In 1776, the United States declared its independence from the British monarchy. In 2017, the United States government looks like the British Parliament.
In Britain’s parliamentary system, there aren’t really separate legislative and executive branches, and partisanship is designed into the system. Voters elect members of Parliament (MPs) based largely on the MP’s party affiliation. The party winning a majority (or leading a majority coalition, because there are more than two) forms a government. The party’s leading MP becomes prime minister – currently Theresa May, who represents the town of Maidenhead. Other leading MPs administer parts of the government, much like our Cabinet. The other ruling party members, known as “backbenchers,” go along with their leaders on important matters unless they feel compelled to engage in a “backbench rebellion” – enough of which can bring down the government. The minority party, meanwhile, functions as a loyal opposition with limited power as it awaits the next election.
That sounds a lot like how we do things here, now. Last Friday, Justice Neil Gorsuch became the Supreme Court’s latest member based on the wishes of the ruling party, the Republicans. They pushed his nomination through the Senate over the objections of the minority party, the Democrats, who never had any intention but to oppose him. Democrats tried to use one of the minority party’s last remaining tools, the filibuster, where debate continues indefinitely unless ended with a 60-vote majority. In response, Republicans changed the rules to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, a move Democrats had done for lower courts and Cabinet officials in 2013. The changes are permanent.
A couple of weeks earlier in the House of Representatives, the majority party leaders, Speaker Paul Ryan and his lieutenants along with President Donald Trump, attempted to replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with their own concoction, the American Health Care Act. The AHCA was created with little involvement from many rank-and-file Republicans and with absolutely no input from the minority Democrats. It failed as a result of a backbench rebellion when various Republicans said no.
In the past, the next step in the American political system might have been for Republican leaders to work with Democrats to write a bill that could win majority support from the centers of both parties while the wings on the right and left were left out. But we’re a British system now. Such bipartisan cooperation happens less often these days because the centers of the two parties are now far apart and pitted against each other. If Republicans go back to the drawing board, it will be to create something to appease their own backbenchers.
This is happening because of evolving political norms and larger societal forces. The United States is no longer so united. The country whose motto once was the Latin phrase “E pluribus unum” – “out of many, one” – increasingly might be better described by “E unum pluribus.” As a result, American voters, once cussedly independent, increasingly are becoming straight-ticket voters who pull the lever based on the “R” or the “D” by the candidates’ names.
Acting like a parliamentary system would be acceptable if it matched the designs of the Constitution. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The Constitution doesn’t even mention parties, and George Washington warned against them in his farewell address. The struggle for power is supposed to be between the three branches of government, not two political parties. Members of Congress are elected not to follow their party leadership but to serve their own constituents and states.
The United States government can at least function as a parliamentary system when one party controls both the presidency and Congress, as Republicans do now. However, American voters commonly elect one party to control one branch and the other party to control all or part of the other, which can’t happen in Britain. When that happens, as it did from 2011-16, the result is gridlock and, potentially, abuse of power by one of the branches, probably the executive.
In short, American democracy’s informal habits reflect a British system without that system’s formal structure. Either the structure needs to change, or the habits. I’m not sure which would be easier, or even if either would be possible.