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Why American Democracy Is Broken, and How to Fix It

The presidential system isn't working. A parliamentary one might.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

Under President Barack Obama, Americans saw how divided government leads to crisis-wracked governance, with the Republican Congress roadblocking presidential appointments (particularly in the courts) and playing a game of chicken with the debt ceiling that risked sending the country into default. Now, under President Donald Trump, Americans are seeing that unitary government also leads to crisis-wracked governance, with the Republican Congress unable to coalesce around an agenda.

“We’re getting nothing done,” Senator John McCain lamented in a much-discussed speech on Tuesday. “All we’ve really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.” Two days later, in the dead of night, the Republican from Arizona cast the key “no” vote that sunk the Senate Republican’s hurried, not-at-all-skinny legislation to repeal Obamacare, an incoherent shell of a bill that didn’t even satisfy Republicans’ ideological demands. Some 16 million Americans were one “yes” away from losing health insurance, all because a ruling party in disarray was desperate for a win. In a statement explaining his vote, McCain said, “We must now return to the correct way of legislating.”

McCain’s plea is certain to be ignored by his colleagues—and may not even be heeded by McCain himself. That’s how broken Washington’s politics have become.

If there is gridlock and chaos under both divided and unitary government, that suggests the problem is systemic rather than being caused by a particular partisan alignment. Trump himself seems to recognize this. Saturday morning, he went on a Twitter tirade about the need to get rid of the filibuster. “The very outdated filibuster rule must go,” Trump wrote. “Budget reconciliation is killing R’s in Senate. Mitch M, go to 51 Votes NOW and WIN. IT’S TIME!” Trump is half-right, or perhaps a quarter-right. Getting rid of the filibuster would improve American democracy if it were combined with other reforms. 

America is a presidential republic that functions best when the political parties are ideologically broad. That is increasingly untrue as the Republicans and Democrats have, in different ways, begun acting in a parliamentary fashion, with a high degree of political cohesion within their ranks. The main difference is that the Democrats have cohered around shared policy goals, like protecting and expanding the safety net, while Republicans have cohered around negative partisanship—that is, their opposition to the Democrats. But whatever the reason, there’s no dispute that the two major parties have become more polarized than ever.

At the best of times, it is difficult to govern in America’s political system, with the chief executive held in check by a bicameral Congress and an independent judiciary. At the worst of times, like today, it is nearly impossible. That’s why the U.S. should take steps to modify its presidential system to function more like a parliamentary one.

There’s a school of thought, beginning with Yale political scientist Juan Linz, which argues that parliamentary systems are more stable than presidential systems. As Yoni Applebaum summarized in The Atlantic, “In parliamentary systems, governmental deadlock is relatively rare; when prime ministers can no longer command legislative support, the impasse is generally resolved by new elections. In presidential systems, however, contending parties must eventually strike a deal. Except sometimes, they don’t. Latin America’s presidential democracies have tended to oscillate between authoritarianism and dysfunction.”

American democracy has generally avoided these problems, although the breakdown that occurred in the two decades before the Civil War, not to mention the war itself, offers a cautionary tale of a worst case scenario.

When the American system has worked, it has tended to do so because the parties were relatively heterogenous. As long as there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans willing to cross party lines, it was possible to create bipartisan bills and have much of the lawmaking accomplished in committee. But starting in the 1970s, the two parties have become more polarized, as white Southern Democrats jumped ship to the Republicans and liberal Republicans defected to the Democrats. 

Meanwhile, there’s also been an asymmetric ideological shift in U.S. politics, as Republicans have moved much farther to the right than the Democrats have done to the left. This shift has been institutionalized by developments like the Hastert rule (whereby the Republican House, when they have a majority, only bring up bills that have majority support within their own party) and the rise of right-wing absolutists (who threaten to primary any congressperson or senator who doesn’t toe the ideological line). While the Hastert rule prevents a minority faction of Republicans from working with Democrats to form a cross-party alliance, the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus folks further enforce ideological discipline. 

In this hyper-partisan environment, parties are voting more in lockstep (major legislation like the Affordable Health Care Act passes on party-line votes), Congress faces greater turnover in big wave elections (as in 1994, 2006, and 2010), and local elections (like the recent spate of special elections) are increasingly contested on national rather than local issues. This pattern is self-reinforcing, making for even more extreme partisanship and even deeper deadlock. The American political system seems to be caught in a straightjacket that gets tighter the more the public struggles.

Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, wondered in a 2013 article whether this called for drastic measures: “The partisanship of our political branches and the mismatch with our structure of government raise the fundamental question: Is the United States political system so broken that we should change the Constitution to adopt a parliamentary system—either a Westminster system, as in the United Kingdom, or a different form of parliamentary democracy?” His formulation of the question, though, was too blunt. As he noted, any such constitutional change would be nearly impossible, especially given the gridlock that already exists. Thus, a Catch-22: The system is so broken that it needs to be changed, but there is no way to change it because the system is so broken. 

One way to out of this paradox might to move toward something closer to a de facto parliamentary system, one that wouldn’t require constitutional change. The Senate could remove barriers like the filibuster, which prevents a simple majority from effecting change. Democrats might want to hold on to the filibuster now because it’s a guardrail against Republican policy, but in the long run, the political system would be more effective and accountable.

Congress could also restore now disused procedures like “regular order,” which McCain drew attention to in Tuesday’s speech. “Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order,” he said. “We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.” As Peter C. Hanson of the Brookings Institution explains, regular order is “the budget procedure for debating and passing individual appropriations bills in each chamber. Today this procedure has been replaced by the passage of huge ‘omnibus’ packages at the end of the session, with little scrutiny and opportunity for amendment.” A few procedural changes (including, as it happens, limiting the filibuster) could bring regular order back to life, making budgeting decisions much more orderly and rule-bound. 

Another important restoration would be in congressional staffing, which was gutted by then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. Prior to Gingrich’s slashing, members of Congress had large staffs that helped them navigate the choppy waters of policy. Now, much of that work has been outsourced to think tanks, which are beholden to special interests. For Congress to act as an effective parliamentary body, it needs more policy advisors on congressional staffs. 

Congress could also limit the power of the presidency, curtailing his ability to issue executive orders and to wage war without congressional approval. This would make the president more of a figurehead, with the real power residing in the House speaker and the Senate majority leader. In such a system, voters would, as in a parliamentary system, have a clearer idea of what policies they’re approving when they cast their vote in the booth.

A weak president and strong Congress is not incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. It existed in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, until Theodore Roosevelt came to power. During that period, presidents had sharply curtailed roles, mainly tasked with making appointments and administering the state while important policies were under the control of strong congressional leaders. There’s no reason why such a restoration of congressional power couldn’t happen right now.

Much of governance in the current American system is opaque—especially in periods of divided government, but not exclusively. For instance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s elaborate shell game with health care was designed to conceal the Obamacare repeal plan not only from public view, but from Democrats and even many Republican colleagues. If the existing system operated in a more parliamentary fashion, it would bring clarity to politics.  As in the United Kingdom, political platforms would take on a much more meaningful role than a simple wishlist. They would be elaborate policy documents, with parties in power judged by their ability to fulfill their specific promises.

To be sure, a full parliamentary system would still be out of reach, because there would still be a bicameral legislature—the House and Senate might not be controlled by the same parties—and the president would still have some power (although there could be constitutional amendments to limit even those, including the right of veto). Still, it would be more like a parliamentary system than what exists today. 

It could be argued that these reforms are unnecessary given that the main problem with American democracy is Republican extremism. After all, the system worked fine in the brief period of Democratic unitary government from 2009-2011. But that was a two-year window that has only existed once in the last two decades. The greater norm is division or Republican unitary government.

Another objection might be that this reformed system would be less democratic than what exists now, a problem given that the current system already has many undemocratic features—such as the existence of the electoral college, and the Senate’s unequal representation. But surely the most undemocratic feature is the lack of public engagement, far lower in the United States than other comparable democracies (58 percent turnout in the last national election). A move towards a more parliamentary system might well increase political participation.

A governmental reform movement is perhaps the only way out of the current chaos. As American political parties act more like parliamentary ones, it’s time for the system to change accordingly.