A Capitol Idea: An Open, Working Thought Experiment

During the primaries last year, I briefly began an article on comparative politics and political institutions. The idea seemed simple: imagine the United States with a parliamentary system. I put if off as a ridiculous exercise given the magnitude of the danger that then slouched toward Washington.

Now I can’t find my draft and lack the time and energy to recreate it entirely.

But imagine that the American people decided that, as of 2020, its political system would become parliamentary rather than presidential. Fiddle as you wish, but follow through (in the comments below) with some sense of how politics there might be different as a result of different institutions. Alternatively, read my proposal here and tell me how things might work out.

Go on, go on, go on, go on (the Irish will understand).

For my purposes here, I’ll assume

  • mandatory voting, akin to that of Australia (how un-American!)
  • an electoral system of proportional representation, perhaps along the lines of Germany rather than, say, Ireland (to ensure that parliamentary representation would largely line up with public opinion and doesn’t bow towards the Center)
  • a threshold requirement of 5% of national votes for parties to receive the ‘list members’ of proportional representation (eliminating fringe parties)
  • a parliamentary model geared to consensus – and strong committees – rather than conflict, ie a more European than British/Irish model
  • an Executive formed only by the House after its elections (eliminating the Electoral College), secured with the confidence of the chamber but with an outside term of five years
  • a meaningful Senate elected in much the same way as today – though perhaps representing the States again – but reorganised with only the power to delay decisions by the House (rather than effectively veto them)
  • the elimination of any actual veto (superfluous, if not inappropriate, in a parliamentary system)

For now, I won’t commit on whether or not a President still exists as a (largely formal) Head of State. I’ll have to give that some more thought; selection by a revised Electoral College for a five- or seven-year term is tempting. I don’t propose any alteration in federalism (though there are many other federal models) and won’t consider what, if any, changes might occur within the States. Americans have been surprisingly unimaginative with respect to State institutions.

And I have a number of ideas, too, about the courts – term limits, mandatory retirement ages, etc – but that’s for another day.

Some dynamics could change immediately. Elections would be skewed still further to areas with large populations, though not necessarily States as cities would be more important. And while parliamentary systems can’t guarantee quality (see, eg, the UK), demagogues and political dilettantes would find it comparatively more difficult to rise to power. And it’s even possible that national and state parties would have a far more complicated relationship than they do now (as can happen, for example, in Canada). Etc, etc.

While over time, it’s possible that a return to a two-party (plus) system could develop reasonably quickly (cf the UK, Canada, etc), I’m curious, for now, about the outcome of the first election with the expanded electorate and 435 Representatives. While we can quibble about the categories, I’ll assume that, in a flurry of activity, the parties just either side of the threshold were – from roughly Right to Left – the following, with the following results:

  • Nationalists (Nationalist Right) – 27%
  • Conservatives (Center/Center Right) – 12%
  • Libertarians – 10%
  • Democrats (Center/Center Left) –  28%
  • Progressives (Social Democrats) – 15%
  • Greens – 8%

Without going too deeply into PEW numbers and, you know, empirical research, I’ve used the actual results of the popular vote of the last elections as a starting point and assumed, quite dangerously, that the new voters will vote in much the same way. In reality, they might well swell the numbers at the Center.

I also assumed away a still further Rightwing, paleo-conservative Constitution Party. But have I been too harsh on Conservatives, too easy on Libertarians? The Left is, if anything, still more fluid: would Greens siphon off more support, are Democrats over-represented?

But the $64,000 Question – Americans will understand – is what coalition would result from these numbers? A Democrat-Progressive-Libertarian Government might be more likely, for better or worse, than a Democrat-Progressive-Green coalition.

You get the idea. Any thoughts.? Humor me. I’m tired.


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