Why We Need a Parliament

22 Nov

In many areas of political experience, America is exceptional. By this, I do not mean the giant foam finger waving, “We’re number 1” shouting exceptional, but unusual. One of the most exceptional or unusual attributes of our political experience is the stability of our presidential system of government. In “The Perils of Presidentialism” (PDF), a classic political science essay that I often assign to students including in my Politics of Europe course this semester, Juan Linz notes that “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.” However, there suddenly seems to be a growing feeling in the blogosphere that America is about to regress to the mean and I am beginning to wonder if we have run out of time to avoid a serious crisis.

I started thinking about this issue when Matt Yglesias brought up Linz’s essay. Linz believed the diffuse nature of American political parties prevented the kinds of conflict that make presidential systems of government ineffective and prone to bouts of extra-constitutional authoritarianism. Reflecting on the state of American politics, Yglesias worries:

… We find ourselves several congresses into a brave new world in which every single Democratic Party legislator is to the left of every single Republican Party legislator. In terms of partisan politics, in other words, we’ve become a normal country. But as Linz observed, the “normal” outcome for a country with our political institutions and ideologically sorted parties is constitutional crisis and a collapse into dictatorship.

While Yglesias appears open to the possibility that this will blow over, Paul Krugman is not so optimistic:

It’s hard to see how this situation is resolved without a major crisis of some kind. Mr. Simpson may or may not get the blood bath he craves this April, but there will be blood sooner or later. And we can only hope that the nation that emerges from that blood bath is still one we recognize.

I certainly hope that America-the-nation survives, but I kind of hope that we will find the national will to change America-the-state to a system that can more easily endure the kinds of crises we are about to face. A parliament looks really good right now.

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