By Alexis Grenell, in The Nation, Feb 5, 2021
On January 6, 250 years of American political history seemed like it might come crashing down as men cosplaying patriots, armed with zip ties and semiautomatic weapons, laid siege to the Capitol. Watching the terrifying absurdity of traitors filming themselves as they dangled from the building’s facade was a reminder of what the framers knew from the start: Factionalism is endemic to democracy—and to its undoing.
“The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice,” James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers (No. 10). Going on to assure the reader that a minority faction can be controlled by “the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote,” Madison concluded that “it may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.” And so it came to pass in the year 2021, though just barely.
To truly save the republic, we need to level up to a parliamentary system. Joe Biden should be our last president.
The United States is the longest-running presidential democracy in the world, an anomaly in a sea of mostly failed experiments. And it’s the only pure presidential system, according to political scientist Arend Lijphart in his list of the 21 continuous democracies since World War II. The vast majority of advanced democracies have converted to parliamentary systems, which have empirically proved to be less contentious and more productive.
Alfred Stepan and Cindy Skach’s exhaustive study of emerging democracies, conducted from 1979 through 1989, found that parliamentary systems were three times more likely to succeed than presidential ones, which were more than twice as susceptible to a military coup, at a rate of 40 percent. Their study, published in 1993, analyzed 93 countries that had become independent since 1945 and found that 61 percent of those that chose a parliamentary system could still be considered democracies just a few decades later. Not a single presidential system in that same time frame has survived as a continuous democracy.
Presidential systems are dysfunctional by definition. Winner-take-all elections tend to produce only two parties, which battle for an elusive majority in a rarely unified government. The fantasy lasts until the midterm elections, when the voters often tip the scales again. In the far more common scenario of a divided government, opposing parties have zero incentive to support the executive, since electoral success is directly tied to his or her popularity. As in the case of the previously Republican-controlled US Senate, impeachment was rendered useless by the sycophants who’d hitched their wagon to Donald Trump. Eventually all hell broke loose, and former Supreme Court clerks like Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who certainly knew better, chose to exploit the ignorance of those who didn’t for political gain.
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Over the past 20 years, increased factionalism has produced smaller and smaller margins of victory as the Democratic and Republican parties have each consolidated around further extremes. And that trend will only continue, since 74 million people voted for Trump and an astronomical proportion of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen—hence the 147 members of Congress who voted against certifying Biden’s clear victory. Even the once anti-Trump and non-stupid Nicole Malliotakis, the newly elected US representative from Staten Island, is competing for space with the Lauren Boeberts of the world by spouting utter nonsense she can’t possibly believe, because that’s the only thing that’ll get her reelected. Meanwhile, her former campaign manager and past chair of the Staten Island Republican Party, Leticia Remauro, now a candidate for borough president—a person who used to support same-sex marriage and abortion rights—recently filmed herself shouting “Heil Hitler” while protesting the closing of a bar due to Covid-19. That’s one hell of an evolution.
But rather than expecting people who’ve been red-pilled to put country over party, we need more parties. That way, at least the Nazi-curious incels who live on the Internet can confine themselves to their own club. It also creates space on the left to develop an actual party independent of the Democrats, who should and can coexist with centrist Republicans.
Warning: Ideological purity is not the goal here. Governing in coalition invariably waters down any agenda. After her first term as chancellor of Germany, which was itself a compromise with the opposing Social Democratic Party, Angela Merkel explained her ideology as the head of the Christian Democratic Union and a multiparty coalition thus: “Sometimes I am liberal, sometimes I am conservative, sometimes I am Christian Social—and this is what defines the CDU.” Even the Greens, having finally achieved critical mass in the Bundestag, are hoping to caucus with the center-right Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union, because only through such partnerships can they exercise enough power to actually move policy.
What kind of policies might emerge in the United States from such an unholy alliance? Tuition-free college, state-subsidized child care, generous paid leave, socialized medicine—you know, the hallmarks of the European social safety net that is the envy of every Bernie-loving bro and sis.
Obviously, no system is perfect. The United Kingdom has its own fool in charge at the moment. And the likelihood of the United States transitioning to a parliamentary system is dubious. But so is the future flourishing of American democracy as it currently stands. Trumpism was and is a feature, not a bug. Accepting factions and making space for them in a multiparty, parliamentary system seems more feasible than surviving the next, inevitable attack.
Alexis GrenellAlexis Grenell is a columnist for The Nation and a political consultant who writes frequently about gender and politics.