Parliamentary Vs. Presidential Democracies: In the Context of American Political Developments

American politics is stuck in gridlock and has become ideologically polarized. One of the main factors contributing to the dysfunction in the American political system is the presence of a divided government. America, having a Democratic President and a Republican controlled legislature, has come to a political standstill. The gridlock has been partially due to America’s presidential democracy. Other than the benefit of having the electorate vote for the head of government directly, the presidential system results in inaction and poor governance.

The parliamentary system, which exists in the United Kingdom, India, Australia, Japan, etc., overcomes the dysfunction that results from having a divided government by electing the leader of the majority in the legislature to act as the head of government. The formation of a government through the legislature ensures there is a mandate for the majority’s policies. In a presidential system, where the executive branch and the legislature are at odds, there is no clear mandate on which set of policies the electorate supports. If the president is from a different political party than the legislature, more often than not, this will result in political gridlock and polarization, like it has in the United States. There is much evidence in American politics which supports the claim that a divided government is unproductive and a unified government is much more effective in governance. The two most productive and effective congresses in American history have been the 111th Congress, which passed major healthcare reform and saved the American economy from a depression, and the 89th Congress, which enacted the Great Society. Both of these congresses had a Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature and a Democratic President. The two most recent congresses, 113th and 112th, have enacted only 49 laws (from Jan 6th, 2015 to September 20th, 2015) and 294 laws respectively, as compared to the historical average of 552 per congressional session. Both the 113th and the 112th have had a divided government. The lack of a unified government, results in poor governance due to a chaotic and unstable political process. This is shown by the brinksmanship that was displayed by both political parties in the United States during the 2013 budget impasse, which resulted in a sixteen-day government shutdown.

Apart from the practical evidence, there is a growing body of scholarly work that supports the assertion that parliamentary systems are better for democracy than presidential systems. In “What Makes Democracies Endure?” the authors explain that parliamentary democracies not only last longer than presidential democracies, but parliamentary democracies are also less likely to fail at any level of income. Also, the authors noted “[presidential democracies] die at much higher rates under any conditions,” while parliamentary systems only suffer during times of economic malaise. O’Neil, goes further to say “presidentialism is a more unstable system, since it limits power sharing and also lacks the mechanism through which legislators and executives can be easily removed from office.” (O’Neil 158)

Whether it’s the lack of accountability or the inefficiency caused by a divided government, the presidential democratic system is far more inferior to the parliamentary system. While not perfect, the parliamentary system, especially in the United Kingdom, has shown that it can evolve and meet the needs and wants of its people. The flexibility, efficiency, and longevity that the parliamentary system provides outweighs any benefits the presidential system has to offer.

Works Cited

Cheibub, Jose Antonio. “Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy.” (2006): n. pag. Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Web. <http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/stm103%20articles/Cheibub_Pres_Parlt.pdf&gt;.

Enten, Harry. “The House And Senate Are the Most Divided They’ve Been in Our Lifetimes.” FiveThirtyEight. ESPN Media, 03 July 2014. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. <http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/the-house-and-senate-are-the-most-divided-theyve-been-in-our-lifetimes/&gt;.

Przeworksi, Adam, Michael Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi. “Project MUSE – What Makes Democracies Endure?” Project MUSE – What Makes Democracies Endure? Journal of Democracy, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. <https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/v007/7.1przeworski.html&gt;.

“Statistics and Historical Comparison.” GovTrack.us. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. <https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics&gt;.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_government_shutdown_of_2013&gt;.

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2 thoughts on “Parliamentary Vs. Presidential Democracies: In the Context of American Political Developments

  1. Nice discussion of the scholarship. Lijphart also finds that parliamentary systems are better when making constitutional choices.

  2. I really liked your discussion of mandates in relation to democracy. The idea of a mandate is such a murky and difficult concept. How do we even measure a mandate today when electoral margins in many elections are often slim. If the president wins election by more than 2 points is that a mandate? What about in the case of PA’s last elections where Governor Wolf (D) was elected yet the the Republicans made seat gains in both the PA House and Senate. Was Governor Wolf’s election (keep in mind he was the only Democrat elected in the last general election to flip the partisanship of the office) a mandate or just a rejection of the previous governor?

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