In a real crisis—when the people all agree that they have to eat their peas—the US Presidential and the British Parliamentary systems are both furiously effective. Partisan calculations that exploit the tensions between the legislative branches and the executive branch are set aside. In the face of a clear internal or external danger, representative democracy’s legitimacy with the people puts paid to the notion that authoritarian systems can be more ruthless and demanding of sacrifice.
Both systems include ways to check executive power and ensure that big decisions hard to make. Over time, the checks on Presidential power have grown and the checks on Prime Ministerial power have declined. A Prime Minister, with a majority in Parliament, can get his budget and health care reforms passed in a season, largely as written. The ins think this is great; the outs worry about the abuses of such power over time.
Today, Western governments aren’t looking very effective in delivering employment growth and shared prosperity. Fear of an imperial presidency has been replaced by growing fears of a dysfunctional presidency. America’s political system is now a lively subject for risk analysis. And Canadians are beginning to think that Canada is actually more united and, despite its historic language and national divisions, a safer place to invest.
The budget showdown in Ottawa in April and the debt-ceiling drama in Washington today do demonstrate one distinct, if not frequent, advantage of the Parliamentary system. When Canada’s parliamentary system is overwhelmed by internal animus and partisan calculations—and won’t find the votes to stay in business—the people are directly consulted to clear the air.
The power of the Canadian executive to call and the power of a majority opposition to force an election, at any time, can make government more careful and debate more meaningful. As with divided government in Washington, however, it tends push important issues off the agenda and generates hyper-partisanship and paralysis.
Washington is not subject to the same stark political pressures. For another fifteen months, each side in Washington can keep exclaiming that they alone speak for the people.
Nevertheless, destructive politics still is very risky in both ambitious countries. Both populations still look for political leaders to solve problems, not just represent sectarian interests. Failure to resolve the impasse on the debt-ceiling without driving up interest rates this week or next would frame the next Presidential election on an unforgiving question: who can make the federal government work and who’s in the way?
One national party will pay dearly, as was the case in Canada in May.