A lesson from across the pond

burke and paine

In May, the Scottish National Party won 56 seats in British Parliament, almost 9 percent of the popular vote. In the U.S., there is not a single third-party member of Congress, and the third most popular party, the Libertarians, did not even register 1 percent of the popular vote. Why this disparity? In America, a vote for a third party is a wasted vote. The winner-takes-all nature of American politics means that third parties can almost never directly affect policy. The end-result is a negative one: important policy issues are ignored, voter choices are limited and gridlock ensues.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders ran (and won) as an independent, self-declared socialist in Vermont for many years. Yet he is running for president as a Democrat. The Electoral College system says that the candidate with the most votes in any given state will receive all of the electoral votes in that state. This inherently puts third party or upstart candidates at a disadvantage. But the two-party endemic is not limited to presidential elections. Bernie Sanders is the exception, rather than the rule, when it comes to Congress. Despite 65 percent of Americans saying they are dissatisfied with the two-party system, they don’t display this dissatisfaction in their voting because they feel their votes will be wasted (or worse, helpful to their opposition). For example, a liberal voter passionate about the environment will choose not to vote for the Green Party because it could potentially help the GOP’s chances against the Democrats.

There are several reasons this narrow political dynamic is so dangerous. For one, issues get ignored. Third parties often focus on specific policy or regional problems—think the Green Party in the U.S. or UKIP in the United Kingdom. The parliamentary system allows these parties to have at least a modicum of political sway. When a party cannot garner a majority of the seats in parliament—as was the case in the U.K. 2010 general elections—it will often form coalitions to get legislation passed. After that election, the Liberal Democrats, despite only commanding 62 seats in parliament, were able to pass a host of moderate reforms because of their coalition with the Conservatives.

The presidential system of government establishes two broad swathes of political persuasion. Yet because voters essentially have only two choices, radicalization is more likely. While voters remain moderate, parties on the whole have drifted further and further from the center. For evidence of this phenomena, see the increased polarization of Congress since the 1970s. But because radical voters have disproportionate influence on party politics, moderate voters are often left marginalized.

Recent findings show that a large portion of the American voter base is only “nominally moderate.” In actual fact, they hold radical positions on both sides of the political spectrum; these positions average out to create the impression of a “moderate” voter. By limiting voter choices to two parties, the presidential system breeds the general dissatisfaction with American politics we see today.

The final harmful aspect of winner-takes-all Electoral College style elections is gridlock. The legislative branch and executive branch are voted on separately in the United States, which can result in a “hung” government. Having a Republican controlled Congress and Democrat president perhaps explains why gridlock is the number one reason Americans are critical of Congress. In a parliamentary system, the executive and legislative branches are elected simultaneously—there is no danger of massive gridlock or government shutdowns.

Also, by linking the two branches in elections, a parliamentary system gives more say to the voters come election day. The Electoral College, state by state, is winner-takes-all. The result is that a Democrat voting in Texas is irrelevant in presidential elections, just like a Republican voting in Massachusetts or a third-party supporter voting, well, anywhere. There are a handful of “swing states” that decide who will be president every four years, and the rest of the country simply falls into line.

A parliamentary system increases individual voter efficacy by narrowing the voters’ sphere to districts, much like congressional elections here. But by applying this greater feeling of efficacy to an executive branch vote, the U.K. is better able to engage its voter base than the U.S. In fact, the voter turnout in the U.K. in the 2015 general election was 66 percent, while only 58 percent in the United States in 2012.

Now to be clear, a parliamentary system of government is not perfect. The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in a time when authoritarianism in government was the chief worry. A separation of powers between legislative and executive was an ingenious way to guard against that worry. But it is important to recognize that, in the modern era, a rogue tyrannical state is not going to happen. We are instead faced with party radicalization and political gridlock—two very real concerns that threaten America’s future. Perhaps I’m biased as a British/Canadian citizen, but I think America has something to learn from across the pond.

DPU’s Burke & Paine is a biweekly column that runs on alternate Wednesdays. Each column will feature a different writer and will cover a different topic related to political engagement. Trinity freshman Alex Rego wrote this week’s column.


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