US vs other presidential systems

One of the discussions internationally about the US outside of its abysmally underfunded social programs and illegal wars is the ever present debate about the very structure of its government. Unlike most industrialized nations, which are one type or another of parliamentary systems, the US is organized into a presidential system. While there are arguments for and against both systems, the track record for presidential systems is dismal, particularly for fully presidential systems. Why does the country continue down this path? What the hell, USA?

This is not to say that the Founding Fathers were idiots. In 1787, there was only one form of government known the Founders: theocratic monarchy. While historians may argue on that the Founders based their form of government on a combination of ancient Greco-Roman political theory, English law, and Enlightenment philosophy, the Founders were, in large part, shooting in the dark. Hence, they developed what would in effect be an elected monarchy. The French copied the American model of government as did many of the Latin American republics during the nineteenth century. Yet, by the mid-nineteenth century, another form of government was gaining popularity abroad: the “Westminster system”. This system, derived from the English parliament, subordinated the head of state into a ceremonial role and left all affective powers to the legislative bodies, different from the presidential, which split responsibilities among the legislature and head of state. This system spread to the remaining British colonies, such as Canada and Australia, adjusted to the needs of each political situation. It also became the default choice of most governments on the European continent, with some exceptions.

The American presidential system was not guaranteed to continue into perpetuity as one might hear from modern pundits. In fact, the majority consensus during the early twentieth century was that the US would naturally graduate to a parliamentary system, given its inherent advantages to the current system. During that time, one of the fiercest advocates of parliamentarianism was former president Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was influenced by British historian, Walter Bagehot, especially his detailed analysis of British politics in The English Constitution. Wilson wrote numerous works during his time at Princeton on British parliamentarianism. However, as modern people know, the US remained a presidential system.

However, while the modern American presidential system has remained largely intact, with the exception of the increase of the franchise, most other presidential systems have collapsed or have been drastically altered. The most infamous example of a completely demolished presidential system is the former Weimar Republic (modern Germany), and its descent into the Third Reich has been extensively documented. Germany is now a parliamentary democracy. Several of the Latin American republics collapsed numerous times into military dictatorships, and have reformed since.

However, the most interesting case is the modern French presidential democracy. France’s presidential democracy was fundamentally changed under former president Charles de Gaulle. His referendums, though arguably unconstitutional, removed the electoral college and created the modern two-ballot electoral system, replacing a flawed single member plurality system (“first past the post”). In addition to this, de Gaulle removed midterm elections, making all elections in the same year. The president was given powers to appoint the prime minister (head of the Assembly), which effectively solved cohabitation, political deadlock when the president and assembly majority are from different parties. This last reform effectively turned France from a full presidential democracy to what political theorist Maurice Duverger termed a “semi-presidential system”.

The reforms of the French give Americans potential goals to strive for in fundamentally changing the structure of their government without needing a complete rewrite of the founding documents. With modern political theory, there are better alternatives available to Americans than to the French. The instant-runoff vote (“alternative vote”) is superior to the two-ballot vote in terms of efficiency because of its ranked preference system, without sacrificing the moderating effects to electoral system. Cohabitation can be stopped if midterm elections are removed, but instead of setting presidential appointments to prime minister (speaker of the House), an alternative would be to allow citizens’ initiatives, which could push Congress to pass laws supported by the president but not the ruling party (majority). There are other reforms that should be passed, such as enforcing votes of no confidence against the president, terms limits for Congressmen, and abolition of the Senate, but for now, let these be part of the continuous conversation about reforming the American government.


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