Blogs: Paul Pillar

The Post-Truth President and U.S. Credibility

Climate Change and the Priority of the Irreversible

Ideology is Supplanting Intelligence

The Unnecessary and Undemocratic Quadrennial Shuffle

Paul Pillar

The periodic purging of the senior governmental ranks is one of several ways in which, although exceptionalist-minded Americans may be reluctant to admit it, American democracy lags behind democracy elsewhere.  This year’s election gives multiple reasons to long for a British-style parliamentary system.  One reason is that those cabinet-level appointments that are the focus in the United States of ructious transition team politics and out-of-right-field possibilities such as a John Bolton or Rudolph Giuliani would instead mostly go to members of the winning party who had been front-bench shadow ministers, had themselves been elected by the people, and had acquired and demonstrated some expertise with clusters of issues as exhibited in parliamentary debate.

The British system also makes for far clearer and better understanding of who is responsible for policy and who should be held accountable for failures or rewarded for successes.  Notwithstanding the advantages of checks and balances in the U.S. system, it does not provide democratic accountability when the electorate is ignorant, as it was with great effect this year.  For example, a poll taken two years ago by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that only 38 percent of respondents knew that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives.  Couple that lack of knowledge among the electorate with a Congressional Republican playbook that, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute describes it, consisted of, “Vote in unison against everything, filibuster everything, even those things you like, to obstruct action and make it look ugly, allow damage to the country in the short term to reap political rewards in the next election.”  A result is what we saw this year: a large part of the electorate understandably frustrated with a dysfunctional government’s failure to provide better for the general welfare, but with poorly informed aim regarding where they should direct their ire.

Moving to a parliamentary system would entail a huge constitutional change, and that is not going to happen.  But there is nothing in the Constitution that requires the confused and disruptive quadrennial purging of the executive branch.  We can’t blame the Founding Fathers for that one.  The main reason that flaw in American democracy probably won’t get fixed is the reluctance of any candidate to forgo being able to offer as many plums to would-be supporters as other candidates have offered.

Image: A Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Wikimedia Commons/The White House

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Building on the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

The periodic purging of the senior governmental ranks is one of several ways in which, although exceptionalist-minded Americans may be reluctant to admit it, American democracy lags behind democracy elsewhere.  This year’s election gives multiple reasons to long for a British-style parliamentary system.  One reason is that those cabinet-level appointments that are the focus in the United States of ructious transition team politics and out-of-right-field possibilities such as a John Bolton or Rudolph Giuliani would instead mostly go to members of the winning party who had been front-bench shadow ministers, had themselves been elected by the people, and had acquired and demonstrated some expertise with clusters of issues as exhibited in parliamentary debate.

The British system also makes for far clearer and better understanding of who is responsible for policy and who should be held accountable for failures or rewarded for successes.  Notwithstanding the advantages of checks and balances in the U.S. system, it does not provide democratic accountability when the electorate is ignorant, as it was with great effect this year.  For example, a poll taken two years ago by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that only 38 percent of respondents knew that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives.  Couple that lack of knowledge among the electorate with a Congressional Republican playbook that, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute describes it, consisted of, “Vote in unison against everything, filibuster everything, even those things you like, to obstruct action and make it look ugly, allow damage to the country in the short term to reap political rewards in the next election.”  A result is what we saw this year: a large part of the electorate understandably frustrated with a dysfunctional government’s failure to provide better for the general welfare, but with poorly informed aim regarding where they should direct their ire.

Moving to a parliamentary system would entail a huge constitutional change, and that is not going to happen.  But there is nothing in the Constitution that requires the confused and disruptive quadrennial purging of the executive branch.  We can’t blame the Founding Fathers for that one.  The main reason that flaw in American democracy probably won’t get fixed is the reluctance of any candidate to forgo being able to offer as many plums to would-be supporters as other candidates have offered.

Image: A Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Wikimedia Commons/The White House

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