Cracks Show in Liberal Dream of U.S. Parliamentary System

A longtime dream of American progressives turns out to have some drawbacks, after all

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"Next to European health care and European urban planning," writes Clay Risen in the liberal journal Democracy, "the aspect of European life for which liberal Americans pine most often is the continent's parliamentary politics." If blogger Matthew Yglesias and The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz are any indication, it's true: progressives yearn for Europe's lack of ideological gridlock, its relative ease of passing reform due to coalitions and compromises, and its profusion of left-wing parties. But when Risen traveled to Germany, he began to change his mind. Now, returning from overseas, he has tossed a wrench into the progressive works: the German parliamentary system, he says, has its own attendant flaws, and the American system works better. Is he right, or would the United States do better with a parliamentary system?

  • Germany: Don't Try This at Home  Clay Risen writes that while the German parliamentary system does carry the benefit of "cross-party compromise" and includes a wide variety of party choices for progressives, the membership organization structure of the parties also makes it difficult for grassroots movements "to influence a party's course." The multiple-party system can also lead to fragmentation and unproductive extremism; Risen points out that while President Clinton's welfare reforms were criticized on the left, there was "nowhere for the dissenting factions to go," leading to an internal compromise "which formed the basis for Barack Obama's ride into the White House." In Germany, on the other hand, leftist disagreement produced "a rump center-left, an eco-centric postmaterialist left, and a self-righteous neo-Marxist far-left, none of which had anything constructive to say during the recent economic crisis, a time when, typically, left-wing, pro-government parties are needed most." He thinks the American system is actually better, with parties responding to "voters' needs," producing a populace that is both calmer and more politically engaged than Germany's, where apathy reigns with brief periods of "apathy's opposite: rage."
As in the United States, the left-wing radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s drew on deep generational and political contradictions in German society. But it lasted longer, and expressed itself much more violently, than in America because there was no party system to absorb it. By 1972, former radicals in the United States were campaigning for McGovern; in Germany, they were bombing U.S. Army bases.
  • What Risen Forgets  Matthew Yglesias points out that Risen rolls the parliamentary system and the multiparty system--not necessarily related--into one. Furthermore, while Risen thinks Germany's left suffers from fragmentation, "George W. Bush beat Al Gore thanks to left-wing defections to Ralph Nader." At that moment in Germany, the Social Democratic Party was governing with the Green Party as an ally.
  • Frustration with the American System  The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg is an "inspiration" for some of Yglesias's views on the American system. In an interview with Bryan Curtis, Hertzberg detailed his obsession with, in Curtis's words, "the byzantine structures of American government." Namely, as Curtis summarizes:
Triumphant Democrats have discovered that big victories in 2008 haven’t instantly led to policy outcomes like, say, health care reform. In the British system, the public option would have been a fait accompli; in what Hertzberg calls our "ridiculously undemocratic" Senate, health care can be single-handedly dynamited by a Max Baucus or a Joe Lieberman.
  • Two Sides to the Debate  The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz says his own yearning for a different system spring from frustration with "anti-democratic Senate rules that, in combination with the mystique of the modern U.S. presidency, create a situation where the executive branch is frequently blamed for Congress' unwillingness to take action on the major public policy of the issues of the day." He admits, however, that there are two sides to the debate: "last week [I] found myself in a boozy argument with a visiting Slovakian journalist, each insisting the other's governmental structures delivered more effective public policy outcomes"

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