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Opinion: The U.S. Constitution is not a parliamentary system. Why are we treating it like one?

By voting for a straight party ticket, Americans seem to be suggesting they would prefer to live in a parliamentary system where power is concentrated in the hands of a single party

SHARE Opinion: The U.S. Constitution is not a parliamentary system. Why are we treating it like one?

The United States of America is not a parliamentary system, but voting trends and political parties encourage voters to install a single party in all government bodies.

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Editor’s note: For years, the Deseret News’ editorial page carried the epigraph: “We stand for the Constitution of the United States as having been divinely inspired.” In honor of Constitution Month, the Deseret News is publishing a variety of articles examining the Constitution’s continued importance.

Americans fought a war in the 1700s deeply rooted in the idea that the citizens needed a voice in government for any such government to be legitimate. And they were right, but how well are American voices heard these days? Sadly, the voices of Americans are filtered imperfectly through parties that often do not quite represent people.

In the American constitutional system, citizen voices are registered through voting for individual officeholders who collectively come together to debate and represent America’s multifaceted interests and values. Voting is thus both a fundamental constitutional right and our foremost civic duty. Voting rates are up, and that is good, but our current state of heavy partisanship is out of step with our form of government and may indicate we’re abandoning our civic duty to vote thoughtfully and responsibly for true representation.

There are many advanced democracies — Britain foremost among them — where power is concentrated in the hands of a legislature dominated by a single party. And there are good reasons why one might prefer this type of parliamentary system. The advantages political scientists most often list are flexibility, accountability and stability. Centralizing power in a parliament allows the public to judge the performance of a given political party, thereby creating democratic accountability — or so the theory goes.

But the constitutional system set up after the American War of Independence safeguarded government power by dividing and separating it. American schoolchildren all learn about “separation of powers” and “checks and balances,” devices in the service of making government power safe to use. Parties — at least the parties of today — want to frustrate this design. 

They want all the power concentrated in loyal party hands.

By voting for a straight party ticket, Americans seem to be suggesting they would prefer to live in a parliamentary system where power is concentrated in the hands of a single party.  I suppose this is one way to make your voice heard, but it does not make much sense given the checks and balances baked into the difficult-to-amend federal constitutional system that actually exists. 

Voting as if we lived under a parliament will not actually make one magically appear. 

The response most partisans give is they can only trust one of the parties, and this makes sense inside the partisan paradigm. But the political parties of the last 30 years have demonstrated they cannot control power in this country in accountable, stable ways.

Especially at the national level, political parties are rarely in control of much. Since 1994, one party has controlled both chambers of Congress and the presidency only occasionally — for a few years under President George W. Bush, and then just two years each under Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden. It happens less than a third of the time over the past three decades — and that calculation avoids discussions of things like the Supreme Court or state governments.

So why do voters behave like they must install a single party? The parties themselves tend to encourage it. Portraying the opposing party as villain, the voters as victims and “my party” as the vindicator makes it seem like “the next election is the last one for democracy unless we can ELECT OUR GANG!” And elections narrated in apocalyptic rather than analytical terms might make for more entertaining cable news. The fact that America has been in a state of close party competition for the last 30 years never seems to occur to anyone. Elections continue even though that last one was supposedly the final chance to affect government.

Part of the reason for this might be that my own discipline of political science has, for decades, insisted on the importance of partisanship in voting to the point that what started as an observation about how people vote has morphed into a demand that voters behave as partisans.

Perhaps this would work if the political parties would do what they have done in the past and push for true widespread popularity, building coalitions that were large and popular (as Republicans did after the Civil War and Democrats did during the New Deal), but that seems unlikely. Voters can keep attempting to install one of these almost-majority or just-barely-majority coalitions that the parties keep offering or they could just admit that we do not have a parliamentary government. Instead, ours is a government based on dividing and separating power where individual officeholders come together to debate and compromise. The quest for party control is hopeless until at least one of our parties’ changes.

What does this mean for individual voters? I would ask you to consider this: Is single party voting getting America anywhere? Americans waiting for their party to truly control government have been waiting for years and if past is prologue, they will likely wait decades more.

Instead of a party platform, see if you might find an honest agent of your interests and values, who in the challenging and constant negotiations that characterize our lawmaking process can be a conscientious and trustworthy representative of the common aspirations of your community. If you can find a few people from the other party that you think have some of those qualities, would it not be worth it to at least give them a chance?

The framers of our Constitution were concerned that partisanship could overwhelm the liberties of citizens, so they intentionally frustrated the potential for party control by creating a system that divided and checked power. They wanted the voice of “We the People” to select officeholders to sensibly represent the multifaceted interests and values of their constituents. Given the constitutional system that we actually have, instead of seeing the frustration of partisan control as a bug, we should embrace it as a feature, and then studiously and deliberately exercise our right and duty to choose officeholders who can represent us faithfully.

Jeremy C. Pope is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a fellow at BYU’s Wheatley Institute.