During the last US 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 US 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 US government. But as an amusing diversion, consider whether there’s something to be said for a US parliamentary system.
I find myself thinking about this because the two dominant US political parties, weakened by internal factionalism, are struggling to govern at a time of intense partisanship.
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 US kept to itself; ardent free traders and those so opposed to trade that they want the US 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 US 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 US 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 US borders (and keep Confederate statutes up). A Democratic Socialist Party advocating for, say, a universal basic income and single-payer health care.
What do they have in common? Either an intense focus on one or two core issues, or a small base of support, or both.
Based on the sheer size of the US and the variety of experience that size admits, my guess is that no dominant party would emerge. Instead, the US would have several medium-sized parties. So to our list of small parties, let’s add a party for social conservatives, a pro-business party consisting of economic conservatives and internationalists, and a party for isolationist fiscal conservatives with a libertarian bent.
This leaves a final party, larger than those three, that is much more practical and less driven by overarching philosophy in orientation, trying to solve problems to win votes. Picture a fusion of centrist Democrats and Republicans primarily concerned with bread-and-butter issues.
How might the past 10 years have looked under this system? The Obama collation would have been made up of these Practicals, plus isolationist fiscal conservatives (their ranks swelled after the Iraq War), the Green Party and the Democratic Socialists.
None of this would shrink the populist impulse, which has also become a force in parliaments across the globe following the financial crisis and long recovery from the Great Recession. The ethno-nationalists, Frontier Party and Democratic Socialists would all see big gains — people are worried, turn inward, and want security. The Practicals would be blamed for the recession and for their inability to restore quickly a growing economy, and lose seats in this imaginary US Parliament.
One important potential difference in this alternative history is that the social conservatives and internationalist economic conservatives might not form a coalition with the ethno-nationalists in a parliamentary system. They wouldn’t have had to choose between just two options. This might have been enough to keep any coalition containing the ethno-nationalists from taking power.
How about the present moment? Today, more than half the respondents to a recent opinion poll strongly disapprove of President Donald Trump’s job performance. Only 26 percent strongly approve. With numbers like that in a parliamentary system, a vote of no confidence could be held after a government shutdown, along with new elections. The ethno-nationalists and Democratic Socialists would have historically large representation, but together would hold, say, less than one in four seats. The Practicals win back seats, fueled by many Americans who want competence, and might enter into a coalition with both sets of economic conservatives. (Perhaps Mitt Romney moves into the White House?)
Of course, there are many problems with this illustrative alternative history. You might choose different parties, or different coalitions. A meta problem is that the US’s winner-take-all presidential system is found in the Constitution. So a more developed alternative history would run the clock back to 1789. Parties can be long-lived, and the US might still have, for example, a Pro-Silver Party and a Farmer’s Party. This complicates things.
So, back to the shutdown. And God save the Queen.