Norman Ornstein | Thomas Mann Co-authors

September 14th, 2012

Parliamentary Parties Meet the American Constitution. The Result Isn’t Pretty

Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. The framers saw no need to build them into the structure of government; indeed, they worried about how to tame the mischiefs of “faction” in the new republic. Nevertheless, political parties quickly arose in the new country and soon became central players in the political system.

Parties are needed in a democracy, to define differences, to facilitate turnovers in power flowing from elections, to organize institutions. But pure, united parties function best in a parliamentary system where the prime minister is chosen by the majority party. The American constitutional system, however, is an “extended republic,” with separate elections for a House, a Senate and the presidency. When fiercely oppositional parties capture different branches in this form of government, the result is divided government and gridlock.

Yet gridlock is not what the framers expected. They expected collaboration, not conflict. In the extended republic they created, with a Congress (from the Latin word meaning “coming together”) and not a parliament (from the French word “to talk,”), the idea was to bring disparate interests together for extended deliberation that would end in a broad bipartisan consensus, or at least with losers, having had their say, accepting the legitimacy of the decisions made.

The mismatch between a party system and our constitutional republic raises the risk that strong, ideological parties will abuse our checks and balances to frustrate efforts to build consensus on controversial and difficult public issues. The United States experienced such difficulties in the years around the War of 1812, the period leading up to the Civil War, and the post-Reconstruction period in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We survived those years but not without substantial costs.

Today we face another such episode in our history. Our parties are acting like fierce parliamentary-style opponents. This is especially true of the party that does not hold the White House, which acts like an obdurate parliamentary minority: voting in unity against everything significant the majority proposes, moving to delegitimize the outcomes if the majority prevails, and using methods like the filibuster in ways never before seen, as a purely obstructionist tool.

The public decries this dysfunctional politics. Americans are angry and dispirited, bewildered why politicians don’t stop bickering and start focusing on the hard work of healing our ailing economy. But unlike in a parliamentary system, they cannot easily pinpoint their blame on the one party in power.

If we are to heal our political system, we need to recognize this serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become more ideologically coherent, internally unified, and vehemently adversarial, and a governing system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. The result is a toxic brew of parliamentary-style parties without the parliamentary governing institutions that can constructively accommodate the parties’ confrontational and oppositional characteristics. And parliamentary-style parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution.

This mismatch between our party and governing system is exacerbated by the fact that the polarization between the parties is asymmetrical. The Republican Party is no longer a conservative force in our politics but a radical insurgent. It is ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime extending back to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of fact, evidence and science; scornful of compromise; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

To be sure, there are ideological differences that are real. But when seven original co-sponsors of a bipartisan commission with teeth to deal with our debt vote against their own bill, and filibuster it to death, only because the president of the other party has supported it, it demonstrates that the differences are less ideological and more partisan and tribal.

With the huge problems facing the country, we cannot long sustain this dynamic. That is why we wrote a book that was blunt in its appraisal and in its prescriptions for change. If we cannot implement some needed reforms and change our combative culture, if Americans do not soon grasp the problem, and vote for candidates on both sides who put problem-solving ahead of tribalism and partisan advantage, they, and we, will reap the whirlwind. Of course, America will come out of it, as we did in previous eras of crisis. But that is not a happy prospect to contemplate on Constitution Day.
Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are co-authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism

Comments are closed.