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.T
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.Some American supporters of the Westminster system offer a more thoughtful treatment of the question. The political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein claim that the problems for our presidential democracy are now emerging in acute form because the Republican Party is acting like a parliamentary-majority party without the mandate offered by a parliamentary system. In their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the Politics of Extremism (2012), they describe parliamentary parties as “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional.” In a system of power-sharing and checks and balances, such unyielding organizations cannot make anything happen. “The political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats,” they write. “The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern itself effectively.” In a winner-take-all system, like Britain’s, the Republicans’ unity of purpose would lead to action. Here, it means gridlock.
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.H
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.Cameron’s defeat (52 percent to 48 percent) in a nation-changing plebiscite that he called has left many Britons demanding reforms to weaken the potency of the prime minister’s office. Again, whether or not Brexit is good policy, its adoption, due in part to an overconfident ruling party, has left half the country reeling. It should not escape notice that a number of the Americans who have praised parliamentarianism, such as Zakaria and Klein, were opposed to Brexit. Perhaps they are now reconsidering their enthusiasm for activist government. B
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.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.