Time For Parliamentary Democracy in America?


Democracy, for all its virtues, has two life-threatening defects: it cannot stand polarization or insecurity. Conversely, it has one very strong feature – the ability to adjust. PolicyMic pundit Krosbie Arnold’s recent piece, which asks why so many Americans are registering as Independent, at 40% now, sparked my interest to respond with an idea of my own. It is simply that to make the political process viable again, American democracy must move from a presidential to a parliamentary form; I want to imagine what it might look like.

Some will immediately point out Belgium as the anti-thesis to the argument for parliamentary democracy, because of the record time it took to come to an agreement about forming a government between all parties. Yet, the American system, too, seems to be deadlocked without viable recourse. When it comes to forming a synthesis out of these two extremes, parliamentary democracy is a better alternative than a presidential, or two-party system, because if offers a wider range of options for cooperation and dialogue, not the least of which is coalition politics.

There are other problems that can be addressed, if not eliminated, with a shake in the system – to buy-your-own Congressman, for example. Corruption remains a significant challenge for any system, but unchecked to the point where it might compromise the integrity of the system, it becomes clear that a change is needed. President Barack Obama’s request to Congress to raise the debt ceiling again within two weeks shows that even the office of the president is insufficiently powerful to usher in meaningful change in the system. Back in August, it became clear exactly how close the government came to a complete halt, relying on a hapless ad-hoc mechanism, rather than institutionalized measures, to come out with an agreement on the debt ceiling.

Parliamentary democracy is a model that involves more than two parties competing for power. The political party, as a vehicle for mobilization and representation, tends to have a very short life in unconsolidated pluralist systems. We have to ask – how long would Democrats and Republicans remain relevant in such a system? My guess is that very quickly they would lose support and in eventual time, become politically bankrupt and irrelevant, as the political scene would become more competitive.

Coalition politics is a working precedent in Europe, even in new democracies in the East of the continent, and it is the mechanism through which Belgium’s own government crisis was solved. Conversely, the polarization in Washington, coupled with the unusually high number of independent Americans, reveals an important structural weakness in American democracy: the lack of an institutionalized resolution mechanism. While elections can serve as that mechanism to some degree, in America, the high degree of disillusionment with the political status quo is a silent assertion for the fact that Americans want viable alternatives in Washington.

I’ll end with a seemingly unimportant note – when was the last time Washington organized a referendum on any salient issue in America? There was a long list of important policy choices in the last 10  years to justify it: two wars and the response to the debt ceiling crisis, for instance.

Let me reiterate: democracy cannot stand insecurity and polarization. Maybe it is indeed time for a parliamentary system in America – if, for nothing else, the sake of the country.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons