October 4, 2013
John Boehner walks to the House chamber. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)
John Boehner walks to the House chamber. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Least surprising outcome of the government shutdown? People complaining that it’s all James Madison’s fault and calling for a parliamentary system, or at least calling a parliamentary system superior. See: Dylan Matthews, Scott Lemieux, Alex Pareene, Ian Millhiser, and Matt Yglesias. I disagree with all of them.

On a literal level, they are correct that the particular symptom, a government shutdown and a long-term impasse between a president and a legislative chamber, is essentially impossible in many parliamentary systems. But so what? It’s also (essentially) impossible, in the U.S. system, for elections to yield a multiparty mess in which no coalition can put together a government that can win a majority in parliament. Each system has its own kinds of failures. The shutdown we’re experiencing is bad; it’s not clear at all that it’s worse than the symptoms of failure in other systems.

Beyond that, one needs to step back and remember the difference between the U.S. system and, basically, everyone else. It’s true some other nations have what are described as presidential systems and also have legislatures that can deadlock with the president. But the U.S. Congress really has few, if any, similarly “transformative” legislatures for comparison — legislatures that can not only debate, and say “yes” or “no,” but that are fully able to act on their own. Indeed, it’s not really right to call the U.S. a presidential system; it’s a system, as Richard Neustadt said, of separated institutions sharing powers.

At any rate, the United States has done just fine over the years, including many eras (such as the late 19th century) with both strong parties and frequent divided government. It’s true that today’s parties are both polarized (again) and national in scope (which is new); perhaps that combination is more dangerous.

But in my view, the problem isn’t system impasse; it’s that one of today’s parties is attempting to function under a “principle” of rejecting compromise.

The problem isn’t that compromise can’t happen between polarized parties. Deals made between Ronald Reagan and the Democrats or between George W. Bush and the Democrats are sufficient.to show that it’s possible (yes, the parties in the 1980s were not as polarized, but Reagan himself was a very ideological conservative Republican). Indeed, even with the Newt Gingrich Congress, a serious breakdown happened only because the speaker massively miscalculated in foolishly thinking that Bill Clinton could be easily rolled; once Republicans realized that was wrong, those kind of impasses ended.

The thing is that a broken party, one adamantly against compromise, would be just as dangerous in a parliamentary system (if it took power) as in a Madisonian system. More, in fact: It’s easy to imagine a Republican Party with a tea party prime minister doing all sorts of things to lock in their electoral victory permanently and then passing unpopular measures that appealed only to a small fraction of the electorate.

So what really has to be shown is that there’s something about the U.S. system that allows for the dysfunction of the current Republican Party. I don’t think that’s the case.

There’s a lot more to this — in particular, I strongly disagree with the Weberian notion of democracy that Matthews cites — but for now, that’s where I’d leave it. The problem isn’t the overall political system; it’s the current Republican Party. And there’s nothing about the system that either encourages that, allows it, or allows such a party to win elections.