a quicker, more robust post-recession recovery than the parliamentary democracies of Europe. This is not to say that our recovery was optimal; but, relative to others, the U.S. fared best. To be sure, America’s lead over parliamentary systems here was not absolute. In Germany (and Canada and Japan) unemployment was lower than in United States during this time. And Germany edged out the U.S. in productivity and hourly earnings. The U.S. did better than Germany, however, in GDP growth and job creation.
Surely, one might argue, this alone does not demonstrate that America’s stronger recovery is the result of its presidential system. The objection is fair, but when we consider the kind of action the United States took and why European countries failed to do the same, the picture becomes clearer.
Critics of our presidential system, recall, claim that checks and balances and veto points inhibit the swift implementation of bold, proactive policy. Yet, that’s not at all what we find in the case of the recession. “The U.S. policy response was much more proactive [than the European response],” a group of Woodrow Wilson School researchers reported. “Fiscal stimulus was greater than in the eurozone in 2008-9 . . . . More important was the U.S. authorities’ active resolution of banking stress; eurozone banking problems were allowed to fester.” The researchers also found that “U.S. monetary policy was much more aggressive [than in Europe].” American gridlock, it seems, was not an issue.
Europe’s less decisive response to the recession was not accidental. In fact, it gets to the heart of a deep structural problem with the Westminster system—a problem routinely ignored by its American enthusiasts. Because parliamentary governments are more unified, they can be more completely manipulated. “We live in a world where national governments are increasingly buffeted by forces—notably international finance—that are very hard to control,” wrote the British political scientist David Runciman in the London Review of Books. “Decisive, single-party governments are not the way to resist these forces, because their freedom of maneuver makes them easier to buy off without anyone else being able to hold them to account.”
That is precisely what happened during the recovery from the Great Recession. International financial organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, leaned on parliamentary governments after the recession to enact budget-reduction reforms that resulted in a slowed recovery. In a single-party government, it’s much harder for dissenters to influence policy, so the acquiescence was essentially total. Although not speaking about the recession per se, Runciman’s diagnosis is apt: “What national democracies need is not more autonomy but more barriers in the way of any single political faction or grouping being able to call the shots. The presence in government of multiple parties representing multiple interests helps to give democracy a measure of defense against the whirlwind of money that swirls around it.” Thus, in the birthplace of the Westminster system, there are those who wish for a more decentralized, less decisive government.
It is worth mentioning that while parliamentary systems erred on the side of restraint after the recession, they are also susceptible to a specific type of overreaction. Britain’s vote in July to leave the European Union has delivered a shock to that country’s institutions. The vote was the doing of one man alone, Prime Minister David Cameron. Setting aside the merits or drawbacks of Brexit, there is a lesson here about the consolidated power of prime ministers in single-party governments.
Because parliamentary governments are more unified than presidential governments, they can be more completely manipulated. It’s very hard for dissenters to influence policy.
oth the recession and the Brexit vote illustrate a larger point: Without overwhelming majorities in public opinion, democratic systems that are responsive to internal dissent have undeniable advantages over parliamentary systems. This is especially true for a country as large and heterogeneous as the United States. Consider the most divisive issue in American politics: abortion. The two parties’ platforms could not be further apart. While Republicans largely wish to ban abortion, Democrats generally favor little to no restrictions on the practice. Yet, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg show in a 2013 study, 75 to 80 percent of the country would vote against both of these two stark alternatives. What, then, would become of the vast majority if the United States were subjected to a Westminster-type government? Would the country swing back and forth between the two policies depending upon which party was in office? One can scarcely imagine it.
Abortion is an extreme case, but the data suggest that on a number of other major issues—immigration, deficit reduction, energy—the majority is to the left of the Republicans and to the right of the Democrats. Thus, the wise words of the political scientist Morris Fiorina: “However unhappy the present state of affairs might be, citizens may prefer muddling through to being whipsawed by two elite minorities governing by their own lights.” For all the popular calls for government to “do something” about a given problem, it’s doubtful many Americans would tolerate a government that ignored half the electorate with impunity.
And muddle through we do. In the United States, ongoing arguments are not merely the source of gridlock, but of policy refinement and innovation. What’s more, Americans continue to believe that political arguments can be won and consensus can shift. Indeed our history shows this to be true. The one certainty of this presidential election season is that our politics is not static. Taking the broadest view of American history, this is for the good. It means, among other things, that a people dissatisfied with their government will ultimately be heard. In our presidential system, for all its frustrations, things do change and government does respond. If we have to argue about it first, so much the better.