(About a 6 minute read)
For the most part, the American Founders were politically astute men. Many had served in their colonial legislatures, or — like Franklin — had considerable experience organizing people in order to get various things accomplished. They were well aware of the political consequences of what they called “factions” — groups with an agenda.
What they did not foresee, however, was that the presidential system would inevitably lead to the factions coalescing into two parties.
Today, we know that is an inevitable consequence of a presidential system of government because we have seen it happen in every country in which the system has been tried — mainly African and South American nations.
I think most Americans these days are aware that the two party system often results in poor choices for the voters on all levels of government, from the president on down. More often than not, voters are presented with two people who — to say the least — leave much to be desired.
Yet, there is no major demand that the system be changed, and I believe part of the reason for that is that Americans tend to think there are two sides to everything, and that the system adequately reflects that fact.
But is that true? Are there only two sides to everything?
A PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM’S LIMITED CHOICES
Some years ago, an anthropologist was living among a Southwestern Native American nation when he noticed a curious thing happening. The nation was forced to make a decision about water rights — a common issue in the Southwest, which is largely arid to semi-arid.
At first, the anthropologist thought nothing of it. He was there to study something besides tribal politics, and he expected the water rights issue to quickly be boiled down to two simple choices. But that’s far from what happened.
First, the elders held meetings in each of the nation’s villages to announce to the people what was happening. Following the meetings, a couple months went by during which the families discussed the problem among themselves. Then the elders began to circulate, visiting each family in turn, and hearing their views.
After those processes were complete, the elders again called together the people in each village. The anthropologist was present at one of the meetings.
It began when the most respected of the elders made a speech again stating what the problem was. He then announced that the elders had, of course, dutifully gone house to house asking people what should be done. The elder then said that the recommendations of the families boiled down to six choices, which he would soon state.
But first he wanted to apologize.
The anthropologist was then astonished to hear the elder apologize for the paucity of choices! He had fully expected the elder to announce a vote between a mere two choices, but here he was apologizing for having only six. “Normally”, the elder announced, “the people might expect maybe 11 or more choices on such an important issue, but today there were only six.”
It was about then the anthropologist had the revelation that he was seeing a genuine democracy. He knew enough about the mainstream American system to know that, when an issue first arose, there were at first just as many options presented as was being done in the village.
But in the American system, most of the options were quickly weeded out. They soon ceased to be discussed in public by the mainstream media. A single option would emerge and be presented the only viable choice.
Furthermore, the anthropologist was politically savvy enough to know that the “weeding out” of all the other options was largely done in smoky backrooms by the professional politicians — rather than by the people themselves. The politicians would network, make their choice, and then announce to the media that there was only one option that had “public support”.
THE POLITICAL INSTABILITY OF A PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM
The very first university textbook I read on American politics pointed out that — in the US — most of the elites on both sides of the aisle share the same core values. There are exceptions, the textbook explained, but American elites as a group are pretty homogeneous when it comes to their core values.
I think up until the last 40 or so years, that was quite true (with the exception of the Civil War period). The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats was never so great that they could not resolve their differences and the government routinely become gridlocked.
But that began to change about 40 years ago with the rise of the new right. As the new right became increasingly radicalized — in large part fueled by the private money of the uber-rich — the divisions became increasingly insurmountable.
Many Americans today realize this is something new in American politics. What they don’t realize is that it’s nothing new in presidential systems.
The same thing has happened in nearly every nation that has adopted a presidential system of government. The factions first coalesced into two parties, then the differences between the parties deepened to the point the government became gridlocked.
The next stage is dismal. In each case, the elites have soon sought to escape the gridlock by raising up a strongman to dictate to them what to do. Naturally, that shoots the hell out of most of the key freedoms and liberties of the common people.
Only America and Chile have escaped the pattern — so far. But today, it seems to be catching up with us at last.
I believe the American presidential system has had a lucky run. By all rights, it should have resulted in a dictatorship within twenty or so years of its founding — as a presidential system has in nearly every nation that has tried one. Today, America appears to at last be headed down that path.
Whether it continues down the path is anyone’s guess, but I’m not the sort of person who wants to chance that it might. I would also like to see greater democracy in America. For those two reasons, I think a parliamentary system with proportional representation such as is widely found in Europe’s most stable countries is the best choice for us.