During the last U.S. government shutdown, in 2013, the columnist Max Fisher directed my attention to Australia. In 1975, the legislature there couldn’t get its act together to fund the government, which shut down. Queen Elizabeth’s official representative in Australia — remember, she is also Queen of Australia — dismissed the prime minister, appointed a replacement who passed a funding bill, and then, three hours later, dismissed the rest of the Australian parliament. New elections were held. According to Fisher, “they haven’t had another shutdown since.”
Now the U.S. government is at peak dysfunction, so it’s interesting to ask what Americans might learn from Australians. Nobody’s ready to give the British monarch authority over the U.S. government. But as an amusing diversion, consider whether there’s something to be said for a U.S. parliamentary system.
I find myself thinking about this because the two dominant U.S. political parties, weakened by internal factionalism, are struggling to govern at a time of intense partisanship.
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Take the Republican Party, which currently contains internationalists who want to use American power to shape world events and isolationists who think the world would be better if the U.S. kept to itself; ardent free traders and those so opposed to trade that they want the U.S. to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement; advocates of open borders and ethno-nationalists; those who want to shrink the entitlement state and a president who promises not to touch Social Security or Medicare.
Looking at that list, it’s tempting to conclude that two parties aren’t enough.
The U.S. has a winner-take-all electoral system for seats in Congress and, importantly, in (nearly all) states as part of the Electoral College system of presidential elections. If you win a plurality of votes in any contest, then you’re the winner. There’s no prize for coming in second, third, or fourth. So factions join together, sometimes held by duct tape and bailing wire. Head-to-head contests emerge.
If instead of a winner-take-all presidential system, the U.S. had a parliamentary system that admitted many political parties, shotgun intra-party marriages might not have to exist, and citizens would have party representation in the government that more closely matches their own political and policy views.
So while Congress and the president are going about the serious business of reopening the government in a decidedly unserious manner — Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, described, in public, the GOP’s plan for funding a children’s health insurance program as “a bowl of doggy doo” with a cherry on top — let’s distract ourselves by thinking about what parties we might have in a parliamentary system.
There would probably be a Green Party dedicated to fighting climate change. A Frontier Party for single-issue Second Amendment voters. An ethno-nationalist party — I’m not sure what its name would be, and don’t want to speculate — whose goal is to close U.S. borders (and keep Confederate statues up). A Democratic Socialist Party advocating for, say, a universal basic income and single-payer health care.
The pedestal where a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, once stood. (Photo: Houston Cofield/BB)