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Dismissing Gridlock: A Case for Parliamentary Systems

• May 06, 2010 • 11:50 AM

One system of democratic government is consistently better, say two political scientists, and it’s not the one we have in the United States.

This story originally posted on April 20, 2009.

Perhaps you’ve heard these complaints before: There’s too much gridlock in Washington; our leaders are incapable of solving big problems; politics is broken.

So, we blame our politicians. Over the last 35 years, the approval rating for Congress has averaged a dismal 35 percent. (Lately, it hit 31 percent, a two-year high.)

But maybe it’s not our elected leaders that we should be chiding. John Gerring and Strom C. Thacker, professors of political science at Boston University, say the actual problem may be our political institutions, designed as they are to frustrate compromise and promote conflict.

“It’s important to appreciate the degree to which policy outcomes are institutionally structured,” Gerring said. “We should be less inclined to blame politicians for their flaws, and more inclined to look at structural reasons for why things are happening the way they happen.”

Gerring and Thacker have looked comprehensively at the relative effectiveness of the two major systems of democratic government — presidential (which we have here in the United States, where the executive and legislature are elected separately and often work separately) and parliamentary (more common in Europe, where the executive and the legislature are elected together and work together). What they find is that one system consistently performs better across a wide range of political, economic and quality-of-life outcomes. And it is not the one we have in the United States.

Parliamentary systems do better, Gerring and Thacker argue, because the institutional rules force different actors in the system to work with each other more comprehensively, promoting better and more inclusive compromises.

“If you look at parliamentary rules, you have to coordinate,” Thacker explained. “To form a government, you have to get coalitions in place, and that helps facilitate the development of parties that aggregate interests, and it facilitates decision-making to incorporate a wide array of interest groups.”

Presidential systems, meanwhile, are based on a separation-of-powers model. Such a system does have more of the checks and balances that Americans are so fond of touting. But more checks mean more veto points, which means more potential sand in the gears. It also means more public displays of conflict and confrontation, which many believe tend to exacerbate Americans’ cynicism toward politics.

“That’s what Americans see,” Gerring said. “This branch fighting with the other, one party fighting with another. It’s the Madisonian system. In a parliamentary system, generally, conflict is a lot more muted.”

Gerring noted that there is a, “very strong, implicit view in the discipline that parliamentary systems are better. If you called people up and interrogated them, I think they’d agree with me.” But, he added, “I think there’s a preference that we don’t dare say anything if we don’t have anything scientific.”

In other words, political scientists were in need of a big test of the relative effectiveness of the two main systems of democratic governance.

But this was no small undertaking. Gerring and Thacker began gathering extensive data on roughly 130 countries eight years ago. Eventually, they wound up with 14 outcome measures, covering a broad range of good governance areas (things such as corruption, bureaucratic quality, political stability) as well as economic and human development indicators (measures ranging from telephone mainlines to GDP to life expectancy to illiteracy).

Then they set about trying to see whether one system of government was consistently correlated with better outcomes. Such a correlation, however, is difficult to demonstrate convincingly, since a lot of different things tend to be correlated with good governance and economic and human development. Also potentially tricky is that parliamentary systems are most common in generally prosperous and stable Northern and Western Europe, while presidential systems dominate in less prosperous and less stable countries in Latin America: is this because of the system of government, or something about the underlying political and economic culture?

In order to deal with this, they added in wide range of controls covering everything from religion to region, from natural resources to linguistic fractionalization. They explored different statistical estimation strategies. And they wanted to be sure that the results were consistent across a wide range of outcome variables.

Even with the wide range of controls, parliamentary systems consistently outperformed presidential systems on almost all the measures. The findings were robust across big nations and small nations, across heterogeneous as well as homogenous nations. The results are presented in an article in the latest issue of Comparative Political Studies, and also in a recent book, A Centripetal Theory of Democratic Governance.

“It was surprising that we got such strong results across such a wide range of outcomes,” Thacker said. “It was what we expected to find generally, but the patterns were stronger than we expected them to be across such a wide range of findings.”

Gerring first got interested in the question of institutions when studying American politics during the Clinton health care fiasco. “Everyone who studies American politics has to come to terms with the fragmented nature of the Constitution, and it’s typical of most progressives that we find this structure frustrating,” Gerring said. “The classic instance all of us lived through was the failed Clinton health care reform, and any political scientist looking at this situation could see it was the product of a very divided system.”

After all, following the 1992 election, Clinton and the Democrats should have had a mandate to tackle health care reform, and they might well have capitalized on such a mandate under a parliamentary system. Instead, Clinton was stymied by conflicts with both another branch of government (Congress) and the opposing party (the Republicans).

The United States is not about to up and rewrite its constitution to create a parliamentary system.

But if it were up to Gerring and Thacker, it certainly should. As Gerring put it, “There’s very little to defend the current system.” Thacker, meanwhile, noted that for a country with our level of economic development, the United States doesn’t do nearly as well as we might be expected to do across a broad range of human development outcomes. “For a rich country, we should be doing better,” he said.

Still, constitutional reform is a live issue in many countries around the world, as well as for those who think about nation-building. And the lessons from Gerring and Thacker do seem clear: Parliamentary systems that institutionalize coordination and compromise consistently produce better outcomes than presidential systems that institutionalize conflict and confrontation.

At the very least, the next time we start blaming our politicians for not getting anything done, maybe we ought to think about the system of government in which they have to work.

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Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

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